Get out of Denial!

By Dr. Jaime Romo
Healing and Spirituality
October 25, 2010

There's an expression that to lose one's sight is to be cut off from the world of things, but to lose one's hearing is to be cut off from the world of people. I believe that when it comes to Religious Authority Sexual Abuse, many church leaders and followers are blind to the problem and deaf to the RASA survivors who are starving from neglect and disbelief. The recent statement by William Donohue makes this point clear, as he questions how traumatic sexual abuse by a religious authority really is.

I recently had the experience of watching a movie on an airplane and getting some insight into what has been happening for so long when it comes to the average person, particularly those who identify with particular religious traditions and leaders, and supporting survivors of RASA. With the help of the brilliant clergy abuse expert, Richard Sipe, I will explain.

Imagine being on a plane and seeing the previews or news reports before the main feature, but having no headphones. The flurry of images may be full of meaning, but all you can do is imagine what they mean. It is easy to get bored or feel disconnected from what is unfolding in front of your eyes. There is no all important soundtracks to cue you to the affect of the story. If the action is somewhat familiar to you, you might interpret some of the information.

Now imagine you have headphones, but (as I did when watching a movie), had the audio on the wrong channel. As the movie began, I listened to classical music. I got a few ideas from the title and scenery, but didn't understand the conversations and completely missed the nuances from scene, the accents, and the all important soundtrack. Another way to experience this is to watch a foreign language movie in a language you really don't understand—or in which you have some basic, but not fluent, skills.

This is what I think happens with most people when it comes to RASA. Many without the experience of RASA might find it hard to believe why this subject is so important or why some people are so outraged. Why the protests? Why the push to expose those involved or responsible, to name, shame and blame?

Back to the movie analogy. I think a lot of people have headsets that pipe in religious preconceptions or beliefs that keep them from really understanding what is going on in front of their eyes. Some belief filters might give the events an interesting interpretation; others might make the events incomprehensible because the belief soundtrack (i.e., this could never happen or be a systemic problem) is so dominant or incongruous. So let me offer a cheat sheet for interpreting the unfolding worldwide tragedy.

Richard Sipe, in 'Unspeakable Damage: The Effects of Clergy Sexual Abuse,' brilliantly and concisely outlines the impact on survivors and characteristics of perpetrators. His observations are grounded in his experiences of working with over 1,500 adults who have been abused as children, 500 of them by Catholic clergy or religious.

He describes the long term impacts of clergy abuse: interference with sexual development; anxiety; trust issues; shattered relationships; identity problems; personality paralysis; and self destructive behaviors. I can only note a few of these points and encourage everyone to read the entire article.

What sexual development issues has he identified? "The abuse forms a basis for, and invariably causes sexual dysfunction of some kind: impotence, sexual aversion, hyper sexuality, the development of paraphilias—frequently pornography, voyeurism, fetishes—or the perpetuation of abuse into a new generation… While some victims can enjoy some kind of sexual release, they cannot incorporate the satisfaction into a close emotional relationship. In short, they remain emotionally divided, confused about their sexuality, or even confuse sex with violence."

Sipe notes that even Freud, who downplayed the impact of pedophilia, as early as 1893, wrote, "For we often find that the content and determinants of hysterical phenomenon [read emotional reaction] are events which are themselves quite trivial, but which have acquired high significance from the fact that they occurred at specially important moments when the patient's predisposition was pathologically increased."

Sipe describes the legacy of anxiety that RASA victims and survivors inherit. "Anxiety overwhelms the victim. A host of addictive behaviors involving alcohol, drugs, sex or other acting out behaviors are endemic among many men and women who have suffered abuse. These are among the means victims use to mollify their confusion, the pain of trauma, and unconscious…A whole range of range of emotional and behavioral problems can be traced to early abuse. The most common being anxiety or PTSD, sexual anxieties or disorders mentioned above, low self esteem and poor body image, depression and thoughts of suicide."

This sheds some light onto the question, why some people are so angry, protest, and demand accountability. Or, why some people seem so driven to name, blame, and shame religious leaders related to RASA.

What else has he found? A lifetime of depression. "In the abused, the loss of innocence, the loss of confidence, the loss of faith, the loss of self esteem, and the loss of their youth lay down deep roots to inevitable periods or long term states of depression that condemn the victim to a host of physical disabilities…. The use of drugs and alcohol are also frequent means of self medication for the victim, struggling to reduce the pain of the early trauma and in the process increasing the cycle of depression and compounding the physical health complications. It is a frequent and costly pattern."

What else? He speaks to profound betrayal. "When the abuser is a parental figure that also represents God, the spiritual world and the eternal, the betrayal leaves the victim nowhere to turn. All supposedly secure and trustworthy persons and institutions become suspect."

Who are the abusers? Please read the article. For now, don't be blind or deaf to the reality of damage to survivors, society and any church, temple, synagogue, or mosque. Believe what you see and hear from survivors.

Jaime Romo, Ed.D. is the author of "Healing the Sexually Abused Heart" and "Parents Preventing Abuse." Read more here.


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