(Without a doubt, this is a difficult topic. While that never seems to cause me to shy away, I know that it may be more than some want to read. If this is a painful area for you, take care of yourself first and feel free not to read this article. Be blessed.)
For quite some time now, I have wanted to speak or write about why I have remained a Catholic when scandal after scandal seems to surround the Church. And it is about the worst kind of scandal one can imagine: widespread sexual abuse of minors and widespread cover-ups by high-ranking church officials.
On August 23, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times that pulled out of me some of the words that I had been wanting to write. (Click here to read the original article.) After reading quite a few of the comments already published, most of them relating when and why their authors left the Church, I posted my own comment:
I understand the anger and rage behind this article and many of the comments. But I cannot agree with Mr. Nathaniel.
I am a psychologist who has treated many survivors of sexual abuse, both men and women, who have had perpetrators who were both men and women. One of these survivors was abused by a Catholic priest. Others were molested or raped by their parents, step-parents, grandparents, uncles, neighbors, family friends, scout leaders, doctors, other children, etc. The vast majority of them were violated by someone they knew and trusted. Sexual abuse of children is, tragically, prevalent in our world.
Some leaders within the Catholic Church went to great lengths to cover up for pedophile priests. This is a great evil for which they should be removed from their positions and prosecuted. Does this evil occur solely in the Catholic Church? Certainly not. I have had more than a few survivors tell me that they were sure that their mothers (or other adults) knew what was happening and did nothing. Or told the child that she/he was making it up or lying. Covering up sexual abuse is, tragically, also very prevalent in our world.
I continue to be a practicing Catholic. The sins (or diseases) of other Catholics are not cause for me to stop believing in the truth of the Gospel nor are they reason for me to stop receiving the Sacraments that God entrusted to the Church. The human institution we see is diseased; the eternal Church offers the only antidote: Christ Himself.
There was a lot more that I wanted to write – to inform people, to help people understand and heal from this horrible tragedy. However, quite sensibly, the Times limits the length of comments. So, God willing, I will write here.
Please understand that none of what I write here is intended to in any way justify or minimize these evils perpetrated by members of the Church.
In this first post, I hope to shed some light on the phenomenon of child sexual abuse itself. In a subsequent post, I hope to share why I have remained in the Catholic Church despite the ongoing scandal. May the Spirit guide me to offer words that bring understanding and promote healing and hope.
Why, one might ask, is sexual abuse of children and teens so prevalent? And why have so many priests in particular offended against the children they were charged to protect and serve? Could they and their superiors not see the evil in these acts?
Before exploring these questions, allow me to lay a bit of groundwork with information that may be known to some but not all. The term “pedophile” is most correctly used in reference to someone who engages in sexual behavior with a child who has not yet reached puberty. It is still sexual abuse when someone engages in sexual behavior with an older child but there is some value in making the distinction.
While both are considered pathological, the abuse of the prepubescent child is considered more so. The reasons for this should be obvious. When an adult wants sexual contact with a child who looks like a child, their pattern of desire is severely disordered. Adults with a healthy psychosexual development generally find the notion repugnant or, if fleetingly experienced, a thought to be banished from the mind as quickly as possible. The child, unless already tampered with, may be flirty in a childlike way, but has no concept of what sexual behavior is or how it will impact him/her.
A teen who has developed, on the other hand, has similar body features to an adult and therefore may trigger the “normal” desires of an adult. The young person may also be curious or even excited at the prospect of intimate contact with an adult. However, a mature adult will resist such attractions if they occur, recognizing that teens cannot truly give an informed consent when approached by an adult, especially if the adult occupies a position of authority.
I differentiate between these types of offenders, in part, to point out what wasn’t known, even in professional circles, as recently 40-50 years ago. In the past, it was not known that the pedophile tends to be a serial offender and that psychological or spiritual treatments are seldom effective. The pedophile is fixated on children and will likely offend as long as they have access to children. In earlier times, a naive superior might send an offending priest to treatment without any recognition of the futility of this approach.
We also know that some (though not all) who offend against teens do so either as a regression under stress or as part of a broader pattern of promiscuity (with the distinction between a 16 year old and a 20 year old being blurred). This type of offending may be more amenable to treatment, especially for one-time offenders. Even with this knowledge, however, it is virtually impossible to predict whether the behavior will recur.
It is also important to note that sexual abuse of boys is not a “homosexual thing”. Adults with a same-sex orientation are no more likely to offend against children than heterosexuals.
Neither is sexual abuse of children induced by celibacy. The vast majority of people living in vowed celibacy are oriented to adults. If they should break their vows, they will do so with adults, male or female, depending on their sexual orientation. This is sinful but similar in nature to married people violating their vows by committing adultery.
However, this is not to dismiss the possibility that a celibate priesthood might not be a draw for higher functioning pedophiles. (By “high functioning” I mean that those able to function well enough to meet the requirements of the priesthood as opposed to those who are obviously disturbed.)
The draws for the pedophile is that the priesthood offers access to children, as well as a position of positive status that tends to (or used to) evoke trust from families. It is also a position of power because children are taught to obey priests, much as they are taught to obey teachers, coaches and scout leaders.
Celibacy also creates a good cloak for a pedophile who cannot perform sexually with an adult, a situation that is not uncommon with the true pedophile. As a priest, no one expects him to marry and he may even receive added status for having “sacrificed” marriage and children.
However, it is not at all clear that there are more offenders in the Catholic Church than in Protestant denominations where clergy marry. The Catholic Church is much larger and has a single, hierarchical identity that results in staggering statistics of abuse when seen as a whole. There is little data (that I know of) that breaks down offenses against children by denomination. However, we know that no religious group is immune to these evils.
This, of course, does not make the offenses by members of the Catholic Church any less egregious. I mention these points only because hearing the aggregate statistic may lead people to mistakenly assume that sexual abuse of children is prevalent only in the Catholic Church.
If this were the case, we could, as Mr. Nathaniel suggests, just shut down the Catholic Church and our children would be safe.
Were this true, I would gladly leave the Church to save so many people a lifetime of suffering.
Unfortunately, we have no such simple remedies available…
Having laid some groundwork, I will now offer some discussion on why sexual abuse is so prevalent, not only in the Church but throughout the world. Certainly the reasons why any given individual offends are unique and multi-faceted – so the generalizations I make here are inevitably lacking in comprehensiveness.
In discussing why people sexually abuse minors, I find myself torn between classifying this behavior as disease vs. sin. In reality, of course, such a classification is largely unnecessary since sin is an expression of spiritual disease that almost always has psychological components. However, I will examine both aspects because it may guide us in understanding what is to be done with sexual offenders, whether in the Church or in society as a whole.
Would it be too outrageous for me to say that sexual abuse emerges from the passions, passions that are common to all of us in our struggle against sin?
Perhaps that is too outrageous, but allow me to explain what I mean.
Sexual abuse often occurs because of disordered desires for love, power, acceptance and/or sexual stimulation. What is so disturbing to us is that attempts to meet these desires at the expense of children represent such severely disordered passions that we cannot relate to them.
To illustrate this point, we might examine the passion we call “anger”. It is not too difficult to imagine the disordered expressions of anger on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, we have anger that is not disordered at all. It is a helpful and sometimes even necessary emotion that, when handled properly, motivates us to protect ourselves or others.
A somewhat more disordered passion on the anger continuum is well-known to most of us. This is an anger that is about ego, about how you hurt, disrespected or undermined me. Now I want to strike back at you and let you know what it feels like. So I cling to my desire for revenge or I use harsh words or unnecessarily punitive behaviors with you.
A more extremely disordered passion on the anger continuum is the person who, so consumed by rage and wounded ego, kills the person who affronted them. Even more disordered, is the person who tortures others or kills at random, having become so immersed in the passion that they have lost their reason.
The more extreme the disordered passion, the more likely we are to label it as evidence of disease or evil. It is also apparent that the more extreme the disorder in the passion, the more it appears to be not just a matter of degree but a perversion of the passion itself. It is one thing to have so much anger that one could kill; it is quite another to shoot bullets into a crowd or to take pleasure in torturing another to death.
The minor disorders we tend to consider weaknesses, flaws or sins but within the range of what we can understand and possibly forgive. The more extreme and twisted the disordered passion, the less comprehensible and tolerable we consider it.
And this is clearly the case with the disordered passions underlying sexual abuse of minors. If we were to learn, for example, that someone sexually abused dozens of children under the age of three, we would be horrified and consider them utterly monstrous. Not only is the passion taken to extremes but it is twisted to the point of being hardly recognizable to us as one we know.
What evil or disease enables a person to engage in such extreme distortions of the passions? Years ago, when I was working with a pedophile, I struggled between wanting to understand this and not wanting to understand it. As a psychologist, I typically want to understand my patient’s inner world; in this case, I wasn’t sure I could emotionally handle what I might find there.
I will share just a bit here. One thing that I came to understand is that there is an extreme characterological immaturity in those who sexually offend with children. With some pedophiles, this immaturity is obvious – they identify with children. They sometimes talk like children, want to play with them and imagine themselves to be the best defenders of disadvantaged children because only they truly love them. They redefine the abuse as “tickling” or some other innocuous or even loving behavior, demonstrating no understanding of the impact on the victim. They may even lack a clear boundary between themselves and the child as separate persons.
Often this characterological immaturity develops out of a tragic childhood in which the abuser was sexually abused and experienced nothing resembling adequate parenting. They want to be loved because they were never loved. They want to be in control because they were utterly powerless throughout their childhoods. They wanted to be rescued so they imagine themselves the rescuer of others. They want intimacy (closeness) but feel safer with children – because children will not judge them inadequate – but adults mostly likely will.
This is the extreme. But I suspect some of the same principles are operative within the so-called higher-functioning pedophile. They may be able to pass for “normal” by virtue of being more intelligent or having developed a stronger sense of self that enables them to “compartmentalize”, i.e. to have a mature-appearing outer self that functions in the world, while allowing the grossly immature self to emerge only under certain circumstances. They may be haunted by this other self or they may have so successfully defended against it that they see nothing wrong in its behavior. It is even possible that they may banish this other self from active memory.
And what about the adult who sexually offends against the adolescent? I would hypothesize that there are similar roots in the passions: I want to be loved and feel safer with the young. I want intimacy or sexual release but need to be in control because I feel powerless (because of a lifelong sense of powerlessness or a severe stress that makes me feel powerless now). I want to be accepted and admired. While this individual may have greater psychosexual maturity than the pedophile, maturity is still woefully lacking. While fantasy feeds the ill-formed ego with notions of being loved, wanted and appreciated, the mind rationalizes away the immorality of the behavior as well as the harm inflicted upon the adolescent.
In a side note, though not the case with priest offenders, it is also worth recognizing that some sexual abuse of children involves offenders with severe cognitive challenges. Someone who has cognitive deficits, either congenital or acquired (as in brain injury), may have a level of understanding or judgment typical of a child but they are encased in an adult body that has adult sexual urges. While this type of offender may seem to fall into a completely different category, that is largely because we know the cause of their gross immaturity. With highly intelligent and accomplished adults, it is much harder to comprehend.
In the next section, I will offer some reflections on the covering up of sexual abuse.
As hard as it is to understand anyone sexually abusing a child, it may be equally or even more difficult to understand another adult purposely covering up the offense(s) rather than trying to protect the child. Who would not come to the aid of an innocent child? What would motivate someone to knowingly allow this to continue?
This is where many people become truly enraged with the Church. Perhaps the individual priest was mentally disturbed, a victim himself. But what excuse can a bishop offer?
Before addressing this question, allow me to discuss the cover-up of sexual abuse in general. Once again, I am in no way justifying it – simply seeking understanding.
First, it is important to recognize who tends to “cover up” child sexual abuse.
Very often the child victim attempts to cover it up. This is not hard to understand. Fear and shame are two of the primary reasons why children often do not report what has been done to them. Fear may arise from threats made by the perpetrator, threats that may range from “I’ll deny it” to “I’ll kill your parents”. Because the perpetrator is typically older, stronger and considered more credible, children often have very good reasons to fear that harm will come to them or the people they love.
The anticipated harm may be violence but it may also involve being scorned and rejected for having said something so awful about a well-regarded adult (relative, teacher, priest, etc.) If not believed, the child-victim may suffer greater abuse or humiliation at the hands of their perpetrator or other adults upon whom they rely for survival. Their own credibility may be permanently damaged; even if they are not old enough to conceptualize this, often they instinctively know.
The child victim also may feel shame, sometimes profoundly. While sometimes children, especially very young children, may not understand that there is something wrong with the behavior, often they instinctively sense that it is not right. This not-rightness stems from the behavior taking place in secret, typically along with admonitions not to tell anyone, “not even Mommy”. As a result of this, maintaining the secret may feel like a betrayal of the parent, adding another level of shame. Young children also may perceive themselves as having been complicit in the naughty behavior, as though it were realistic for them to have refused. The very young may have no words to describe what happened or how they feel – so they say nothing and bear the shame alone.
Teens may not report abuse for the same reasons – fear and shame. In addition, they may, at the time of the sexual contact, be unaware of the emotional complications it will later cause them. With the discovery of their own sexuality, they may feel flattered at being invited into a more intimate relationship with a respected adult. They may not see the frank sexual behavior coming and, once it does, feel that they will only implicate themselves if they speak up. Some may even think they are mature to handle this “relationship” and thus not see it as abuse. Some may want to protect the abuser out of a confused notion of “love”. Others may want to protect a family member whom they know would be devastated to learn the truth.
Of course, some children do tell – and tell right away. Some do not tell until they are older and more confident. Why some children cover up their abuse and others speak up is not entirely understood. But it is never the child’s fault if they do not speak up. They are children.
Also covering up the abuse of the child is the perpetrator. While the motive for this may seem obvious, it may be more complicated than simply wanting to avoid punishment. While some abusers rationalize their behavior, it is not unusual for perpetrators to feel profound shame about it. The shame and the rationalization may vary in prominence with changing circumstances. Although the sin is far more arrant, the shame sensation is not unlike how most of us feel when we knowingly sin. There is a shame at having been so weak. Allowing others to know of this weakness may feel unbearable to the perpetrator, leading to elaborate ruses to conceal or deny their behavior, even when the evidence is compelling.
Another group we may not often consider are the other children who know about the abuse while not victims themselves. Siblings and best friends may know, by rumors about the perpetrator, by recognizing the signs in the child-victim or by holding confidences. These children are indirect victims of the perpetrator, sharing in the victim’s fear and shame, while often wanting to protect them. As with the victim, it is not their fault if they do not speak up – they too are children and cannot be expected to bear this responsibility.
Lastly, many adults, knowing or suspecting sexual abuse of a child, may engage in covering up. This includes parents, other family members and neighbors, as well as adults in positions of authority, such bishops, school teachers, principals and therapists. Mandatory reporting became the law for many professionals for a reason: adults were not always reporting physical or sexual abuse they knew of or suspected.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), two primary reasons for adults not speaking up to protect the child include fear and shame. Fear may occur in the adult for a number of reasons: if he/she is being abused or controlled by the abuser also (e.g. a battered spouse); or if the adult was raped or sexually abused him/herself and has not acknowledged or worked through the trauma. There may be fears of retribution from others, especially among family members. If the abuser is family’s primary or sole breadwinner, there may be a fear of impoverishment if the abuser is imprisoned.
Shame is also very powerful among adults who, while not abusers themselves, know of abuse perpetrated by someone close to them. Who would not feel shame in admitting that their own father (or mother), for example, sexually violated their children? Often this type of shame leads to denial – it didn’t really happen, I’m sure the child exaggerated, etc. It probably isn’t what it looks like.
Because of the desire to avoid the shame, either for oneself or another, rationalizations often enter into the denial process. Some examples:
“He’s been working so hard lately. It was probably just a slip in judgment – he said he won’t do it again and I believe him.”
“She’s an alcoholic; I’m sure she wouldn’t do that if she were sober. Sending her to AA should take care of the problem.”
While these rationalizations seem so naive or ignorant when viewed hypothetically, it can be quite different when someone knows, loves or holds the offender in high regard before learning of the behavior. Example:
“I just can’t believe that Fr. John would do something like that. He is such a good and holy priest. He obviously loves children and someone probably just misunderstood his affection.”
Indeed, such comments are not unusual when a shocked congregation first learns of allegations made against their beloved priest. It is hard for us to imagine such good and evil existing side-by-side in one person. We tend to see things in black-and-white. A person is either good or bad; he/she cannot be both.
Of course there are many more selfish and sinful reasons that lead adults to cover up sexual abuse. These reasons might include wanting to protect their own reputations, imagining them sullied by association. Others may secretly think that sexual contact with a teenager is not such a big deal; just a little “lapse” that can be confessed and forgiven like any other sin.
Still others may believe that it is their duty to keep such things out of the public eye, lest the faithful be scandalized (which, of course, is happening now on a very large scale). The call to offer forgiveness to sinners may also be considered as part of the Christian duty, with the distorted belief that mercy precludes prosecution. After all, we have no stories of Jesus telling someone that their sins are forgiven – and then handing them over to the authorities. Forgiveness is absolute and the confessional sacred.
While clearly distortions, these beliefs can pass muster in some minds because there is a tiny kernel of truth in them. However, the towering falsehood inherent in them involves imagining that the Church could be somehow be served by concealing and even enabling such gross violations of the Gospel message.
If nothing else, perhaps this article demonstrates one reality: that we human beings are incredibly complicated creatures.
The notion of “ancestral sin”* is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the incestuous family, where generation after generation has experienced sexual manipulation or violation and, once emotionally damaged or inured to the dysfunction, pass it on to yet another generation despite the irrationality of doing so.
The Church, as a human ecclesiastical institution, is far from being immune to such transmission of sin through the generations. The sins of one subgroup justifies the sins of others to the point where there is more hatred and infighting in the Church than there is in most secular organizations.
In one sense, this should not surprise us. The evil one most especially wants to disrupt the work of the Church and is therefore going to sow the seeds of lust and pride and vengefulness where they will do the most damage.
Still, seeing daily evidence of our institutional failings portrayed in the media is enough to shake even the most devout Catholic.
We want to defend the Church, having received so many graces and blessings from it – but how can we possibly defend the indefensible?
Fortunately, we do not have to. Our faith is rooted in something far deeper than the human ecclesiastical institution we call “Church”.
We have our roots in Christ Himself and in His Holy Spirit Who guides us through all peril. Nothing evil happens without our loving Father knowing of it – and knowing how it will be ultimately defeated.
To Him all glory be.
*I realize that, from a theological perspective, my use of the term “ancestral sin” is not quite accurate. However, I could think of no better term to capture the idea of how spiritual disease begets more spiritual disease, on both a local and a universal scale.