Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Written as a dispatch from an active research project rather than as a report from the findings of one, this paper engages the ethnographic tension that surrounds a promised list of twelve names. The project is a study clerical sexual abuse in Central America, with a focus on US priests who moved (or were moved) to the Northern Triangle to evade suspicion and, at times, prosecution. One informant is a Roman Catholic priest serving forty years in a Guatemalan prison for multiple counts of sexual assault, with victims as young as ten years of age. He is by all standards a “bad subject”—in part because he has been convicted of bad things, but also because he does not constitute a proper ethnographic subject. Challenging anthropological norms of political and moral subjectivity, this priest has proven himself eerily capable of winning my sympathies, challenging my authority, and manipulating my desires. I spend days inside his prison cell—speaking with him, reading alongside him, and confessing my own sins—not only to understand his specific history of abuse but also in the hopes that he might hand over a list of twelve names that he once promised me. It is a list of active priests whose profiles apparently fit my study. Amid vital debates about the ethics of ethnography and the importance of solidarity, about standing with survivors of clerical sexual abuse, how does time spent with this perpetrator upset some important assumptions about the ethnographic encounter?