By Noel Grima
Malta Independent
February 1, 2011

Over the past months, I have often considered what a limited view we have of the paedophilia and general child abuse problem in the Church.

Unfortunately, the evidence given in court is invariably banned when priests are involved, so society is spared, if that is the right word, from coming to grips with the incredibly sleazy aspects of this crime and its long-term impacts.

In September 2009, my colleague Chris Sultana published extracts of an interview with Mgr Carmel Scicluna. A few days later he received a thick book (Sacrilege – Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Crossland Press, 2008, 675pp) sent to him from America by its author, Leon J. Podles of the Crossland Foundation. He passed on this copy to me and I read it over the past months.

It is a terrible book. As its blurb says, Sacrilege explores the deep roots of the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandal, revealing its full depth and breadth. As former Federal investigator, Leon Podles says abuse is not limited to a few well-publicised cases in New England; it has occurred in every type of Catholic institution, in every time period, throughout the world. In the United States alone, some of the worst cases of abuse go back to the 1940s, remaining hidden until exposed for the first time in Sacrilege.

In horrifying yet necessary detail, Sacrilege surveys the full extent of the damage, showing how victims were failed by bishops, laity, therapists, police, courts, press and even popes.

Over the past years other books have been published about this subject, such as Thomas Doyle’s Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, and of course Geoffrey Robinson’s The Case of the Pope.

Basing himself exclusively on publicly available sources – newspaper and magazine articles, court documents, books – Mr Podles documents only a fraction of what really went on. He concludes: “The bishops made excuses, but the excuses did not excuse. Bishops claimed they were only following the advice of psychologists, but they put abusive priests in parishes even when the psychologists warned against it. Why hadn’t bishops ever gotten angry at abusers? Why were abusers treated so gently, when men who left the priesthood to marry were treated so harshly? Why had the bishops lied to parents? Why hadn’t they disciplined their clergy, when they seemed so eager to micromanage everything else in America, from what married couples did in bed to what the government did about immigration?”

The first seven and a half chapters deal with cases that happened in America, then there is a short account of the situation in Ireland, then in Austria and lastly in Poland.

Then he analyses the findings.

Since 1950, tens of thousands of boys and girls have been molested by priests in the United States. The victims were chosen because they were vulnerable and the vulnerability was often the misplaced faith they or their parents had in the trustworthiness of the Catholic Church. The victims suffered the immediate horror and degradation of sexual abuse; they and their families endured decades of pain, which sometimes ended only in death by suicide for the victims and unending grief for the families.

According to the John Jay Report, most of the victims, 80.9 per cent, were male, mostly post-pubescent males even though male victims report abuse less often than female victims do.

Podles discusses the possible number of victims and abusers and comes to the ‘conservative’ estimate of up to 200,000 victims in the United States alone, and a rough estimate of up to 100,000 abusive priests worldwide since 1950 and anywhere up to two million victims.

He finds that, universally, priest-abusers were narcissists who had no feeling for the pain they were inflicting: they were confidence artists who could exploit the weaknesses of those with whom they were dealing, whether victims, bishops, fellow priests or laity. The adults who enabled the abuse were usually culpably weak.

And the victims had a variety of innocent weaknesses which the abusers exploited: the sexual ignorance of the very young, the emotional turbulence of adolescence; sickness or injury, family problems such as divorce or death or poverty; the absence of a father, or, most dangerous of all, piety.

Many times, the abuse suffered was horrendous. Abusive priests often added the pleasures of sacrilege to the pleasures of abuse. Being, as they invariably put it, ‘close to God’, enabled them to ensure the victims’ silence.

Predators seek out vulnerable children and prey on them.

Because the children, especially the boys, had problems before the abuse began, the abuse exacerbated and multiplied the problems. Podles lists psychological problems, inability to trust, traumatic bonding, fear of homosexuality, loss of faith, and lastly suicide.

The book makes two points about which there will be considerable controversy: Can abusers be treated? And what is the connection between paedophilia and homosexuality?

He says: “Most of the abusers were sexually involved with teenage boys. It is difficult to classify a male’s sexual attraction to sexually mature teenage boys as a mental illness or disorder without also classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder and the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1974, after an intense and disruptive political campaign, to remove homosexuality from the category of mental disorder or illness. It is now simply another sexual orientation. So men who are attracted sexually to teenage boys, ephebophiles, no longer have a recognised psychiatric disorder. They may have other problems which lead them to act on this desire, but the desire itself is not recognised as a psychiatric disorder. Despite this, priests who were sexually involved with teenage boys were sent for treatment as if they were paedophiles.”

Many men feel sexual desire for children; this desire is probably more common than homosexual desire, because men who are heterosexual in adult orientation can be involuntarily attracted to the relative femininity of children’s bodies. But of course, almost all men who feel such desire do not act on it because of religious, ethical or social restraints.

So, I’m summarizing here, when they sent abusive priests to psychiatric clinics for treatment, the bishops were barking up the wrong tree. The problem is more one of seriously handling the cases: most abusers are ‘manipulative confidence artists’. “The role of religious leader is perfect for the abusive confidence artist. The predator is typically charismatic and ingratiating, able to charm and disarm in order to achieve the exact, desired response. The precise skills used by the predator to groom victims also elicit trust and support from the larger community, creating an aura that makes discovery of perpetration unlikely.”

A confidence artist hurts his victims and usually feels no distress at the damage he causes. The abusers, the bishops, and most priests showed incomprehension of the pain of the victims. This lack of empathy is characteristic of sociopaths. They have no sense of the emotional damage abusers inflict on their victims. One would think that the clergy, a ‘helping profession’ would not attract sociopaths. But it does.

Podles also deals with narcissism and self-centredness and with the problem of seeking control. Psychiatrists often claim that abuse is not so much about sex as about control.

Paedophilia is a sexual desire for children, but when it crosses into the realm of act, it becomes a crime and calls for punishment. Punishment and treatment are not mutually exclusive.

He states: “Abusers of both children and teenagers were treated as if they had a mental illness. The treatment was often perfunctory and unprofessional; the aim was to get priests back into ministry – and it too often succeeded. Even if the abusers had received professional treatment of the highest standard, the therapists faced an almost impossible situation.

“Whatever limitations therapists may have had, whatever faults they had, whatever mistakes they made, were almost irrelevant, because the bishops who referred abusers to therapists were not acting in good faith. Church officials withheld information from therapists and even coached abusers on how to avoid a diagnosis of paedophilia.”

When in 2005 the Vatican issued an Instruction which said that people who practise homosexuality should not be admitted to the seminary or to holy orders, the Vatican was widely condemned as homophobic, there was a denial that there was a ‘gay culture’ in the seminaries and a furious denial that homosexual priests had anything to do with the sexual abuse of minors. But, Podles says, a homosexual subculture in American and foreign seminaries seems to have flourished in the 1960s in the general chaos that followed Vatican II, although the roots go back centuries. Besides, the departure of heterosexual priests to marry after Vatican II may have left homosexuals in control of large sections of the Church’s middle management.

In addition to denying that there is any problem created by homosexual seminarians and priests, critics of the Instruction suspect that the Vatican sees a connection between homosexuality and paedophilia. Priest-author Andrew Greeley claimed that “because some few abusers are homosexual, it does not follow that all homosexuals are abusers”.

But then the National Review Board discovered that among the victims of priests, despite the universally recognized tendency of boys to report their abuse less frequently than girls do, more than 80 per cent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature. A recent survey of victims discovered that 93 per cent of victims of priests under 18 years of age are male, as opposed to 20 per cent of the victims of abusers in the general population.

On the other hand, many believe that celibacy places impossible burdens on human nature but it is clear that celibacy does not cause priests to abuse teenage boys, because the vast majority of priests (over 90 per cent) have not been involved in such abuse. Celibate priests violate their vows, as married men do. But unlike married men, priests’ continued employment is contingent upon a pretence of faithfulness to the vow of celibacy, and therefore all who violate their vows, whether with women, men or children, will have an implicit compact not to expose one another.

Besides, the experience among Protestants, who do not have priestly celibacy, shows they have handled scandals worse, if possible than Catholics have. Sexual transgression in churches with married clergy tends to be adultery of male pastors with female laity, although molestation of minor males is not unknown. Ending celibacy would probably not reduce the number of homosexuals in the priesthood. Besides, Protestant churches may ordain more candidates than the Catholic Church does but many times the ordinands do not find suitable jobs to support their family, especially in rural areas.

Fundamentally, bishops and priests tolerated abuse and bear the greatest responsibility after the abusers themselves. Bishops were weak in dealing with abuse, a weakness that had its source in their non-confrontational personalities, personalities which made them attractive to the Vatican as candidates for bishop. Abusers exploited bishops’ desires to avoid confrontation and bad publicity. Priests almost always turned a blind eye to abuse going on in their parishes, because they knew the bishops did not want to know about it and they would be marked as troublemakers for reporting it.

Bishops likewise knew that the Vatican did not want to receive cases for involuntary laicisation on grounds of sexual abuse. In addition, the Catholic Church suffered from a clericalism in both clergy and laity that led them to ignore any evidence of clerical failures. It also had structural weaknesses that abusers could exploit to escape punishment and to continue abusing.

From the 1950s onwards many priests studied psychology. Those were the years dominated by Alfred Kinsey, sexual liberation, which saw no harm in following one’s sexual instincts. Carl Rogers taught that the therapist (hence the priest) was only a facilitator who gave unqualified acceptance to the client. After Vatican II, Catholic moral theologians began competing with one another to see how much of traditional teaching on sexuality they could reject.

The Vatican, chiefly Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, occasionally tried to discipline priests and for his efforts was denounced as a Nazi and Grand Inquisitor by Catholic liberals. The Vatican received a stream of complaints that bishops were allowing dangerous doctrines to be taught to priests who then acted on those doctrines by having sex with minors, but not once has a bishop been removed for failure to exercise oversight over his seminary and clergy.

There are other issues the book discusses but this is its conclusion as regards the State: “The chief secular reform needed is the abolition of the statute of limitations in all states for both civil and criminal actions stemming from sexual molestation, Many states already have no statute of limitations for felonies and no state has a statute of limitations for murder. Because it often takes victims years or decades to confront the abuse and to speak about it publicly, the statute of limitations creates grave injustices.”

Laws should also be passed that make it a crime to endanger children. The law must clearly establish the criminal liability of churches and other organisations that allow child abuse to go on.

On its part, the Catholic Church must also consider several reforms in its handling of abusers and it must begin, as it is doing under the present Pope, by engaging in a deep process of repentance.



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