Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron
The current crisis that is shaking the Roman Catholic hierarchy is profound. The story emerging in the media suggests strongly that those with the power to protect children from priests who were sexual predators were far more intent on protecting the image of the institution than the well-being of hundreds if not thousands of innocent and powerless young victims.
These charges have been bubbling in the media for many months, but in recent weeks a tipping point seems to have been reached.
The core questions that continue to be asked are, first, how the abuse could have happened at all, and second, why weren’t
protective interventions made swiftly once the problems began to surface. In some ways, the second is the more profound issue.
Before responding to those questions, however, I believe it is critical to understand the dynamics and damage of child abuse, sexual abuse in particular.
Although All Forms of Child Abuse Are Damaging, Sexual Abuse May Be the Worst
As someone who has worked as a psychotherapist with a large number of adults who were sexually abused as children, I know first-hand how destructive this particular wound can be and how much it can affect negatively virtually all areas of an adult’s life. My impression is that sexual abuse may be the worst form of abuse.
To better understand the destructiveness of the sexual abuse of children, it needs to be put in the context of child abuse of all kinds, including overt physical and emotional abuse, as well as the less obvious abuse that is the legacy of neglect and abandonment.
In the most general sense, child abuse can leave an unhealed wound that will boil over from time to time in a variety of ways for a lifetime. Objective measures of the abuse (intensity, frequency and so on) do not always correlate with the degree or extent of the damage that the individual suffers. Some people appear to manage objectively intense abuse, whereas others seem to be crippled by abuse that is much less intense.
Child Abuse Is Hierarchical, Top to Bottom
Child abuse, as I am defining the term, refers to interpersonal actions between an adult and a child where something is done to the child, taken from the child, or (in the case of neglect) not given to the child, and the child has little or no power to stop, prevent or control the actions of the adult.
It is power that is expressed in a hierarchical manner, from the older to the younger. The abuser is using his or her power in a top-down fashion.
The Enduring Legacy of Abuse Is Shame
All abuse leaves the recipient with internalized shame. “Something is wrong with me because of what was done to me.”
When it comes to sexual abuse, the internalized shame is usually quite intense and difficult to redirect from the victim to the abuser, where it belongs. This intense core of shame operates at the center of victims’ sense of self. The shame becomes a central defining factor of their identity, how they seem themselves, including what they mean to others.
This leads to beliefs (that may or may not be conscious) such as, “This is all my fault. I’m a bad person because somehow I made this happen. (Or,) I must have wanted it because I didn’t do anything to stop it… The only way I can get (love, attention, power) is by being sexual. If I hadn’t been born, this wouldn’t have happened… I’m powerless to protect myself, to take care of myself. I’m damaged goods, I’m disgusting, I don’t deserve love.”
Sexual abuse can also lead to ambivalence about having and expressing sexual desire in adulthood (too much or too little), confusion about sexual identity and sexual orientation, and intense and immobilizing fears of repeating the sexual abuse on others, including one’s own children.
When the abuser is in the role of caregiver and protector, as is the case with parents, clergy, teachers, healthcare providers and so on, the child is often left with a legacy of confusion, ambivalence and mistrust about intimate partners.
The “Wrongness” of Sexual Abuse of Children Is Well-Known
All of this information (and more) is well known and has been well established in the education, training and post-license continuing education for all mental health disciplines for decades. Many religious denominations today also require similar training.
In California today, for example, all clergy (as well as, today, all mental and physical health providers, teachers and so on) are “mandated reporters.” This means that if, in the course of ones, professional duties, the professional learns of potential sexual abuse of children, this person is mandated by law to report this to Child Protective Services and/or the police. Clergy are mandated reporters in more than half the states, and all 50 states have laws against child abuse. Europe has similar laws.
Therefore, in the United States (and Europe), there can be no excuse based on ignorance about the moral, legal and psychological wrongness of the sexual abuse of children, whether by priests, fathers, mothers or any other adult, nor any excuse about not knowing the incredible damage such abuse can inflict.
Despite Everything, Delays and Avoidance
Yet the information that has been coming to light in the current round of priestly sexual abuse of (primarily) young boys is marked by repeated delays and avoidance of actions that would remove the accused perpetrators from their front-row seats and keep the children safe until a thorough and impartial investigation could be performed.
Such an investigation does need to be carried out because, in a few cases, individuals have made accusations in order to ruin someone (much like the teens in the Salem witch trial a few centuries ago). However, the accused should be removed from any position where he could have contact with additional potential victims and should remain without such contact until the investigation has been completed.
Clearly, this has not been happening. Indefinite delays, avoidance and transference to other equally poor situations (poor for the potential victims), have been the pattern.
The Current Pope Is Likely No Different from Other Papal Candidates
While the current pope, because he was the previous pope’s enforcer, is being singled out by many as making particularly tragic and offensive decisions, I doubt that if almost any other cardinal had been elected as pope, his actions would be much different. Yes, the problem is definitely landing on Pope Benedict XVI but even if he resigns, this will not necessarily signal a change in course that will keep this from happening again and again. Most likely not.
Furthermore, the issue is not necessarily related to the fact of celibacy, either. According to a couple of the articles I read (see links for one), the percentage (4%) of Roman Catholic priests who have molested children (particularly boys) appears to be no different than clergy from other traditions and only half the rate of adult males in general.
Obviously, even a 4% rate is nothing to cheer. It should be as close to 0% as possible, and when it shows up, it should be dealt with swiftly (though not with hysteria).
The Church and This Form of Abuse: Hierarchical
But, just as the Roman Catholic Church is hierarchical, with power flowing one way from top to bottom, so is this abuse. This is a deeply rooted form of human power that may well have had a positive role in the development and survival of our species, but is nearly always a source for some of the worst problems we face today.
The response by the church’s top-level custodians of power to the most recent crisis being provoked by the exposure of massive amounts of child abuse has been to band together and protect themselves and their positions. This is clearly the wrong move, both strategically and theologically.
To paraphrase one of the sayings attributed to Jesus, when he said, “Suffer the little children,” he did not mean, “Make the little ones suffer.” Just the opposite. So, in this case, this means that the Roman Catholic hierarchy needs to suffer, needs to feel the pain and shame of what has been done on their watch, where they appear to have valued protecting themselves and their positions at all costs instead of protecting the most vulnerable of all. This is a very human tendency and one that is called into question by the one they purport to serve.
Can the Roman Church Soften Its Hierarchical Nature?
It would be nice to think that the Roman Catholic Church could either soften or shed completely its hierarchical nature. But I believe the most that one can hope for is the possibility of a little softening by transferring some of the power to deal with these situations to the local ecclesiastical (and secular) authorities. Whether that comes about or lasts for any significant amount of time, I do not have a clue.
As is often said, the Chinese expression for “crisis” contains the characters that mean “danger” and “opportunity.” In that context, it would be wonderful if this current crisis could provide the opportunity to make some substantive changes on other issues that are serious but tangential to the current crisis: celibacy, the ordination of women, the use of birth control for at least AIDS protection, if not for limiting family size, and a woman’s right to make choices about her body, among others.
The Current Crisis Is Not New
However, in doing Internet research for this piece, when I typed in Google the phrase, “The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church and sexual abuse,” I got quite a few links to pages that discussed the crisis eight years ago around these same issues.
That is discouraging and also confirming that the hierarchy is the reason for the perpetuation of this damaging issue.
Needed: A Public Confession by the Pope
Although the pope needs to resign, it would be even better if he were to say, “I have sinned and so have many others by not protecting children from priests who molested them. As a result of this, many lives have been damaged and for this we are beyond sorrow. To repair this and to prevent this from happening again, I am calling for input from all sources, from the local parishes, from social services programs, from psychotherapists knowledgeable about these issues, from seminaries and secular universities, and from others as well. When the final recommendations have been made and enacted, if I am still alive, I will resign as pope and a new head of the church will be selected.”
At this point, the pope’s crisis would be resolved. However, I will not be holding my breath. A hierarchy that has come into being and solidified over the past 2,000 years is quite unlikely to change all that much. If it does not, however, it runs the very real risk of destroying the full church. I do hope the current pope and the rest of the powers that be can surprise us with true and radical transformation.
Some Helpful Links:
An overview of the current crisis set in an historical and feminist context: www.opendemocracy.net/tina-beattie/catholic-church’s-abuse-scandal-modern-crisis-ancient-roots
Data on prevalence of sexual abuse of minors by priests and other clergy versus the general public: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_sex_abuse_cases
Information on U.S. states’ laws about child abuse and mandated reporters (including clergy): www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/manda.cfm#fn3
The delightfully tart tongue of Maureen Dowd: www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/opinion/28dowd.html
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at email@example.com or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.