Intersecting systems: abuse implications for teachers.

Author:Romo, Jaime J.

I began teaching in 1984 in a private Catholic high school, following three years of study for diocesan priesthood at St. John's Theologate in Camarillo, California. Since then, I have: taught poor, immigrant English language learners in a Los Angeles inner-city junior high and then in a San Diego suburban middle school; worked as an assistant principal in a poor, urban middle school and in a suburban high school. For the past ten years, my teacher education work has focused on: student and teacher identity development; hidden (collective unconscious) dynamics that undermine social justice in organizations; bi-cultural and bi-national education; and the intersection of these three areas. In the summer of 2002, I completed my first year as an assistant professor at a small Catholic university and I attended the summer Collegium (1) at Fairfield University to reflect about my work as a teacher educator and my Catholic identity. Christine Firer-Hinze, of Marquette University, gave a presentation during the week that resonated deeply with me. Against the backdrop of over a century of Catholic teachings, (2) she identified three gaps in contemporary practice that served as practical litmus tests of Catholic social teaching:

  1. Lack of real, effective engagement with realities of conflict/tragedy;

  2. Profound ambiguities about women and roles in Church;

  3. Profound social sins related to race/ethnicity.

At the end of that week, I returned to California with an idea of writing about the transformation of U.S. Catholic identity at individual and institutional levels through a perspective of racial identity development. However, the daily news reports of clergy sexual abuse from Boston that summer combined with my two sons' development into adolescence brought to surface suppressed memories of my own molestation by my childhood pastor. I began to experience rage regularly and my work-aholic behaviors, my inability to sleep, my varied self-destructive behaviors, as well as my lifetime passionate advocacy for children seemed to combine to crush my focus and spirit, like a mill slowly disintegrating a sheath of wheat. Later that summer, I reported to the diocese of Los Angeles that I had been sexually abused by my childhood pastor, Monsignor Leland Boyer. I was to find out that my experiences were more common than I ever imagined or wanted to know (Bremner, 2000; Berry, 1992; Doyle, Sipe & Wall, 2006; France, 2004; Ponton, 2004).

In early June, 2005, my name appeared at the bottom of a full page 'Open letter to the Bishop' in the largest newspaper in the area, asking him to end the legal battles to bury church documents related to clergy sexual abuse and to work directly to promote healing with survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Two days later, I was a featured discussant about this issue on an Air America radio talk show. One week later, on Father's Day, I found myself in front of a parish with my wife and children. We handed out fliers related to the alleged sexual abuse history of the pastor that founded that parish, and we asked parishioners to learn more about and take an active role in ending clergy sexual abuse. The responses that Fathers' Day ranged from Catholics who essentially accused me of reifying a dead issue and hurting the church, with questions like, 'Who do you work for? Are you a practicing Catholic?' (3) to those who thanked me for my courage.

I write this article now to explore the question: How can we understand the impacts of clergy sexual abuse upon K-12 teachers' effectiveness with all children? I utilize ethnic or racial identity development frameworks with which to make analogies to, differentiate from, and better understand the content and relevance of this study. My bias in this study comes from my own experience of emancipatory spirituality, wherein educational outcomes include social justice, based upon the dignity and 'sacredness' of each person (Lerner, 2001; Mayes, 2001; Nelson, 2003; Oldenski, 1997; Palmer, 1998). I conclude this brief exploration with observations related to K-12 teacher identity and role regarding to social justice and recommendations for future studies.


Qualitative research must meet standards in the academic community: (1) credibility; (2) confirmability; (3) meaning in context; (4) recurrent patterning; (5) saturation; and (6) transferability. These standards have helped educators to engage in topics such as racial identity development and White privilege, often hidden from conventional wisdom, in ways that promote cross cultural competency and effective teaching or social justice education (Howard, 1999; Macedo, 2003; McIntosh, 1989; McLaren, 1994; Nieto, 1999; Oakes & Martin, 1998; Quezada & Romo, 2005; Tatum, 1998).

Auto-ethnography, a genre of ethnographic research, is a specialized research tool that works with data that are very distinctive or difficult to acquire. This methodology places the self squarely within the research context in order to bring rarely studied personal data to a larger cultural study (Charmaz & Mitchell, 1997; Cline, Necochea, & Reyes, 2005; Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Nieto,2003; Reed-Danahay, 1997; Romo, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). Such is the case in discussing educational implications of clergy sexual abuse upon teacher effectiveness.

The following analysis takes my own writings related to my own clergy sexual abuse recovery, since the spring of 2002, before I first reported the abuse to police and Los Angeles Catholic leaders. This grueling, four-year data generation and collection process includes: academic reflections on identity; an unpublished novel and collection of short stories; hundreds of e-mails to friends; hundreds of letters to church leaders, survivors, and survivor supporters; dozens of texts from formal presentations about clergy sexual abuse; and a relentless self study process.

Data Presentation and Discussion

The reader already familiar with various identity development discussions related to people of color may recognize the simplified, four-stage framework as related to others' discussions (Cross, 1991; Helms, 1990; Kim, 1981; Moule, 2005; Poston, 1990; Tatum, 1998). It has been useful for me in other explorations of Chicano identity development (Romo, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). The reader will need to substitute the term 'survivors of religious authority sexual abuse' in the current discussion for 'minorities' in the past discussions to make sense of the following presentation. A related discussion about 'White' or 'dominant culture members' multicultural identity development, substituting 'non-sexually abused authority figures' for 'dominant culture members,' albeit valuable, is not developed in this short article.

Stage 1: The Myth: I'm OK, You're OK

In truth, the abuse infected whatever psychological, spiritual or religious foundation I had from which to build my self worth at the beginning of my adolescence. I was groomed, I thought, by a messenger of God to become a priest. My family and personal devotion to church was second to no other devotion. I could only maintain a sense of being 'OK' by unconsciously burying a major part of myself. These memories became suppressed; my conscious and unconscious mind split. It wasn't a conscious decision to suppress these memories; it was the only thing that a 13-year-old could do to deal with unspeakable experiences and continue to embrace my vocation and the church life I loved.

I maintained a 'Non-awareness' that I had any other alternative to the abuse than a profound, toxic shame and a repression of memories. I made an unconscious, furious effort to overachieve and appear 'OK' in high school, which was followed by a self-destructive path at Stanford University (B.A., 1981). In terms of racial identity development discussions, I was in an assimilation stage throughout this time (Romo, 2004a, 2004b).

Stage 2: The Myth: I'm NOT OK, You're OK

I entered St. John's Seminary, where I studied for three years, following a conversion or 'born again' experience on July 19, 1981. In retrospect, I was a disembodied spirit, channeling my self loathing into salvation through a purely spiritual and idealistic life. My zeal for spiritual enlightenment became dedication to social justice work through parish ministry, K-12 educational work, and then teacher education. The following quotes from my 2001 application to the Collegium, at the end of my first year at my current Catholic university, illustrate a passionate appeal to social justice, a Catholic lingua franca, yet with no mention of clergy sexual abuse.

Pope Paul VI once said, "If you want peace, work for...

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