A new book has lifted the lid on the “shocking” sexual and spiritual abuse of women in the Church.

– 23 women from all walks of life speak out

“Telling as Resistance” is a literal English translation of the title of the new volume published by the German Catholic Women’s Association (KDFB) on the occasion today of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

In the book, no fewer than 23 women – full-time and voluntary Church workers, women religious, novices, students, single and family women, women from all educational backgrounds, women from all walks of life and of every stage – anonymously tell the stories of the gender-specific violence they have suffered in Church settings.

“Women have the right to sexual and spiritual self-determination, and it is not right to violate this self-determination, certainly not with religious motives or supposedly theological justifications”, KDFB president Maria Flachsbarth denounced in a press release accompanying the book’s release this Wednesday.

Flachsbarth decried as “shocking” the fact that “women of all ages” are subject to abuse in the Church.

“When clergymen violate the dignity of women by using them as a tool for satisfying their own needs, they become perpetrators and commit a crime”, the KDFB president deplored, calling on bishops and male religious superiors to take greater responsibility for eradicating violence against women in Catholic settings.

– Spiritual abuse facilitated by “imbalance of power” often “grooming strategy” for sexual assaults

One of the new KDFB book’s co-editors is Barbara Haslbeck, an expert in the pastoral care of abuse survivors.

Haslbeck spoke to German Bishops’ news website katholisch.de to explain one of the key conclusions to be drawn from the testimonies in the volume – that abuse in the Church “can affect any woman”.

“Spiritual and sexual abuse are closely interwoven”, Haslbeck warned, explaining that “spiritual abuse is often the grooming strategy, i.e. the initiation strategy of the perpetrators to prepare and justify sexual abuse”.

The expert explained that one particular phrase uttered by perpetrators – that several of the survivors in the book say they have heard – encapsulates perhaps better than any other the shocking reality of sexual abuse: “What I do with you should show you the love of God”. “This is how sexual abuse is spiritually legitimised”, Haslbeck deplored.

The pastoral counsellor also affirmed that another common denominator in many women’s stories of abuse is the “imbalance of power” that comes, for example, in relationships of spiritual accompaniment with clerics or otherwise.

Haslbeck explained the insidious nature of those abuses of power that lead to spiritual and sexual violence in the following terms: “The perpetrators build up a relationship of trust [and] make themselves indispensable. They tell the victim that he or she is the most important person in life, and he or she begins to believe this and becomes dependent. Only then do the assaults happen”.

Although the new KDFB volume brings together testimonies of abuse from 23 different women, the expert said “I am convinced that the stories in our book are only the tip of the iceberg”.

For that reason Haslbeck called on Church authorities to broaden the scope of their anti-abuse initiatives beyond the laudable focus on violence against children, and to remedy those defects in canon law that make it difficult to prosecute and punish the abuse of adult women.

“Telling is resistance against violence, cover-ups, false claims, minimising and against the injustice that all those affected have suffered. Telling is also resistance against Church structures which do not know who is responsible for these cases and against those responsible who do not accept their responsibility”, explained Flachsbarth of the philosophy behind the new book.

The KDFB president said that that philosophy has just one goal, in the end: that of justice for survivors.

More on Novena for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women:

Pope pleads: “We all need to do a lot more for the dignity of each woman”

Spanish Catholic NGO decries “widespread apathy” in face of fact 30% of world’s women and girls live in fear of violence

More on violence against women in the Church:

German Bishops crack down on “satanic” spiritual abuse, urge Church treat it in same way as sexual abuse

German priest denounces “sexualised violence” in Church, blames phenomenon on “male-paternal patterns of dominance”

Former nun survivor of sex abuse denounces “extremely dangerous” Church “premise of entitlement and control”

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.