Violence, Memory, and Religion among Survivors of Clerical Sexual Abuse

Robert Orsi

Robert Orsi
Northwestern University

Date: April 4, 2018

View Event Flyer


Robert Orsi will address the many ways in which those survivors of clerical sexual abuse who remain connected to the Catholic Church understand the impact of that trauma on their lives and their relationship to God. What theological, psychological, historical and anthropological frameworks do they find most helpful in understanding and dealing with that experience? And how do scholars of religion think about the experience of violence perpetrated by the clergy and those in religious authority?

Speaker Bio

Robert Orsi

Robert Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. He researches, writes, and teaches about religion in the United States, in the past and in contemporary contexts, with a particular focus on American Catholicism. He is also interested in how “religion” developed as a subject of inquiry from early modernity to the present and in questions of method and theory in the study of religion. His scholarship draws on history, ethnography, religious studies, and psychological theories of  imagination and of intersubjectivity to study the religious practices of men, women, and children.

Speaker Bio

Boisi event

Robert Orsi, Professor of Religious Studies and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, spoke about the spiritual lives of adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Boisi event
Boisi event
Boisi event

Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

In an early-April lecture, Robert Orsi,the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, spoke about the spiritual lives of adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse, and what their stories indicate about potential realities of the clerical sexual abuse crisis that had been overlooked or underplayed.

Orsi has conducted interviews with several survivors and in his lecture discussed his experience learning about survivors’ relationship to the Church after their abuse. He told a story of one survivor, Mary Rose, who felt abandoned by God and wondered if she should blame herself for the abuse.

Orsi then explained how for many years, religion was not considered a significant factor in clerical sexual violence. Instead, religion as a potential exacerbator or accomplice to sexual violence has been downplayed, especially by the Catholic hirearchy. Instead it simply served as a “dependent variable” in such discourse. While Orsi said he does not see a clear solution to the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, he said that he hopes his work will open new modes of conversation about the crisis.

Read More


Orsi, Robert A. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Orsi, Robert A. History and Presence. Belknap Press, 2016. 

Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Yale University Press, 2010. 

Orsi, Robert A. “The Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis is Good for Thinking About Catholicism, and About the Anthropology of Catholicism.” Kristen Norget, Valentina Napolitana, and Maya Mayblin, eds., The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader (University of California Press, forthcoming). 

In the News

In a 2016 interview with the Pew Research Center, Professor of Sociology at New York University, Michael Hout, explains why millenials are less religious than older Americans. Millenials, young adults born between 1981 and 1996, are less likely to attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives according to Hoult. He also posits that with respect to the Catholic Church, "lack of trust is fueled by the sexual abuse scandals in the church."