Catholic historian Robert Orsi delivers inaugural Smith-Chase Lecture
Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, spoke at Elon on April 3 about clerical sexual abuse.
Robert Orsi, Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, visited Elon April 3 and delivered a lecture titled “Violence, Memory, and Religion Among Survivors of Clerical Sexual Abuse,” drawing from his forthcoming book about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
Orsi’s talk was the inaugural event for the new annual Smith-Chase lectur, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies. Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Lori and Eric Sklut Scholar in Jewish Studies Geoffrey Claussen, who chairs the department, opened the event and explained that the lecture honors the legacies of H. Shelton Smith, a 1917 graduate of Elon College and the founding director of graduate studies in religion at Duke University, and Carole Chase, professor emerita of religious studies at Elon, who started the endowment fund for the lecture.
In his introduction of Orsi, Brian Pennington, professor of religious studies and director of the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society, discussed the influence of Orsi’s work on the lived religion of U.S. Catholics. He observed that one could talk about two eras in the study of religion.
“Before Orsi, the study of religion was done in grayscale and its sound was a droning clerical monotone," Pennington said. "After Orsi, there was color and noise, deep sadness and deep joy.”
Orsi’s first and most famous book, "The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950" helped revolutionize the study of religion by examining the lives of religious people. Orsi’s most recent book, "History, and Presence," looks at modern debates about the reality of divine presence, specifically in the Catholic Church.
Orsi structured his talk around accounts of survivors he has collected and he critiqued the frameworks commonly used to study sexual abuse. He noted that such abuse was traditionally examined through the lenses of criminology, psychology and sociology. These methods, he observed, “thoroughly secularized” sexual violence,” even when it took place within religious institutions.
Orsi argued that this relationship to religion needs to be incorporated into our understanding of clerical abuse, but that we must also acknowledge its nearness. Sexual deviance has typically been associated with “cults” or religions foreign to the observer, allowing people to say “not here, not in our religious world” and promoting an “us versus them” dichotomy.
Orsi concluded his talk by referencing the experience of survivors he had interviewed, who had taught him that “it was a religious mystery to be sexually abused by a priest.” Orsi and Associate Chaplain for Catholic Life Father Peter Tremblay spoke to the audience of the ample support available on campus for anyone affected by sexual abuse in any way.