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Imperative to determine all victims of clergy sex abuse, including those who were enslaved: Shannen Dee Williams

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Pope Francis is seen in a file photo praying in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse as he visits St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The New York Times’ recent documentary on the courageous investigative journalism of Jason Berry has once again fixed our gaze on the enduring tragedy of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition to chronicling Berry’s decadelong crusade to expose the U.S. hierarchy’s role in protecting sexually predatory priests, the film includes Berry’s searing testimony about the great emotional, spiritual and financial costs of his truth-telling in the church.

Listening to Berry recount his decision to step away from the perilous fight for justice to focus on his family and mental well-being is heart-wrenching. One cannot help but to weep for him and all who have dared to document and protest the church’s devastating sin histories of abuse and violence in the face of silence, indifference and enmity.

This is especially true of the church’s Black victims of sexual abuse.

Earlier this year, a panel of Black Catholic scholars and priests convened by Fordham University to confront the causes and legacy of clerical sexual abuse argued that systemic racism has compounded the crisis in Black communities, leaving most Black survivors invisible and unable to access the church’s formal mechanisms for testifying about the abuses they suffered and securing justice.

Shannen Dee Williams

The failure of most U.S. scholars and journalists alike to consider the roots of the sexual abuse crisis in the church’s foundational and leading participation in institution of slavery in the Americas also has greatly aided in the erasure of Black Catholic survivors.

While minimal scholarly and popular attention has been paid to the sexual exploitation of enslaved and free Black people by priests and sisters before slavery’s abolition in the United States, the church’s earliest archival and court records in the Americas are abundant with examples.

In fact, one of the first cases documenting clergy sexual abuse and resistance to it in the Americas emerges from Lima, Peru, which gave the church its first woman and African-descended saints from “the New World” as well as a host of holy Black men and women who labored against their wills in the church’s earliest American convents and monasteries.

On Aug. 9, 1659, an enslaved Black woman named Ana María de Velasco filed a complaint in the ecclesiastical court of Lima against her priest and owner, Pedro de Velasco. Ana’s complaint revealed that the early American cleric had “stalked and beat her and forced her to live in isolation with their two young children to cover up their sinful cohabitation.”

Before this, Ana was held in bondage in a local convent of nuns. This enslaved Black Catholic woman not only fought back against her abuse, but also sought a legal remedy, specifically to change owners, reduce her purchase price and ultimately secure her freedom.

The story of Ana María de Velasco brought to light in Michelle A. McKinley’s meticulously researched 2016 monograph, “Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600-1700,” demonstrates that enslaved Black women were among the first of the faithful to use the courts to document and protest clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the Americas.

It also serves an important blueprint for scholars, researchers and journalists committed to recovering the still largely hidden history of Catholic slavery in North America.

We already have documentation of French priests keeping Black women as concubines and fathering their children in colonial Louisiana. We also know that the Jesuits in Missouri routinely stripped enslaved women naked before whipping them. However, more substantial and principled research into the inherent violence of Catholic slaveholding in the United States and Canada is needed.

As church leaders and members of faithful continue to reckon with the sexual abuse crisis especially in wake of the impending federal investigation of Indian residential schools run by European and white American priests and sisters, it is imperative that we look entirely under the rug to expose and recover the stories of all the victims of this inexcusable violence, including within the context of slavery.

We also must remember to say the names of courageous Black Catholic women in church history like Ana María de Velasco who in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds documented, protested and secured critical freedoms and protections for themselves and their children during one of the darkest chapters in Catholic history.

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Shannen Dee Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. Follow her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.