The Upside of Religious Authority Sexual Abuse

By Dr. Jaime Romo
Healing and Spirituality
September 21, 2010

I recently spent several days at the Institute on Violence Abuse and Trauma conference and had the opportunity to participate in a National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence think tank. I had the privilege of sitting with Dr. Vincent Felitti, author of what should be world-wide known and used/ implemented Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. He discussed the obvious correlation between any kind of ACE and subsequent self destructive behavior. His study began with a focus on obesity, but then uncovered a colossal finding that a high number of people in the study had been sexually abused. Another significant insight was that even when people lost significant amounts of weight, after 2 years they were often back to their obese weight. He raised the observation that there is an upside or value of obesity or whatever we consider bad behavior.

I think it is important for those of us who work with others manifesting 'bad behavior' to examine this point in two ways, as they relate to Religious Authority Sexual Abuse (RASA). First, think of addictions. I agree with those who see that when there's a hole in the heart due to lack of a nurturing father, or presence of an abusive father, people may turn to other things to comfort them. Those things may become addictions. Some turn to productive behavior and are rewarded (i.e., workaholics). Some turn to substances, with the same intent or dynamics—looking to feel good. There is clearly an upside for bad behavior that doesn't change easily.

Lots of people are critical of the pope's lack of intervention with pedophile clergy, as well as many bishops and clergy's lack of intervention. Clearly, there is an upside for bad behavior (not reporting) that doesn't change easily. Why? Because they can—(i.e., because others let them).

The second lens is related to us. Rather than only interpreting these individual acts or lack of intervention as reflective of unbalanced or contemptible individuals, what if they represent our collective madness and inability to challenge the status quo of religion or power? What if RASA is really best explained by the irrational and unconscious?

I am particularly speaking to those who identify with religious institutions or organizations. I am most particularly speaking to those who don't have a meaningful Safe Church polity and competent response team or even know what those mean, where it's too shameful to talk about abuse. That's when RASA is most likely to be perpetuated. If this is what we have, this must be what religious folks want.

There must be an upside to the power dynamic that allows children and vulnerable adults to be manipulated, groom or sometimes just violently raped by Religious Authorities. Maybe there's a shared sense of power being affiliated with a power dynamic that allows some to groom and abuse others. Of course it's not conscious.

One basic phenomena in interpersonal and group dynamics is projection, which is an individual's or group's unconscious desire to disown undesirable parts of themselves because the complexity of holding these parts inside is too alarming or painful. There are many socially repugnant impulses and ethically indefensible motives in all of us. When we cannot bear to know or to own these in ourselves, we must export them to another location, usually in another individual or group, in order to keep them out of conscious awareness (Tavistock Primer, 2007). In short, pedophile religious authorities act on behalf of the larger membership. So, not only is there an upside for abusive religious authorities and those who protect them to express shock at abuse without turning over pedophiles to law enforcement, but this is what religious folks want. And maybe that's what non-religious folks want as well. Of course, it's not conscious.

When I didn't acknowledge my own trauma from clergy sexual abuse, it nearly destroyed me. When I started to recognize that experience, when it came flooding into my consciousness, I wanted to change the past; I wished that I didn't have the past that I had. When I was beyond PTSD, and beginning to understand my ongoing self victimization, I wanted to change the present or get other people to change something. Then, I imagined, I might be happy. But then I came to integrate my past with my present and take responsibility for my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well being. By integrating my life, I know I am changing my past and future.

That's why I expect more from religious leaders and those who identify with those institutions. It's not good enough to lament the past, as if they are the victims in this unfolding criminal, hypocritical drama. It's not enough to wish that someone else would make life easier (and at the same time not dealing with the underlying problems). Maybe that's the upside. It's easier to pretend that someone else is responsible for religious authority sexual abuse or that someone else will end it. Ignorance may seem like bliss, and it won't bring healing. Denial may keep those who identify with organizations that have perpetuated child sexual abuse from taking responsibility for this social filth, but it won't bring justice.

Really, the upside of ignorance and denial is a delusion, especially when it comes to RASA. And it works for addicts and people with self destructive lifestyles—for as long as others support it or allow it.

Jaime Romo is the author of "Parents Preventing Abuse."


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