|SEXUAL ABUSE BY PRIESTS...WHY? STATUS REPORT 1992|
By A. W. Richard Sipe Chicago, October 17, 1992
I. Four categories of priests who abuse minors are considered: the genetically locked; the psychodynamically locked; the situationally locked; and the morally locked. The Church seldom talks about the last two categories which involve specifically the Church's celibate/sexual system and evil.
II. The defenses and resistances that the official Church uses to resist dealing with the problems of sexual abuse are ineffective and demonstrate the long-term complicity of the celibate/sexual system with the origins and maintenance of the problem.
III. The current challenge to the priesthood is the most critical since the Protestant Reformation. Only a thoroughgoing transformation of the celibate/sexual system will adequately deal with the degeneration of the clerical organization of which child abuse is the clearest and most prominent example.
My friends, welcome to Wittenberg . . . . [the problem of sexual abuse we see today is only the tip of the iceberg. If we follow the problem to its foundations it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican]
The historical significance of this meeting, which transcends all of us individually and even the immediate subject matter, cannot escape any of us here. This meeting is the first of its kind ever to be held within Catholic Christendom. This is the first time that a group of Catholic Christians has gathered to evaluate publicly the celibate/sexual functioning of its clergy.
This is not a time for vengeance or vituperation. This is a time for truth and transformation. We stand on the brink of the most profound reformation of the Catholic clergy and its celibate/sexual system since the time when Martin Luther challenged clerical integrity on October 31, 1517.
You have gathered here today to give visible witness as well as voice, substance, and story to a reality that many say does not exist: sexual activity and even sexual abuse by those who claim the rights and privileges of the clerical state and presumed celibacy.
You are like a lighthouse, a beacon of warning set high to illuminate clearly treacherous rocks and horrendous destructive shoals that would otherwise go unmarked. You are like the tip of an iceberg. You are the lonely, the isolated who know cold and harsh reality where you should have received safe and protective passage. You are the courageous who are not calling attention to yourselves for motives of self-aggrandizement but rather to save others from a fate that no one deserves. You stand heroically to save the Church and its priesthood from destruction to others and of itself. Fundamentally you are challenging the Church to return to the priesthood that is an authentic reflection of Jesus Christ. You know that any lesser goal is unworthy of your anger and crucifixion.
Your task is one of witness and warning. My task today is one of explorer and cartographer. I am challenged to examine the perilous rocks that surround the base of your beacon. I am commissioned to fathom the dark uncharted waters that hide the foundations of the iceberg you are'-so courageously exposing.
My observations and conclusions are organized into three sections. First, I will explain the four major categories and their subcategories of priests who sexually abuse minors. Second, I will analyze the major defenses and resistances to change used by the ecclesiastical structure to keep a system of sexual abuse in place. Third, I will summarize the areas that must be addressed to bring about a change in the celibate/sexual system, that develops, supports, and even encourages sexual abuse.
II WHICH PRIESTS BECOME SEXUAL ABUSERS?
There are four main categories of priests who strongly tend to cross the appropriate psychic and physical boundaries between a religious minister and a minor. These are: those predisposed by a genetic "lock"; those predetermined by a psychodynamic lock; those conditioned by a social/situational lock; and finally, those rooted in a moral lock.
Lock is the term I use to delineate the extreme end of each spectrum. The term does not mean that men even at the end of this spectrum cannot ever control their behavior or that the behavior is impervious to any form of treatment or grace. Lock does mean, however, that given ordinary circumstances and nonintervention these men will inevitably act out and sexually abuse.
The subsets of each category are those people who have a vulnerability (but not a lock) based in their genetic, psychodynamic, social/situational, or moral endowment, but they are less likely to cross appropriate boundaries unless mental or physical illness, trauma, or substance dependence influences personality regression and activates latent potentials for abuse.
Also, the four factors may be interactive and reinforce or exacerbate each other. They may also be mitigated by other factors of character or circumstance.
1. The Genetic Lock
When I began collecting data on the celibate/sexual practice of Roman Catholic priests in 1960, 1 believed, along with most of my contemporaries, that psychosexual maturity was an approachable norm that would inevitably follow birth and growth, unless some factors of nurture or environment derailed, delayed, or "perverted" that process. Since that time the research of Fred Berlin at Johns Hopkins, among others, has convinced me that some of the priests I have observed fit a category observed and recorded among other sexual offenders: those whose object of sexual attraction is genetically determined much as their gender (sexual orientation and level or sexual drive) is.
Although future genetic, endocrine, and biochemical research will greatly refine our understanding of these men and their development and behavior, it is clear that our comprehension of sexual behavior will always have to consider biogenetic factors. The simplest way for me to grasp this reality--that certain people are genetically predisposed or preordained to sexual attraction to a certain age group--is by way of analogy to mental/intellectual capacity. It is known from the time of their birth that certain persons will never attain "normal" adult intellectual levels of function.
The most fortuitous of circumstances, the greatest care and attention which of course these people deserve can only assist them to function at their optimal intellectual capacity, which may be that of a six- or nine-year-old.
Unfortunately, in a less than ideal environment or worse, negative physical or psychological factors usually exacerbate the genetic limitation.
At first it may be hard to believe that certain persons are genetically determined and confined to a level of sexual development usually attained by a child or an adolescent. We would like to think that everyone has the capacity for an adult-to-adult sexually reproductive, physically, psychically, and spiritually satisfying and committed relationship--if they would only try or if we could only help them enough. It is not so.
Human nature has programmed into itself a bio-sexual diversity, the scope and object of which we are only beginning to fathom.
There are a certain number of men thus limited who either knowingly or intuitively select the priesthood as the best place to live out their lives.
Ideally, if they can embrace celibate development, their sexual drive will be redirected, and their energies can be used in socially productive ways. The problem is that neither sexuality nor celibacy is well taught to priests, nor is the latter commonly practiced or achieved by the clergy. In spite of all of these handicaps, I know of priests who almost miraculously (certainly by special grace) have achieved celibate function when they are clearly locked at a level of sexual development, which, were they to be sexually active, would cause them to be true pedophiles or ephebophiles.
If the genetically locked priest becomes sexually active, as is most often the case, he will inevitably gravitate to minors who are the age level of his own lock or predetermination. His choice of sexual object will be further influenced by two other separate factors which are also genetically determined or influenced: sexual orientation and level of sexual desire. At the most extreme, these factors can conspire to develop the most driven and exploitative of person. (These are sexual predators of minors.)
2. The Psychodynamic Lock
There is another group of priests who seem to have been treated more even-handedly by nature: their genetic endowment does not seem to be the over-determining factor of their choice of sexual object. Rather, they are men who follow most closely Freud's observation of psychosexual development. Factors within early object relationships, often coupled with early sexual over-stimulation and experiences, conspire to lock the person at one level of psychosexual development or make him extremely vulnerable to regression to sexual attraction to minors. After all, it is part of normal development for boys to be affectively attracted to their own sex at a prepubertal stage of development. It is normal for adolescent boys to be sexually attracted to adolescent girls (and even boys). But these attractions most commonly mature, more or less evenly, and are integrated with intellectual, physical, and social growth over time.
Nevertheless, the path of integrated psychosexual development is not open to everyone equally. Psychic factors can be powerful enough to arrest or lock someone into a stage of development or may make persons of a certain age overvalued and over-invested as sexual objects. This may be coupled with over-inhibition or denigration of adult women as sexual companions--those who might most commonly be thought of as desirable love objects.
Freud's theories that I consider valid, if incomplete, are too well known to belabor here. I am convinced that the biogenetic and the psychogenetic factors that influence sexual behavior (nature and nurture) do not act in isolation or exclusion of each other, and they, along with cognitive factors (learning) account for what we observe psychiatrically in men who sexually abuse minors.
Interim Summary and Reorientation--I believe that the ideas just stated conform closely to the conclusions reached by clinicians at The Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic as well as the observations of Dr. Gene G. Abel of Atlanta.
These conclusions apply across the board to men who become sexually involved with minors. The precedent-setting guidelines of Cardinal Bernardin and the Chicago Commission on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests as well as those established in the Archdiocese of St. Paul (1988) and the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts (1992) and Duluth, Minnesota (1992) also seem to respond to some configuration of this psychiatric understanding of child sexual abuse. They are on solid psychiatric foundations; the interventions outlined in the guidelines respond to the medico-legal problems of the perpetrator and the victim.
The outlines seem to imply that these groups have come to a satisfactory understanding of why some priests abuse children. The implied argument goes like this: "A small fraction of priests (no larger than any other segment of the population) sexually abuses children because they are psychiatrically ill, either because of genetic (biological) or psychogenetic (psychological) forces. Such behavior is illegal and harmful to minors. Offenders will be treated psychiatrically; full cooperation with the legal system is pledged. Victims and their families are to be comforted and compensated."
Of course this policy and understanding are a leap forward from the way priest abusers and victims were treated only recently. I wish to take nothing away from this progress or the credit due to those courageous churchmen and women who are assuming some leadership in these advances. But I would be remiss if I did not point out that we know a great deal more about sexual abuse by Catholic priests than that policy implies.
It is wise to draw from the psychiatric knowledge and research available. Much of psychiatric (bio-psycho-social) theory will be useful and applicable to those who wish to understand and treat clergy offenders. That knowledge is indispensable to preventing and combating this serious problem.
However, psychiatry does not cover the whole truth. If it did, the task would be simply to identify the sick among us, or even the potentially sick, and make them known so the public could be protected. Therapy could be initiated to heal the victim and the offender, and prosecution and incarceration could be effected where indicated or the law demanded. If psychiatry were the whole truth we could rid ourselves of this plague. In addition, we could guard the entry gates to ministry by sophisticated psychological testing.
Unfortunately, the problem is not merely the psychiatric dilemma of sexual abuse by men who happen to be Catholic priests. The realities of the social situation and moral climate of the Roman Catholic priesthood are just as important as factors in the perpetuation of child sexual abuse as are the genetic and psychodynamic. And many churchmen know exactly what I am talking about. These aspects of abuse must be confronted with vigor equal to that of the psychiatric.
Psychiatry can be misused or overused, and I have seen both happen in my career of studying the interface between religion and psychiatry. Not everyone who acts out sexually is psychiatrically ill. (Just as not every communist who dissented from the party line in Russia was mentally ill, although the government and psychiatry cooperated in treating all dissenters as patients.)
Certainly there are firm but fine lines between what is sexually abusive and what is dissent from Church discipline on celibacy for its priests. The question is this: Why has the Church been so sensitive and proactive in response to questions of dissent from sexual discipline (married priests, ordination of women) and so blind, defensive, and reactive when it comes to questions of frank sexual abuse? Psychiatry must not pretend that it can answer that question!
Priests may be "ordinary men," as stated in the 1970 Kennedy-Hackler study of the priesthood, but they do not exist in an "ordinary" social-moral culture.
Theirs is a culture-apart, bounded by mandatory celibacy, exclusively male, where power, control, employment, and even financial reward are dependent on the exclusion of women and the appearance of a sex-free existence. No one can say that this culture has nothing to do with the problem of child sexual abuse. In fact, my thirty years in studying the celibate/sexual adjustment of priests and the fifty years of experience of Dr. Leo H. Bartemeier, which he so generously put at my disposal, demonstrate clearly that this cultural factor is indeed crucial and pivotal in some instances of sexual abuse.
3. The Social/Situational Lock
At this point I wish to return to a third group of priests who abuse children and who do not fit the standard psychiatric categories despite their having had sex with minors. This category is specifically clerical; it may have analogies in other populations, but the predominant lock is social/situational. These men are basically healthy. They fit well into clerical culture. To do so, of course, they have to sacrifice their sexuality or suspend their psychosexual development. The celibate process that is meant to redirect sexual energy is not engaged.
What is this social/situational setting like? Intellectually, conformity to set answers rather than free inquiry is rewarded. Theologically, it is a man's world where God is Father, Son, and masculine spirit. The ideal and only woman venerated is mother or virginal (forbidden objects of sexual fantasy).
Emotionally it is a world in which men are revered and powerful (pope, bishop, rector), and boys are treasured as the future of the Church.
As I have said elsewhere, it is clear that the institutional Church is in a preadolescent stage of psychosexual development.
This is a period typically prior to eleven years of age, a time at which boys prefer association with their own sex, girls are avoided and held in disdain, often as a guise for fear of women as well as the boys of their own as-yet un-solidified sexuality. Sex generally is rigidly denied externally while secretly explored. The rigidity extends to strict rules of inclusion and exclusion. Control and avoidance are of primary concern.
This institutional structure, although it surely includes individuals who have matured beyond it, is dominated and entrenched in a level of functioning that cannot face the sexual realities of adolescence, let alone mature male and female equality and sexuality.
This is an atmosphere and culture in which some men who are not genetically or psychodynamically locked and who otherwise would not do so, do get sexually involved with minors. Those men who are socially/situationally locked are usually devoted to the institution. They play by the Church's rules. In many instances they are loving--often genuinely so--to their victims. These men do not tend to be overly narcissistic or exploitative; but they do fail to move either celibately or psychologically beyond the social/situational limits of their religious institution.
These men do not tend to come to public or legal attention in as great a number as those compulsively driven because their behavior is often a passing phase of their celibate/sexual growth. Certainly their behavior is not innocuous.
However, in my interviews with both these men and their minor partners, now adults, I found that not all of the victims were equally regretful or resentful of the experience. Neither could all of the priests extricate themselves from their sexual pattern.
These men cannot be screened out of the ministry as candidates. They are products of the system. The celibate/sexual culture they so willingly absorb forms a psychological and moral field that makes affective exchanges and love between adult male (often the hero) and the boy or girl admirer "natural." It fits. A boy thus involved sometimes grows up to be the priest involved.
4. The Moral Lock
There is also another group of priests who sexually abuse minors, who do not deserve the benefit of psychiatric diagnosis. Nor do they merit understanding as simple products of social/situational conditioning. They go beyond the limits of any institutional inadequacy. The category that defines them is clearly a moral one. They coldly, calculatingly, by design involve themselves sexually with minors because they want to; they choose it, not compulsively, indiscriminately, or impulsively. They divorce what they teach, what they require of others, from what they stand for in the eyes of others; in short, what they do is to make a moral choice--they commit a sin.
Let me say it even more clearly: what we are talking about is the category of evil, not illness. (Solzhenitsyn said, "Evil is not a division between groups of people, us and them. It is a line that runs through each human heart.")
Psychiatry does not make sin obsolete. This group of priests is not the most likely to be found in a psychiatric clinic for treatment. The priest in this category is not likely to come to the attention of legal authorities. He is too calculating; he picks his partners carefully, often from within the celibate system or from those groups of youth who are least likely to complain. These men are satisfied with this life and adjustment.
These priests can be most commonly found in the halls of power, in positions of responsibility. They are not so much victims of the system; they sometimes make the system work. Examples from this group are available, if (rarely) diverted or prosecuted.
Because men who represent these last two categories may also have character flaws and personality deficiencies, they are not to be subsumed within the psychiatric pale any more than men who have genuine psychiatric illness are to be medically ignored merely because their behavior also has significant moral implications. The core cause of each group must be kept in focus and addressed appropriately. Men from each category are liable for criminal and civil litigation. The legal system has been extremely persuasive in forcing a response from Church authority to the problem of sexual abuse by priests. In fact, the law has been the only force so far that has moved the Church to any serious consideration of reform. However, neither the law nor psychiatry can reform the celibate/sexual system of the Church or address fundamentally the evil that exists within it and in some cases because of it. Bishops should lead this reform. By analyzing the defenses and resistances employed so far against change we may understand the problem further and offer some hope for serious transformation.
III. WHY IS THE CHURCH BLIND TO ABUSE?
Defenses and Resistances
Let us now proceed to the second area of observations about the sexual abuse of minors: the major defenses and resistances to change (or reform) demonstrated by the ecclesiastical structure, which keeps the system in place, regardless of whether the problem is genetic, psychodynamic, situational, or moral in origin.
In 1976 Dr. Leo H. Bartemeier and I were struggling intensely to understand the scope of the problem of sexual abuse by priests. The main factor pushing us was the proliferation of state laws that required physicians and clinicians to report to state agencies any occurrence of sexual or physical abuse. The laws posed a challenge to the traditional clinical nature of inpatient and especially outpatient care.
Although I was only midway into the study of celibate practice, begun in 1960, this pressure prompted us to review carefully the data from my sixteen years of experience. -Crucial, of course, was the forty-six years of psychiatric experience with priests that Dr. Bartemeier brought to my work at that time. I give him full credit for his wisdom in determining that approximately six percent of Roman Catholic clergy have some sexual contact with minors. He was deeply convinced that seminary training produced, as he said, "emotional thirteen-year olds."
Since the early 1930s, Dr. Bartemeier served as psychiatric consultant to a host of bishops and religious superiors, including Archbishop Amleto Cicognani and Cardinals Mooney and Krol. He was supremely conscious of the delicacy and importance of keeping the Church free from scandal. As I look back, I realize that in many ways we too were part of an atmosphere that confused confidentiality and secrecy.
I can appreciate that many bishops have still not solved this dilemma. Although difficult, "Secrecy must be distinguished from confidentiality.
Confidentiality is a private personal and privileged communication that must be protected at great sacrifice (not only out of professional duty) because it is in the service of (and necessary for) personal transformation and growth. It may also be necessary to protect due process. Secrecy is a stance that reserves access to knowledge in the service of power, control, or manipulation" (America, Hay 18, 1991). Secrecy is often rationalized as the only way to avoid scandal. (St. Paul knew that when it came to religion, Truth is always a scandal.)
I have spent my professional life at the interface between religion and psychiatry. If there is one phrase that captures the essence of both processes it is, "The Truth shall make you free."
The process of facing the truth is the core and essence of transformation--religious or psychological.
One of the traditional ways psychotherapy intervenes to help people face the truth is to analyze the defenses and the resistances they use to elude the truth and avoid change.
I have already mentioned the first line of clerical defense against facing the problem of sexual abuse by priests: the rationalization that secrecy is necessary to avoid scandal. rather Andrew Greeley, Jason Barry, and especially you who have come to this conference are powerful witnesses that such rationalization and secrecy are in themselves a great religious scandal.
Dr. Bartemeier and I have known since 1976 that six percent of priests in America have a sexual problem with minors (two percent of priests are psychiatrically defined pedophiles). The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has had a summary of our study on file since September 1986, before any public statements were made about our study or its findings. Privately some bishops and religious superiors have acknowledged that our findings are verified by their own experience as Church officials. Personally I have never had the audacity to believe that I was the only one who knew this reality. Both Dr. Bartemeier and I felt that we were the codifiers of problems well known in the inner circles of the Church.
Public denial by Church officials has been almost monolithic. "There is no problem" was the response even in the mid-1980s. "There is a small problem", as the acknowledgment in 1988. Most currently, denial takes the form, "There is a problem, but it is no larger than among any other segment of the population."
Dr. Michael Stone, who has researched sexual abuse, estimates that fifteen percent of the population generally is victimized by child sexual abuse (largely incest). It would of course be a sad admission indeed if priests had no better track record than the general population in this matter. What an indictment if true!--that clergy, selected, trained, publicly acknowledged moral leaders, official representatives of Jesus Christ, would be not more moral, dependable, honest and integrated than the general population.
This denial is witnessed across the board: priests living in rectories "seeing" sexual behavior of other priests but "blind" to these actions of their confreres. When confronted, remarks like "Father is only human" demonstrate how alienated the clerical community is from its own sexuality and unlettered in the celibate process.
3. Public Relations Offensive
There is another category of defense which borders on denial: the public relations offensive. In Baltimore after a series of articles on priestly celibacy/sexuality was published in 10,88, a senior editor told me that the newspaper management agreed with officials in the archdiocesan office "that no articles of similar content would be printed for the following three years." Block "bad" publicity (even if it's true). A major line of defense is the power of money, and many Catholic businessmen can easily be mobilized in what they see as the defense of their bishop. Hush money is also used to keep victims silent. All are secret maneuvers, of course.
Another line of public relations defense is to accuse the press of "priest bashing." The all-time prototype of this offensive is the specter of a Prince of the Church calling down the wrath of God on a newspaper for CREATING the problem of clerical sexual abuse, as if it were a media event (Boston Globe re. rather James Porter).
I know this pressure from my own diocese (and the NCCB) whose main concern with the publication of my book was one of a PR offensive. They wanted to know "how to respond" to the press. They, of course, did so without reading the book. My archbishop commissioned the head of the seminary to write a public rebuttal (which he dutifully did again without reading my book). People were told not to consult me; invitations to scheduled talks were withdrawn. These are relatively mild forms of intimidation compared with what victims of clergy sexual abuse have experienced.
You who have approached the Church officials to report abuse are living witnesses to the threats, humiliation, power plays, and unconscionable intimidation at the disposal of the institution touted to speak for Jesus Christ. We must remind ourselves of the words of theologian Romano Guardini: "The Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified daily." This does not justify the actions of those who try to silence your witness, but it does comfort us that we are suffering, hopefully redemptively, with Christ, at the hands of those who do violence to Him through you.
5. Blaming the Victim
Perhaps the depth of self-degradation which the officials of the Church have used to avoid, deny, and rationalize abuse as a clerical problem is to blame the victim. A bishop (Canadian) said publicly in response to reports of sexual abuse by clergy that the victims were "street-wise" kids who led innocent and naive priests astray! Who is to take the responsibility for producing naive and seducible moral leaders?
Is it right for officials of the Church to use power, pressure, legal manipulation, intimidation, and hush money to keep secret a problem of sexual misconduct in order to avoid scandal and save the reputation of the Church? I will let others debate the morality of Church politics, simply recalling a defensive position employed by ecclesiastical officials centuries ago who-said, "is it not right that one man should die to save the nation?"
I will confine myself to a psychological analysis of the defenses the official Church has used vis-à-vis sexual abuse by its members. Their defenses have not worked and will not work. The defenses used reveal a deep, desperate, and knowing personal involvement in the problem.
The Church knows and has known for a long time a great deal about the sexual activity of its priests. It has looked the other way, tolerated, covered up, and simply lied about the broad spectrum of sexual activity of its priests, bound by the law but not the reality of celibacy.
Cardinal Seper could say at the 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome, "I am not at all optimistic that celibacy is in fact being observed." You at this conference share the cardinal's reservations! (Are we the only ones who know?)
The desperation of the Church defenses and the vehemence of its resistance to sexual reform in the Church only highlight the need for truth and transformation. The official Church structure is a bit like an alcoholic who hopes that just one last drink or binge will really make all the pain go away. It won't.
IV. TRANSFORMATION & REFORM
Is reform possible? An alcoholic problem is not cured by merely giving up drinking. What is needed? A spiritual transformation that progressively takes full responsibility for one's actions and their consequences, reevaluates relationships, and institutes a new way of life and being.
The syndicated columnist Michael McManus has suggested that this group (V.O.C.A.L.), if it used its I inherent power, could force the adoption within a year of Cardinal Bernardin's plan in every diocese in the United States. Put on your Nikes and just do it!
That would be a great start. In addition, there are fourteen facts (truths) in the area of its celibate/sexual practice that the Church must face to reform (transform) itself.
Only a thoroughgoing reform of the celibate/sexual structure of the Church will really address the problem of sexual abuse. Sexual reform of the clergy is the most significant challenge that the priesthood has faced since the Protestant Reformation. Only a transformation similar to the sixteenth-century Reformation--only a penetrating reevaluation and reform of the clergy--will meet the current sexual crisis.
There are those voices within the Church that are still ignoring the celibate/sexual reality. These voices reinforce denial and avoidance. They want to strike up the band of public relations and secretly rearrange the deck chairs. Someone has to tell them that they have booked passage on the sexual Titanic.
Jesus Christ is not on the Titanic; He is where He always is to be found--with His suffering people in the small lifeboats, tossed and buffeted by storms. In our -fear and terror He may seem to be asleep; we and He may seem powerless. Have peace; our power is in Truth, and that is far more secure and trustworthy than any sleek and supposedly unsinkable vessel. I hope you derive a modicum of consolation from the light of truth you have shed by your witness. It stands as a warning of danger and also a guide to safe harbor for all.