Abuse survivors offer perspective on troubling book by now-Vatican official

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Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, leaves the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall after a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops with Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

(OSV News) — Two sexual abuse survivors told OSV News they are deeply troubled by a recently resurfaced book on mysticism written several years ago by the Vatican’s doctrinal head that includes graphic descriptions of sexuality.

“La pasión mística: espiritualidad y sensualidad” (“Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality”) — written in 1998 by then-Father and now Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — bills itself as “an invitation to the world of passionate love that hides in the depths of our being.”

In a Jan. 8 interview with Crux, the cardinal — who has also come under fire for his 1995 book “Heal Me with Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing” — dismissed “La pasión mística” as a naive effort “that I certainly would not write now,” and said the book was no longer available in print, having been canceled shortly after publication.

But clerical abuse survivor Faith Hakesley, author of “Glimmers of Grace: Moments of Peace and Healing Following Sexual Abuse,” told OSV News that reading passages from the book — translated from the original Spanish into English and posted online — nonetheless proved distressing.

“It was absolutely nauseating. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it,” she said. “It brought a lot back from my own abuse, because some of the things I read were similar to what my rapist would say — sort of combining abuse with things of a spiritual nature.”

Hakesley stressed that she was “not suggesting Cardinal Fernández is a predator” or that “he’s ever abused anyone.”

At the same time, she pointed out that what she read from the cardinal’s book “does suggest both spiritual and sexual grooming, especially when you consider who his audience was intended to be.”

A potential red flag

Three of the book’s chapters explicitly discuss orgasms, with the final chapter titled “God and the couple’s orgasm.” Another passage recounts a 16-year-old girl’s “passionate encounter with Jesus” that includes caressing him on the beach and kissing his mouth.

Published while then-Father Fernández was an adviser to the Argentine bishops’ faith and culture commission, the 94-page volume — published by Mexico-based Ediciones Dabar — explores what the author calls “the sublime paths of mystical union, until reaching a point in which we seem to touch the impossible.”

In a January 2024 interview with Crux, Cardinal Fernández said that he wrote the book after speaking with young couples “who wanted to better understand the spiritual meaning of their relationships.” However, shortly after its release he feared the book “could be misinterpreted.”

Hakesley said “this sort of spiritual mysticism … is common among abusers where they use spirituality to kind of explain away what they’re doing, (saying), ‘This is beautiful, this is of God.'”

L’Arche communities founder and Catholic social activist Jean Vanier was found after his death to have abused several women under the guise of a “sexual mysticism” he had embraced under his mentor, the late Dominican Father Thomas Philippe. Both Vanier and Father Philippe — along with Father Thomas’ biological brother, also a Dominican Friar, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe — were the subject of an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche International, which revealed in a January 2023 report totaling almost 900 pages how they invoked Jesus, Mary and union with the divine as a means of justifying sexual abuse.

Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Jeglic of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice told OSV News that as part of the grooming process, sexual abusers “desensitize” victims “to sexual content and physical touch.” After committing abuse, perpetrators “engage in what’s called post-abuse maintenance,” or “gaslighting,” in which “they make the person feel responsible for the abuse, (saying), ‘You wanted this all along.'”

Jeglic — who has not read Fernández’s book and did not comment directly on the text — noted that while more empirical data is needed, adult grooming behaviors indicate several similarities with those employed by child sexual abusers.

Hakesley told OSV News that Cardinal Fernández’s disavowals of the book in his Crux interview are “another red flag.”

“He has never come out and said, ‘I shouldn’t have written this,’ or ‘this was wrong,'” she said. “He’s just more concerned … that everyone else is going to misinterpret it. It’s more like he’s gaslighting and saying, ‘Well, everyone else is the problem.'”

Gaslighting and abuse of vulnerable adults

Teresa Pitt Green of Spirit Fire, a Christian restorative justice network that works with the Catholic Church, told OSV News that she was troubled by Cardinal Fernández’s account of the unnamed teen in his book.

“To see that level of inquiry of an adult priest, (who was about) 36 when he wrote the book, and let’s say a 16 year old girl … there’s a level of impropriety that is very disturbing,” said Pitt Green, a survivor of clergy abuse.

Like Hakesley, Pitt Green said that she was not implying “the cardinal is an abuser” — but “it’s not where we want priests to be with minors.”

Pitt Green also said when she heard that the cardinal had written the book to “help people who were in his counsel,” she was “really uncomfortable.”

“Even if they weren’t minors … they were still vulnerable adults in his care,” she said, adding that “abuse of power” is central to the dynamics of sexual abuse.

“I see this (book) as (from) somebody who seems unaware of a crucial power imbalance,” said Pitt Green. “Priests that present themselves as being celibate, who bring us sacraments, who set themselves apart from the world, bringing this forward to groups of young people? … The boundary violations are staggering … psychologically, potentially physically, certainly from an intellectual point of view, normalizing certain things for people that probably don’t even know it.”

She said that the book would likely clash with the abuse prevention standards adopted by the U.S. Catholic bishops in their 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“John Paul II’s theology of the body would sail through,” given the late pope’s intentional discretion in discussing human sexuality, said Pitt Green, while “this book would get tangled up,” with the author being asked, “Why are you talking to a 16-year-old girls in this depth about these things?”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.