By Jorge Erdely
Ediciones B. 2008. ISBN: 978-970-710-268-3. Amazon.com: $19.95 (paperback). 376 pages.
Despite the fact that sexual abuse and financial exploitation in Catholic and Protestant churches are just as present in Latin America as in the rest of the world, there are few books that address this issue for a Latin American audience. Jorge Erdely’s La explotación de la fe: pastores que abusan sexual y económicamente is a welcome contribution in this regard. Erdely documents cases of church abuse specifically in Mexico, but they are also common to other Latin American countries. Girls, boys, and women, including nuns, are the most vulnerable and targeted populations for sexual abuse. But when it comes to financial exploitation, no one is safe. Lies, shaming tactics, stealing of inheritances, and threatening of both female and male members with expulsion from the congregation unless they pay up are not alien practices to greedy clergy in both Catholic and Protestant churches.According to Erdely, justice is rarely served, even when some pedophiles confess. Priests continue to perform their liturgical duties and to have contact with children and parishioners. Ironically, victims of abuse from Catholic priests had more rights during colonial times than they do today. For example, seventeenth-century Jesuit priest Gaspar de Villarias harassed and abused more than ninety women in Mexico in his lifetime. After having confessed his sexual transgressions in 1625, he was stripped of his priestly functions and put under a two-year monastic arrest. This was a far harsher punishment than any actions taken today against dishonest and abusive priests, some of whose victims run in the hundreds.
Erdely says that women who see male doctors or psychotherapists are less at risk for inappropriate sexual advances than women who turn to their priests or pastors for help. Always under public scrutiny, at least doctors and therapists have professional codes of ethics and can have their licenses removed, or can even face jail sentences. Priests and ministers receive minimal reprimands and negligible punishments—if any—from their churches.
The Catholic Church has consistently protected its priests despite overwhelming proof of wrongdoing; there is simply too much invested in protecting what Erdely calls its “institutional image” and reputation. Protestant churches have had their share of scandals, too. Erdely mentions troubling cases in Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as in Anglican and Neo-Pentecostal churches. Nevertheless, the situation is worse with independent churches with no denominational affiliation. Lacking formal checks and balances, pastors of independent churches answer to no one but themselves, and therefore are more prone to foster environments where abuse and excess may run rampant.
In both Catholic and Protestant churches, peers, even when they have been informed of their fellow clergymen’s misconduct, rarely side with the congregation, says Erdely. Plain cowardice, blind loyalty, denial, lack of empathy for human suffering, complicity, and professional ambitions are among the reasons Erdely lists for peers’ silence on the issue.
Authoritarianism, thirst for absolute control, manipulation, dogmatism, fear tactics, shaming techniques, group pressure, and the twisting of scriptures and doctrine to fit the needs of the clergy are signs churchgoers should be wary of. Erdely finds support in biblical passages for fighting back, and he encourages readers to leave abusive groups and to sue and publicly denounce them if possible.
La explotación de la fe has an appendix with Internet sources for people seeking help and information about clergy abuse. As of yet, there are few Websites in Spanish that specifically address abuse in mainstream and non-mainstream religious organizations. Erdely lists two: http://www.religionesysociedad.org and http://www.revistaacademica.com. I couldn’t help but notice that he also could have included http://www.sectas.org, a comprehensive Website with articles and links to recommended books and videos on abuse in both mainstream and nonmainstream groups. This omission aside, La explotación de la fe is a much-needed introduction to the very real situation of sexual abuse and financial exploitation in Latin American churches today.
Katherine V. Masís
International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2010