Fr. Dan Ward on Documenting Abuse Allegations


An abbot receives information from a victim that a monk sexually abused him while attending the monastery’s school. When the abbot confronts the monk, the monk admits the abuse along with some other instances of abuse. The entire situation, including a lawsuit, is handled confidentially. Not even the community knows about the sexual abuse. Does the abbot document all of this for his successor?

The American Monastic Newsletter
June, 1999

In the life of a monastery, one of the more significant events is the election and installation of a new abbot or prioress. Along with bringing his/her own unique gifts to the position, the new abbot/prioress, perhaps only subconsciously at first, also has self-expectations and a vision of the role of the monastic leader. The community also has its expectations of the individual and vision of the role of the abbot/prioress. Both the expectations and the vision of the monastic leader and of the community are formed, at least partially, by the idea of the role of the abbot/prioress as given in monastic teachings, particularly those in the Rule of Benedict.

One of the expectations and visions is that the monastic leader should be a spiritual leader. Often this role is fulfilled and experienced through personal example, conferences and calling the monastic community as a whole to fidelity to the monastic way of life. However, there is another aspect to the spiritual role which at least some members of the community come to experience. This aspect of the spiritual role finds its roots in the ancient abba/amma-disciple relationship in the Rule of Benedict, particularly chapter 2. At times a monastic may come to experience the abbot or prioress as a spiritual father or mother who is concerned about the life journey of the monastic. This may happen because the monastic seeks conversations about personal issues with the abbot or prioress. This also may happen because the abbot or prioress must intervene in a monastic’s personal life. The latter may occur for various reasons such as an addiction, sexual or legal problem.

It seems that when the abbot/prioress takes on this spiritual role with an individual, monastic tradition creates a mutual expectation akin to the ancient amma/abba-disciple relationship. The abbot/prioress believes, and correctly so, that he/she as the monastic leader is to help the monastic on the life journey. This requires that the abbot/prioress be a person of trust, gentleness and integrity. The abbot/prioress needs also to keep in mind the admonition of RB 2 in adjusting to each monastic personality for the care of souls. This usually leads the abbot/prioress to see him/herself more as a spiritual guide than as an official of the monastery.

The individual monastic also usually has this idea that what happens between the abbot/prioress and him/herself is based on the spiritual roles. This is true even if the relationship results because of an intervention. The monastic usually cooperates and reveals all because the abbot/prioress is to guide and support the individual monastic through the troubles of the search for God. The monastic encounters the abbot/prioress as the spiritual leader not only of the community but of the individual monastic.

In what has just been described above, there inevitably results a spoken or unspoken expectation of confidentiality. What transpires is between the abbot/prioress and the individual monastic. In fact, it is between the monastic and this particular abbot/prioress since this is the individual in whom trust is placed.

All of the above is good when considered from the point of view of monastic tradition and teachings, and also from the vantage point of personal trust and loving care of a spiritual leader for a troubled individual. However, there is a nagging issue here. While the abbot/prioress certainly was elected to this role of spiritual helper, it is a different role from that of the ancient abba/amma. The latter was a very personal relationship based on personal choice. However, an abbot/prioress in a cenobitic community is elected to the office. This means that the person is elected to a position which is stable, that is, it transcends the tenure of an individual holder of the office. Each abbot/prioress who holds the office is a continuation of the office of his/her predecessors. While each new abbot/prioress brings to the office his/her own unique gifts and vision, there also is a seamless continuity to the office.

Thus when a person is elected to the office, he/she takes possession of the office. The office exists whether or not someone is holding the office at a given moment in time. It is this concept of office which gave medieval England the cry: “The king/queen is dead; long live the king/queen.” The king/queenship never died, only an individual holder of the office. Therefore, since the office continues the new abbot/prioress is the embodiment of the office, how does this affect the role of the abbot/prioress as spiritual leader when dealing with an individual monastic? Is what a given abbot/prioress learns about an individual, whether freely given or resulting from an intervention, the personal knowledge of the given abbot/prioress or does this knowledge belong to the office?

Perhaps some examples will help to clarify the issues. In each situation, the abbot/prioress and the monastic establish a relationship of trust. This trust flows from the abbot/prioress and the monastic’s idea of the abbot/prioress as spiritual leader. A prioress does an alcohol intervention with a sister. The sister, trusting the prioress, tells the prioress her story, which includes a number of alcohol-related accidents and two DUIs (driving under the influence). While the prioress knew there was a drinking problem, she did not know any of the facts. Does the prioress document the information in order to pass it on to her successor?

An abbot receives information from a victim that a monk sexually abused him while attending the monastery’s school. When the abbot confronts the monk, the monk admits the abuse along with some other instances of abuse. The entire situation, including a lawsuit, is handled confidentially. Not even the community knows about the sexual abuse. Does the abbot document all of this for his successor?

A prioress seeks to help a troubled sister who seems very depressed. After several gentle conversations with the sister, the sister opens up to the prioress. The sister admits being depressed, a condition probably brought on by sexual abuse by her stepfather. Does the prioress document this information for her successor?

In the first two scenarios, it seems clear from a legal point of view that the abbot/prioress must document the situation. The law would clearly hold that the “office” is on notice of the potential harm the monastic could do. The sister with her alcohol problem could be the cause of a serious car accident while driving intoxicated. This may have been prevented if each holder of the office were aware of the problem and took preventative measures. The same is true of the scenario about the monk who sexually abused.

It is not a defense for a given abbot/prioress to claim ignorance because his/her predecessor did not inform him/her about the monastic’s problem. The law imputes to the office the actual knowledge and, thus, to the individual holder, presumed knowledge. Therefore, since the abbot/prioress knew or should have known, as the officeholder, of the difficulties of the individual monastic, there is a good chance that a claim of liability against the monastery would be successful.

The third scenario is a more difficult and delicate case. There does not seem to be any obvious legal liability issues as in the first two scenarios. However, if the person is a manic-depressed person, the depression most likely will continue throughout the person’s life. Should each prioress have to discover anew the problem and its roots? Does the behavior of the sister have an affect on the rest of the community? Is there potential for the sister to manipulate each new prioress? How does confidentiality balance with the broader responsibilities and obligations of the prioress?

The day the abbot/prioress changes is a day when a particular person leaves office and a new person assumes the office. Nevertheless, the office continues. Therefore, at least from a legal point of view, it is important that each holder of the office pass on to the next holder of the office that knowledge which he/she acquired because he/she was the abbot/prioress. In the three scenarios above, each individual probably would not have revealed the information to the abbot/prioress except for the fact that he/she was the abbot/prioress. Thus it would seem that the information belongs to the office and must be passed on to the successor.

Because of what was described at the beginning concerning the expectation of confidentiality when speaking with the abbot/prioress as spiritual leader, it may be beneficial for a monastic community to develop a statement of understanding so that everyone is clear about when confidentiality can be expected in a conversation with the abbot/prioress. It could also be helpful that each community provide a policy of what information an abbot/prioress must pass on to his/her successor.

Dan Ward, OSB
Saint Augustine’s Monastery
Nassau, Bahamas
The American Monastic Newsletter
June, 1999

Published on: Jun 11, 1999 @ 12:42

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