Betrayal of the Flock:
Understanding Abuse by Priests

By Richard Cravatts, Ph.D.
The Manila Times [ Manila]
February 24, 2003

While the recent resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has brought closure to one aspect of the Catholic Church's widening child abuse scandal, it still leaves unanswered - and troubling - questions about the psychology of the perpetrators and those Church leaders who ignored and enabled their criminal actions.

What is it about the Church that attracted the many priests who would go on to sexually abuse hundreds of pre- and post-pubescent children?

What moral machinations, specific to the Church, could allow the serial complicity of the church hierarchy who ignored wrongdoing and shuffled offending priests from parish to parish?

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 20s, 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, autocratic culture of men in which they 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, emotionally immature, unsure of his true sexual state and impulses, is 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 ... and they get involved with it. And you start to see the imprudence, the poor judgment."

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, "was often directed toward the Church ... 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 Boston's Cardinal Law and others in the Church hierarchy nationwide 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, and its self-granted ability to forgive and redeem, gave its leaders, these men of perceived "invincibility, invulnerability, omnipotence, omniscience," a false sense of hope in controlling the psychosexual behavior of some priests. "An ingrained unworldliness has ... informed the church's handling of the abuse crisis," Keneally recently wrote. "Catholics have long believed that the seven sacraments ... make up a comprehensive prescription for whatever ails the human spirit ... A commonly heard aphorism during my youth was that God never sent a temptation for which he did not also send the grace to combat it."

With this belief in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, it was possible for Cardinal Law and others to overlook or forgive seemingly unforgivable behavior on the part of their priests, believing reports, generally from Church-hired professionals, that the abusing priests' sexually abusive tendencies had been reshaped by faith and repentance. Thus, to Bishop Thomas Vose Daily, for instance, who was involved in the initial cover up of John Geoghan's abuse, 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 Jason Barry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a troubling saga of serial priest sexual abuse in Lafayette, Louisiana in the 1980s, there is a fundamental Church failing in its leaders having looked away and exhibiting what he characterizes as an "appalling indifference to children." "Despite a noble history of voluntary celibacy," Barry wrote, "too many bishops - shut off from affective bonding, unlettered in the vocabulary of child raising, swamped in homosexuality and pederasty, hiding behind lawyers, mired in the muck of the media - were blinded by their flaw and disgraced the People of God."


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