Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is the sexual abuse of children by priests inevitable?

Cravatts: Is the sexual abuse of children by priests inevitable?
By Richard Cravatts/Guest columnist
The MetroWest Daily News
Posted Mar 28, 2010 @ 12:31 AM
The recent revelations of yet another history of rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Ireland, not to mention Pope Benedict XVI's own complicity in covering up instances of such abuse when he was an archbishop in Germany in the 1980s, still leaves unanswered and troubling questions about the psychology of the perpetrators and the motivation of Church leaders who ignored these morally-defective, criminal actions and allowed them to continue.

What is it about the Catholic Church that attracted the many priests who would go on to sexually abuse hundreds of pre- and post-pubescent children, both in Europe and the United States?

Answering those questions gives clues about why the Church's scandal happened, and, more importantly, how Church leadership and lay professionals can begin to unravel the psychosocial trap into which many troubled priests have seemingly fallen.

The first, critical question is whether the very process of accepting celibacy and entering the priesthood at an emotionally immature age level predispose priests to conflicting notions about human sexuality, whether, according to Gary Willis in his insightful book, "Papal Sin," "the celibate discipline for a whole class of men (not just for the spiritually gifted individual) is a false, because unrealizable, ideal."

According to observers, these are real issues, precisely because these individuals make immense decisions regarding their psychological and moral life at an early age and these decisions are not necessarily based on realistic expectations. "Many priests entered seminary before they reached mature psychosexual development," says Donna Markham, Ph.D., president of Southdown Institute in Ontario, a treatment center for church professionals. "For some men, the institutional life in the same-sex environment may have served to further postpone social and sexual development. For these men, at the age of their ordination in their mid- to late twenties, they were intellectually and physically adults, but emotionally they remained far younger."

Coupled with the arrested emotional development of seminarians is the powerlessness they experience in living within a structured, rigid, autocratic culture of men in which they have no power and are not treated like fully developed adults. "Generally," observes Dr. Leslie Lothstein, Director of Psychology at the Institute of Living, "the social ecology of seminary training for Catholic priests isolates them from women, so you have an all-male society in which a hierarchical structure is very profound, in which the people at the top share traits of invincibility, invulnerability, omnipotence, omniscience."

According to Dr. Lothstein, the negative legacy of life in the seminary is compounded once a young priest leaves this structured culture and finds himself immersed in a world foreign and fraught with psychic danger. Emotionally immature, unsure of his true sexual state and impulses, a new priest is more likely to act out both as an act of defiance against the Church's stringency, and also because he is suddenly faced with temporal temptations. "All of a sudden," Dr. Lothstein says, "the lack of psychosexual emotional development in these priests emerges as a kind of regressed state, so they're with kids, the excitement is invigorating, the energy is vital, and they get involved with it."

Part of the "acting out" also may involve defiance of the very religious organization to which they have pledged their lives. In fact, experts agree that unresolved sexual, emotional, and physical events in the priests' early histories are often used by them to rationalize abusive and reckless behavior, and frequently are redirected consciously or unconsciously toward the Church itself. "This anger," noted the Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based Catholic Medical Association in a report to the Catholic Church, "was often directed toward the Church, the Holy Father, and the religious authorities ... This appears to be a two way street: those who are sexually active dissent from the Church's teaching on sexuality to justify their own actions, while those who adopt rebellious ideas on sexual morality are more vulnerable to become sexually active, because they have little to no defense against sexual temptations."

As troubling as the developmental pathologies of some priests may be, just as grave a concern is the not atypical failure on the part of the Pope and others in the Church hierarchy to protect children by keeping known abusive priests away from potential victims. How could the Church leadership oversee such moral imbecility? Former priest Tom Keneally thinks that the Church's own unswerving belief in its own righteousness gave its leaders, these men of perceived "invincibility, invulnerability, omnipotence, omniscience," a false sense of hope in controlling the unraveling scandal. "An ingrained unworldliness has also informed the church's handling of the abuse crisis," Keneally wrote.

With this belief in the possibility of forgiveness and of redemption, it was possible for bishops and others to overlook or forgive seemingly unforgivable behavior on the part of their priests, believing reports from Church-hired professionals that the abusing priests' moral deformity had been reshaped by faith and repentance. Thus, to Bishop Thomas Vose Daily, who was involved in the initial cover up of a Boston-based priest, John Geoghan, who was implicated in the Massachusetts abuse scandal, Geoghan himself was the victim needing protection and redemption, not the hundreds of children he exploited.

"To Daily, Geoghan was not a criminal or a rapist he was a lost sheep," observed the investigative staff of the Boston Globe in "Betrayal," their account of the Church's crisis. "'I am a pastor who has to go after the Lord's sheep and find them and bring them back into the fold and give them the kind of guidance and discipline them in such a way that they will come back,' Daily said."

Observers of the current crisis act with horror at the apparent lack of concern by the Church leaders for the real victims here the abused children not the "lost sheep" priests who were repeatedly shielded by bishops, cardinals, and Pope. To Garry Willis, there is a fundamental Church failing in its leaders having ignored the reality of the crisis, one that is endemic but must be resolved if the Church is to heal its wounds. "Looking the other way is a deeply ingrained habit and necessity, a tactic of survival, for men whose lives are honeycombed with furtive acts," he suggested. "One's own life, or that of one's friends, or of people one must depend on, will not admit any very severe scrutiny. It would be dangerous in terms of scandal and lay disappointment, for those being observant themselves to let light flood the shadowy world of secrecy and evasion and misrepresentation that is the priestly way of life."

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., is the director of Boston University's Program in Publishing at the Center for Professional Education.

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