FRANKFURT, Germany (ChurchMilitant.com) - A significant number of priests have pressured vulnerable women to get abortions after impregnating them during illicit affairs, a new study on clerical sex abuse reveals.
"The immediate reaction of most clerical perpetrators who learn about their victims' pregnancy is to persuade them to have an abortion," laments Doris Reisinger, research fellow in the department of Catholic theology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
Further, as Dr. Reisinger demonstrated in her research on "Reproductive Abuse in the Context of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," many of the priests actively assist in killing the baby by paying for the abortion or by bringing their victims to an abortion mill.
The study, published Feb. 28, shows that bishops and superiors in religious orders are reluctant to remove the offending priest from office, even though Church law prescribes automatic excommunication for "a person who procures a completed abortion" (canon 1398).
A priest who assists in an abortion also incurs the penalty of being made "irregular" because of the act, but, in practice, ecclesiastical authorities are reluctant to impose such penalties. "Even if they are imposed, an absolution from the excommunication and, on top of that, a dispensation from the irregularity are easily granted, and the offender can continue his priestly ministry," writes Reisinger, labeling the phenomenon "reproductive abuse."
"The Church's widespread failure to take responsibility, let alone show compassion towards victims of reproductive abuse, is matched by equally high levels of compassion towards clerical perpetrators," Reisinger, a theologian and philosopher, adds.
According to the study, which is the first of its kind to explore reproductive abuse in the context of clerical sex abuse, 1–10% of minors who are victims of clerical sex abuse may have been forced to abort their babies.
Adolescent girls are the most affected as, according to the study, about a third of all minor clerical abuse victims are female, and about a third of those are post-pubescent.
The total number of minors forced by a cleric to abort a baby is at least in the four-digit range in countries with populations between 70 and 80 million and in the five-digit range in countries with larger populations, such as the United States.
Reisinger estimates the total number of adult victims of reproductive abuse at the hands of Catholic priests to be four times as high, since most victims forced into abortions by priests are adults.
The researcher acknowledges difficulties in obtaining precise statistical data, as "numbers, case studies and sources on sexual abuse of adults at the hands of clergy are still relatively scarce."
Reisinger cited both the John Jay Report on the sexual abuse of minors (which states that most sexual behavior by priests concerns adults) and Richard Sipe, who estimated that "four times as many priests involved themselves sexually with adult women, and twice the number with adult men, as priests who involve themselves sexually with children."
The driving motivation (and, often, the only motivation) for forcing the victim into an abortion is the priest's reputation, the study observes. This is done regardless of the will and needs of the pregnant victim.
"As long as a priest hides his fatherhood, it usually has little consequences for him," Reisinger notes, explaining how "in the logic of canon law, a violation of celibacy mostly remains a personal matter of conscience for a priest — as long as it does not become a public scandal."
"Hence the common urge felt by priests to conceal pregnancies they caused, at all costs, which results in all the more drastic implications for the involved woman or girl and (unborn) child," she argues.
Reisinger gives examples of girls and women who resisted their perpetrators' pressure or were forced into hiding, including 16-year-old Rita — who was sent to the Philippines by Fr. Santiago L. Tamayo and six other priests in the archdiocese of Los Angeles. Rita gave birth to a daughter and sued the seven clerics subsequent to returning to the United States.
On occasion, clerical sex offenders force their victims to give up the child for adoption. However, as Reisinger notes, "priests who father children not infrequently refuse to pay child support, forcing their victims to fight for years and even decades."
When minors abused by clergy give birth, it usually severely impacts their lives and futures, physically, mentally and spiritually. It also poses social risks for their children and them — without creating much of a threat to the future of the offending cleric.
Reisinger, who was raped by a priest while living out her vocation as a nun, has been at the forefront of the #NunsToo movement — campaigning against the sexual abuse of women religious by predator priests.
The former sister, who entered religious life at the age of 19, says she was also solicited for sex in the confessional by Austrian theologian Fr. Hermann Geissler, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Geissler denied the allegation — but left the CDF in January 2019 after the incident became public. Five judges of the Vatican's supreme tribunal decided in May of 2019 that Geissler would not be tried for "a delict of solicitation to a sin against the Sixth Commandment in the context of confession."
In an earlier essay documenting the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, Reisinger revealed instances where the victims are said to have died of forced abortions, including a case in which a priest took a young nun he had impregnated to a hospital for an abortion, where she died during the procedure. The same priest then celebrated a requiem Mass for her.
"Spiritual abusers have been celebrated and promoted in the Catholic Church for decades. Just think of people like Marcial Maciel. They have become the model that others now imitate," Reisinger remarked.
"This harms the Church deeply — not only because it harms many individuals but because it endangers the very foundation of our Faith," she concludes.