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Doing Theology in the Face of Abuse: Dr Rocio Figueroa Alvear  

In March the CCP is inviting theologians to an event: “Doing Theology in the Face of Abuse.” This international gathering does not fall neatly into the established academic categories of conference, congress, colloquium, symposium, or workshop. We have called it a laboratory to accent the involvement of the participants in examining the questions that arise when seeking to do theology in the context of a suffering Church.

In a series of blog posts leading up to the event in March, we are asking theologians for their reflections, and above all, the theological questions that the context of the sexual abuse crisis provokes in them. We reached out to one of the theologians attending the event, Dr. Rocio Figueroa Alvear, who experienced sexual abuse by a church leader as an adolescent.

Dr. Rocio shared her story at the event Overcoming Silence - Women's Voices in the Catholic Abuse Crisis. She was abused at the hands of her spiritual director, German Doig, who was the second in command of Sodalitium, when she was 15. Despite the shame it caused her she continued in the community and became superior of the feminine branch. It took many years before she understood the deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual manipulation she had experienced and could begin to evaluate the behavior of the leadership from a perspective independent of its control. She then learned she was not the only victim and discovered that not only her spiritual director but also the founder and two other men were sexually abusing community members. She denounced the abuse to the authorities and helped other victims to speak out.

Dr. Rocio, could you tell us about the key role theological studies played in freeing your conscience?

The fact is that, in the community, there was a very rigid way of thinking. It was not possible to have different ideas from the founder or to question what he said. There was a lack of freedom to consider another point of view.

When I went to Rome to study theology I discovered a diversity of theological thought. I saw that reality is not black and white and that theology is not about certainties. It is not an ideology where there are answers for everything. Faith is a mystery, and it often implies walking in darkness. It is always open to questions because you are in front of a mystery you cannot understand completely. It was in Rome that I began to learn what theology was really about, and I began to use my own freedom of critical thinking. It was in that process that I began questioning the ideology that had been proposed in the community.

Through my theological studies, I was already very critical in an intellectual way, but at the same time, I also discovered the sexual abuse taking place in the community. Usually when there is a really rigid way of thinking, it is also a way of controlling people. It turns out that for the leadership of the community this was the case.

Right now you are a professor of systematic theology in Auckland. Could you briefly tell us how it happened that you found yourself in New Zealand?

I left the community after 22 years, and it was in Lima that I met my future husband Steve Cournane. He is a Kiwi and a musician. After two years we got married. That is why I find myself in New Zealand today. There I continue my theological vocation, teaching and advocating for survivors, focusing my research on victims. I feel it has given sense and a meaning to what happened to me. I use my work to give hope. If you are a survivor it doesn’t mean that your life is over. 

What are some of the questions that arise doing theology in a context of abuse?

“Where is God now?” In Elie Wiesel’s terrible story, this was the question came from a man who saw a boy hung in a concentration camp. In the same way, theology today cannot be the same following the severe crisis of sexual abuse that has occurred within the Church. We have to rethink many topics within ecclesiology, christology, and pastoral theology.  

Regarding ecclesiology, in clerical sexual abuse, we have a combination of sexual abuse with abuse of spiritual power. Pope Francis identifies clericalism as the cause of the crisis, which has been defined by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Australia) as “the idealization of the priesthood… linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.” The culture of clericalism not only idealizes the priest but emphasizes his exclusive and unique cultic role as another Christ. I believe one of the obligations of the Catholic community is to rethink our understanding of the theology of priesthood, eliminating the idea of a separated, exalted, and elitist priesthood at its very roots. We cannot think of ordination as a sacrament with magical effects. Clergy are neither saints nor super-heroes: they are not automatically made holy on the day of ordination by an ontological change.

Also, we need to evaluate what has been wrong in the systems and the structure of the Catholic Church. Despite victims complaining, some bishops and priests covered up or just ignored the problem. How, in a structure like the Church that praises itself for protecting the vulnerable, has there not been care for them? Why has sexual abuse not been just a “one-off” event within the system but rather a systemic aberration that has been enabled by the structure? Clericalism and structures more concerned with the protection of the church hierarchy and reputation are some of the causes. In my opinion, apart from issues surrounding clericalism and priesthood, we need to create ways for more participation of lay people in the decisional dimension of the Church. At the same time, it is unfortunate that in many places women are not involved in the decision-making processes. I think that it creates a Church that it is not balanced and lacks the spirit, ideas, and creativity of half of humanity. 

What is your current research focus?

My research has been about the spiritual consequences of sexual abuse. Clerical child sexual abuse creates a problem of faith and a spiritual crisis in victims because the perpetrator is often seen to represent God. Another project was Responses by Survivors to Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse. When we say that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse, we do not want to reduce his suffering only to a sexual dimension, but we want to explore an element that has not been adequately considered: the fact that Jesus was stripped naked and exposed. Prisoners executed in this way were often sexually humiliated. Jesus could understand what it means to be sexually humiliated. I have spoken to both male and female victims and survivors about this, and many have said it helped them feel that Jesus was near to their experiences. All of them agree this understanding would help the Church.