They're acting as Christ, exposing their wounds so that we may believe.
I was surprised by how hard this series of anecdotes hit me.
I went to one of these schools during the late aughts. Most of my experience was positive— I had professors that I adored, I made lifelong friends, enjoyed time spent exploring the area, brewed beer for class, went on service trips, took many academically rigorous classes.
I had some experiences that were tough, but normal. I had stress and anxiety. I went through a difficult break-up. Experienced exclusion from the "in-crowd" and struggled to adult.
All of this, however— the life-giving and the life-challenging— was paired with a particular expression of Catholicism that, for all its good, caused me a great deal of confusion and harm that I'm still deconstructing a decade or so later. Particularly damaging to me and many of my classmates was the way sexual morality taught and enforced around campus. Most of the moralism did not come from professors; most of it came from campus culture.
There were "modesty fashion shows." A FOCUS-sanctioned event included the men "going into spiritual battle" by praying outside a video-rental store because they rented out pornographic movies (A video rental store which was already about to close because... well, we all had computers and internet access.) While they did "spiritual battle," the women were asked to stay behind and "wait for them and pray." There was a Theology of the Body study group that used a lot of material that reinforced bizarre gender norms— men are initiators who mirror the words of Christ when he said "This is my body, given up for you;" women are recipients of that gift, mirroring the words of Mary "Let it be done to me according to your word." The pseudo-theology of "emotional chastity," suggested to my peers that we were wrong to feel sadness about our break-ups as though feeling emotionally connected to another human interfered with a relationship with God. In retrospect, it isn't hard to see the way rape culture was being disguised as purity culture. Women were both implicitly and explicitly blamed for the lapses in purity of their male peers. Holy women in Church history were lauded for their sexual purity more than any other virtue; a friend said the story of Maria Gorretti reveals it's better to die than be raped.
It isn't surprising, then, that when I experienced a sexual assault a year after graduation, I was ill-equipped to unpack and heal from my experience. My assault was not on campus; but the campus culture had so impacted my thinking that I didn't even have the baseline knowledge to recognize my experience as a rape (consent was not part of the way I was taught about sexual morality). I even confessed my rape to a priest as my own sin. I felt completely isolated and alone, because my interior shame at my "sin" was so deeply felt, my personal responsibility so profound, and my fear that I would lose my job in a Catholic institution so debilitating, that I didn't share my experience anyone for a long time.
I am not alone in this, clearly. And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I can't even begin to touch on the way the NFP teaching contributes to much of the collateral damage as well... the struggling young couples, the hurt mothers who had to give up their livelihoods and their health to difficult pregnancies, the patronizing misogyny that answers their struggles, and the flurry of bitter divorces that have shattered the illusion that this kind of sexual morality creates strong, Godly marriages.
I could go even further— about the complete lack of diversity of thought or voices in the theology and philosophy curriculums; about the toxic masculinity; about a pro-life morality that excludes every other life issue; about the rampant homophobia.
At any rate, this blog has made me both relieved and sad to see my experience was not unique.
Add Siena Heights University to that list. That school isn’t Catholic AT ALL. I know a student who tried to start a pro-life group there-one focused on not just abortion but also providing necessary resources for pregnant or parenting students. She almost lost her job with the university-she was a student and worked with Res Life I think. She went all the way up to the president of the University- who is a NUN- who turned down the group. She ended up going to the bishop of the dioceses in order to get the approval for the group. It took her months to get this group approved and when it did happen, people targeted her and the university didn’t care. The university also didn’t have a Chaplin for a year and basically no one attends on campus mass. It’s not a “Catholic” university and really needs to stop advertising as such.
Went to Christendom for two years. One time on maintenance duty I found something under Regina Coeli the administrative building (which because of its age ought to be a condemned building). In the basement, way in the back, until almost becoming a crawl space, behind 4 closed doors to a breaker room, was a mattress with rose petals and candles on the floor. Of all the places to get frisky on campus without getting caught, someone thought this "dungeon" was a romantic place to bring a poor girl
This whole thread saddens and horrifies me, especially as someone who was an RA and in other roles at Ave during some of the times mentioned (2009-2013). I wish these poor victims had felt able to talk about their traumas (a big ask, I know) because I sure as hell would have pursued that case through the administration and the police (which I did for others a few times), and supported them. Who wasn’t supporting them?!? Outrageous, and just wish I had know to help, even if just to sit with them while they grieved. I also had one of the Hogar (Home of the Mother) priests blame me in confession for a married man wanting to have an affair with him (unrelated to Ave) when I went to just relieve my mental and emotional burden over it. One of my now best friends told me it wasn’t my fault and just held me, and that was enormously helpful but has taken years to unpick the damage just that one, 10 second comment did to me. This is just scratching the surface of the shit I dealt with there, but personally it was mostly from other students. Other stuff I was aware of or brought to the attention of the appropriate faculty and staff varied from student to faculty perpetrators.
Reading this thread, the thought I keep going back to is: if any of this happened while I was an RA, how didn’t I know?! And more importantly: what could I have done better to become a safe space? That seems to be missing in many of these stories - there is no safe haven for victims, whether that’s admin, spiritually, or from their peers.
I’m hoping to continue my career as a college educator - while it’s easier to deal with SA issues and beyond in secular schools, we still don’t have training and it would be useful to hear about what would/could have helped victims in support from their faculty. If anyone wants to reach out to me with an answer, please do!! Also to all those at Ave I didn’t know about and/or didn’t help: I’m so sorry, and even though it’s really late in coming, let me know if there’s anyway I can help!
Christendom here — since the Debate Society came up, I needed to respond to that in particular. Speaking as sometime Chairman, I am sorry your contributor perceived our resolutions as hostile towards women. They were deliberately provocative and colorful to garner interest, and the most horrific-sounding ones were always offered with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
I guess I always presumed this was understood at large, given the amount of flak I took from officialdom during my tenure as a student leader of the Society, and the sense they gave of assuming we were vaguely subversive to the College’s culture and ends (tho this seems to have changed to reflect greater rapprochement between the two, since my halcyon days of yore).
In particular, the debate about the relative intelligence of the sexes must be taken in context, namely:
We enjoyed slaughtering sacred cows. Aristotle, etc, could be taken very uncritically in classroom settings. We did not like that. To take them seriously was to engage with them critically, not to absorb them robotically and regurgitate them nauseatingly. We enjoyed parading out some of their ideas that did not age well (e.g. the idea that women are less intelligent), and turning them into provocative resolutions and spirited, enjoyable debates.
Yes, the misogynists would come out for such things, but the point was that, in doing so, they had to be prepared to take an intellectual roundhouse kick to the groin from our fierce lineup of Debate Society women, many leaders or former leaders within the Society, who had plenty of IQ points to spare and who felt no obligation to suffer fools lightly.
As a Chairman, I moved very deliberately to secure the induction into the Society of a non-believing student (interesting story) who was not well accepted on the campus, into our ranks, in order to give him a place to feel belonging and appreciation, and a place to speak his mind openly where it will be heard respectfully, not mocked or shunned.
We were founded to be counter-cultural to closed-mindedness, even regularly giving “forbidden” ideas a fair hearing with our Devil’s Advocate Game debates. I was once reamed out in public by a significant college authority for “crossing a line” in this regard.
I am sorry your contributor had a hard time perceiving our purpose, owing to the strong sense of irony with which we clothed our activities, the heart of which was to promote the habit of respectful and free exchange of ideas, even unpopular ones, and serious intellectual and rhetorical growth.
So I ran through most of this list... Some refer to SA and rape..... but many of them complain about...white males, or MAGA or dress code violations.
The first class are very serious moral and criminal offenses.... the second class are not. Why are the two combined?
These stories really hit hard. I'm simultaneously sad to hear them but also so, so freaking glad to know I'm not alone. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all that's happened (both to me personally and on a larger scale) but I can say this. I went to TAC as well. In addition to the above comments about That Arrogant College, I can say there was essentially no admission of or talking seriously about mental health issues. They did have a counselor of some sort when I was there, but their existence was all but hidden and NEVER spoken about. The general vibe was "We don't talk about mental-health-problems, no no no" , to be honest. I only found out there was SOMEONE on campus after becoming increasingly depressed leading up to my senior year, and realizing that if I killed myself in the dorms and it didn't take I'd probably get expelled, which was, at the time, more unthinkable than dying. THEN I had to scour through a handbook to try and find some sort of non-"Just Go To Confession Cuz You're Sinning" advice. Even then it took forever to get in to see the counselor, and it was all very hush-hush. Gandalf had an easier time hunting down the One Ring. Oh, and in freshman year, one of the office staff literally hunted me down and yelled at me IN MY DORM ROOM because I'd declined to fill out personal information on some form that apparently would have given the college a lot of money. (The details are fuzzy, but I remember it was definately about money). I still remember doing homework when they came in and FURIOUSLY demanded I fill out the forms--I was so shocked that I thought I must have been having a nightmare. I still politely declined to give out such personal information, and the college worker left metaphorically breathing fire. I'd forgotten that last incident. Pretty insane how unacceptable behavior can just be passed over once it gets normalized. That's just the tip of the iceberg--don't get me STARTED on how much their Perfect Catholic Image is prioritized over everything else.
Thank you for sharing all of these stories Chris. I have so many similar experiences I don't even know where to begin. I often feel like I am being too harsh and critical of these organizations, but reading all these stories makes me feel like maybe I am onto something in feeling like so many of them are super off. Here they are:
NET: I went to NET masses in high school and always felt so out of place. The pressure to worship in a very specific way is intense. I distinctly remember feeling so much pressure to put my hands in the air and really feed into the charismatic aspect of NET. That is NOT me at all. I feel like they really pushed a very certain way of praying and living your faith that they never thought about how it may not apply to all types of people. Also, this is not my story to tell, but my sister did NET and it was a very sad experience for her. Lots of manipulation and emotional and verbal abuse from her leader and then speaking to the higher ups at NET and not being listened to or taken seriously at all but only being told to be obedient and love harder basically. I also find it absurd that 18-21 year olds are deemed mature enough to be evangalizing to middle and high school kids. This is the same issue I have with FOCUS. Not enough life experience or maturity on average here to be spreading the gospel in a well rounded way. From my observations NET members are very indoctrinated into how to live their faith and told now to do that by NET high ups and expected to tow that line. My sister had some wierd ideas about faith during NET. She has now chilled out but I distinctly remember we were late to Mass once and she said we shouldn't receive the Eucharist because of some reason like if we weren't there for the entire mass it was disrespectful to God or something....definitly something I knew she picked up from NET becuase it was odd behavior and thinking from what she was like previously. My family was also a part of CCR for awhile growing up but then the pressure my parents felt to only raise their kids in a certain way that was acceptable to that community was enough to make them leave.
Benedictine: I went to Benedictine for one year from 2008-2009. I was excited to be going to a Catholic college and had all these expectations of finding a community which would help me live out my faith more. I found exactly the opposite. Here are some of the memories: I attended at the time that Sarah Swafford was just starting to come out with her whole emotional chastity thing. I remember going to one of her talks and being told that we all needed to stop listening to Taylor Swift because she promoted being emotionally unchaste. Totally promoting that black and white thinking so common in religious circles which likes to cancel certain things without taking into any consideration individuality. Another wierd thing about Benedictine was this giant calendar they had in the student center which showed the dates of people's engagements. So if you got engaged they put it on the calendar. Super wierd and seems like it should not be the focus of higher education. Not to mention at new student orientation one of the speakers at one point said "look to your right, now look to your left, your future spouse could be sitting next to you right now". So innaproppriate. I got written up once for picking my friend up from a party where she had gotten roofied. I had to get help from one of my guy friends to help her walk up to her second story dorm room. He helped get her up there right as the curfew started (they have a curfew for guys/girls being in each others dorm rooms). They wrote us both up because we broke curfew, without taking any consideration into the circumstances. One of my friends once got told by another student that they were "praying for her soul" for god knows what reason...she is no longer Catholic because of the intense judgement she experienced there.
Focus: I joined a Focus bible study at Benedictine and went for a couple months then quit because I found that the Focus leaders had no life experience or knowledge to actually be leading bible studies. We basically just read verses from the bible and talked about them, but whenever I had deeper questions or wanted to go deeper my leader had no idea how to answer and just gave very generic, happy go lucky answers. I don't understand how young adults just out of college are deemed capable of being leaders and mentors to kids 3-4 years younger than them. They don't have enough life experience. Also, the whole focus on gaining numbers is crazy in Focus. My friend was thinking about joining and went to an intro session where there was a session on how to gain Focus followers. Basically they said that you should figure out what you have in common with someone else so you can connect with them. Then once they feel like they can relate to you, invite them to bible study. So ingenuous. I have had this tactic used on me before from People of Praise (POP) members and my brother has also shared with me the same experience with SPO members. They gain an interest in you and pretend to be your friend. Then they say you should come to one of their meetings. Then when you say you are not interested they drop you so fast and even ignore you and pretend they don't even know you when they see you around. So strange. I also went to a Focus retreat while I was at Benedictine. There was so much pressure and anticipation built up for "Saturday night"-the night when there was special prayers and supposedly the Holy Spirit came. It made no sense because isn't the Holy Spirit with us always, but they made it seem like only at this time would you receive a gift from the HS. We all sat in a circle and were prayed over individually. Then when we were done we all went around and talked about if we experienced anything. When it came to me I shared that I didn't experience anything different or feel any differently. They prodded me a ton, so sure that I HAD to have received some sort of gift. They ended up telling me that I had received a gift, I just didn't now what it was yet haha. I also remember one of my group leaders talking about how as women it is important for us to keep a tidy and clean home because we never know when we might have visitors. I think it fed into those very traditional gender roles that those communities tend to have.
I have a really hard time trusting church communities and feeling like I fit in in church circles because of these experiences. I have felt so much pressure and expectation of how to behave as a "good catholic" and what is ok to say or do. Don't even get me started on modesty and the church community I was in as a young child where all they could talk about with us girls was modesty even though everyone in that community was uber modest (like super long skirts and baggy t shirts modest). So many of these communties and colleges just preach to the choir, creating these exclusive bubbles of people with an us vs. them mentality. When you don't tow those lines I feel like such an odd ball. I struggle to find my place in the church still and struggle with prayer due to being told there was a right way to do things my whole life even though it didn't "work" in the way I was told it should (so I always felt like I was doing it wrong). It is nice to know I am not alone. And that is the end of my novel haha
Any sexual assault is abhorrent. It is more so at a Catholic institution. For the record, a 2017 survey of Notre Dame students revealed that approx 860 female and 220 male students reported being the victim of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact. Roughly 1,100 students among a population of 8,600 undergraduate students. Our Lady is weeping.
I went to Christendom for one semester, my first night in the dorms some sophomore girls took me under their wing and opened the yearbook and, as if re-enacting a terrible teen movie about bullying, pointed out who was and wasn't popular so that I could "avoid the people who don't fit in here." The students that "didn't fit in" were overwhelmingly non-white, not straight, or otherwise culturally nonconforming. Those people became my good friends. I dropped out after one semester because I didn't appreciate being an adult paying bills and being told I couldn't be out past a certain time, or that I had to get permission to spend the night off campus when my boyfriend came to visit. Women were treated like stupid children and the men were adored. Wasn't a fan.
This is super interesting and heartbreaking. Thank you for writing about this! I didn't go to a Catholic college or university, but my school did for a period of time have FOCUS missionaries. One thing that struck me is how many people reported that the divorce rates among couples they know of from these schools are high. I'm curious about why that is, what factors lead to that, and how communities can better foster healthier relationships.
I did not go to one of these colleges. The parish I belonged to here in NH for 20 yrs was heavily influenced by Steubenville. In the 90s we had FIRE rallies and speakers with ties to Steubenville like the Hahn's. The influence was insidious. Lots of NET team members too. Almost everyone I knew who did NET had significant mental health issues after their service. To this day, the faith formation director is a Steubenville grad.
FUS needs to do a study on the impact of their theology degree on marriages of alumni.
The parish has a deep sense of cult of belonging, if that is even a term. The mantra is "only the strong stay." It has a uncanny ability to NOT be open to any critical feedback. As it approached the MAGA years this only deepened. It reached a peak with a fall 2020 sermon on why Trump was the Catholic Vote. The priest urged everyone not to let their feelings lie to them. He called Trump's pathological behavior "personality issues" that should not sway us from voting for him. The sermon was a prime example of how the pulpit can be used to manipulate. It was met with applause. It still stuns me that the bishop allowed this. To my knowledge there had been no correction.
This is consistent with what went on at FUS during the MAGA years.
I deeply regret letting my kids go to Steubenville East conferences. But at least they know how to identify emotional manipulation.
These stories are fascinating, and they've got to be shared widely. It's common for conservative Catholics to go into Newman List schools expecting that they're close to Eden, because of how highly regarded they are, and the resulting pressure among students and alumni to not speak too negatively.
I'm a freshman at Thomas Aquinas College, and while I respect the school and I haven't experienced anything like the worst of these accounts, there's so much I wish I'd known, so I could maybe have chosen one of so many excellent schools that weren't on my radar because they aren't Catholic, and not had to waste a year here before transferring. To my knowledge, I am to my knowledge the most openly gay student right now, as well as an inward Protestant, in connection with the Church's teachings on sexuality. Both those are hard things at this school.
Many people drink far too much. Guys use the N-word regularly. Racist and homophobic jokes are frequent, but more serious mysogyny in attitudes is rampant. You can't even enter dorms of the opposite sex under pain of expulsion, which I think has the effect of concentrating testosterone in the men's dorms--a lot of gross fratty shit happens often. This is the negative side, but there's a positive one too: brilliant, excellent, trustworthy faculty; lots of genuinely good, open people; a serious passion for what we study. What you see in the brochures is mostly true, it just isn't the only side.
Thanks for this post. Lots to think on.
This conversation really needs to happen. Personally, I avoided the schools mentioned due many of the concerns listed here. I know folks who went there who were sexually assaulted, gaslighted, and manipulated by fellow students and faculty, with an abysmal response by the administration(s). Loss of faith followed, for sure. A lot more Catholic parents and prospective college students need to take these concerns to heart when deciding where to attend. ALL Catholic schools need to take a proactive role in creating safe campus cultures, not to mention in educating students about sex, sexual violence, and healthy relationships, and boundaries. I honestly can't identify one that does this well.
That said, I worked in higher ed for eight years, in campus ministry and residential life roles. And that gives me an even more complicated perspective on these stories. There are many, many bad actors and really inappropriate situations that are easy to see as clear-cut. And there are also a lot of extremely delicate, "grey" situations. Campus community members may have compelling and differing stories, memories, interpretations. Both parties have important rights that must be respected... even when they're the perpetrator of something horrible.
I've had students and parents accuse me of not knowing how to respond to a crisis, of doing nothing, of not knowing important facts about what was going on... when in reality, FERPA laws, confidentiality, and the rights of other students and staff all required me to be silent about the tremendous response that was appropriately taking place, not to mention mitigating circumstances or data that might have changed a student or parent's interpretation or desired outcome. I've had students interpret my choices and decisions in the most outrageous ways, because the culture of sexism and clericalism at the school enabled that stereotyping. I've made mistakes because I'm human... I was caught off guard, underinformed, overwhelmed, or sometimes simply exhausted... and had to apologize for them to students who deserved better. I've had students tell me that my colleagues and I only responded to their crisis to protect the reputation of the school... dismissing the true concern and care being extended to them at great personal and even professional cost to us.
I'm all for questioning authority... we have to, especially when so much abuse has taken place in our church and its institutions. The institutions I worked for were very far from perfect. They deserved scrutiny and criticism. I was not perfect then, am not perfect now. But there's also a really paralyzing mistrust of authority... not to mention a lack of self-awareness, and a discomfort with confrontation... that young people themselves occasionally bring to the table. I'm really trying not to stray into the realm of victim-blaming here. At the end of the day, students are young and inexperienced, and the institution is in a position of trust and power, absolutely responsible for its culture and for its care of them. I'm trying to offer a sense of how complicated these issues can be, even when someone is trying really hard to do the right thing.
I've had an RA accused of racist comments when they had actually been completely misheard and taken out of context... fortunately, they were given a chance to explain to the accuser's complete satisfaction, and it became an opportunity for deeper friendship for all concerned. But that false impression would have lingered, without the difficult confrontation. I once had a student couple complain that they were "shamed" for their PDA by a staff member. This is the story they're probably telling somewhere to this day. Well, obviously I was very sorry that they felt this way, and the staff member was followed up with. But I also knew, from a bird's eye view, that this couple was notorious, and a hundred other people have a right to use the kitchen in that area and be comfortable in their own home, without walking in on a makeout session, right? Someone has to (hopefully kindly and appropriately) address those issues.
Catholic schools tend to claim more room to speak into the moral lives and personal formation of their students. This is more and more unusual and unwelcome in our individualistic, self-determining, secular culture, and at times it is executed TERRIBLY, I grant you. But there are also some good historical, theological, and cultural reasons for it. There are lives that are very positively impacted by it. What would that kind of formation look like, if it were done well?
Some (not all) perpetrators are themselves acting out of a place of past trauma, abuse, and poor mental health. I don't think most people outside higher ed understand that schools have very limited legal recourse to send folks away, even when they're clearly not okay. In some cases, this applies to faculty and staff as well. A school is not a therapeutic community. But if you have a major personality disorder that could manifest in you manipulating, lying to and victimizing people, you have a right to stay on campus and study.... or teach. The school has options IF someone can be proven to have violated a campus standard or an actual law... this process often takes quite a while (because you have conduct a fair investigation and multi-part conduct process), and too many incidents are never reported at all. And everyone involved is worried about their own interests and liability. In many cases, a restorative justice process might better serve people involved, and result in more lasting change.
I truly believe there is a place for anonymous comments. They reflect a legitimate experience, however objective or subjective that might be. It's important to open that forum and allow people to speak their truth. And I think it's also important for everyone concerned to be open to hearing all sides and factors. Sometimes this will only lead us to more outrage and a knowledge that things were even worse than we thought! But sometimes it will also surprise us and help us come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the truth. At some point, anonymous comments or anecdotes reach a limit of helpfulness, when we can't hear the other side or corroborate the details or act. I hope survivors of these terrible things will continue to heal, and to tell their stories and demand accountability, when and how they are able to.