Dear Archbishop: A survivor of sex abuse replies

By Peter Isely
Milwaukee Journal
November 15, 1992

Dear Archbishop Weakland,

Every survivor sexually abused by a priest both desires and fears revealing his trauma to others.

We desire it because we want you to memorialize our experience with us; we desire it because we want you to help us shape the meaning of our anguish; we desire it because we do not want this to happen to other children. But we fear it because you may not recognize our need to remember; we fear that our pain makes you uncomfortable; we fear that our testimony raises too many difficult and inconvenient questions.

Specifically, we worry that our experience will not be welcomed by the church because they implicate colleagues, even friends. We worry that you may have more to gain by our silence than by our words.

It is the depth of our fidelity to the church that requires us now that we may actually be granted a hearing to speak. We wish for you to know: It is not the survivor but your colleagues who are sex offenders (and those who knew their crimes), that have put you in this difficult position.

We survivors have always known, many of us, sadly, for years and decades, what you are now learning. We have always known that giving a priest greater latitude than other professionals who work with children, for whatever elevated a reason, is naive and dangerous. We have always known that uncritical deference toward the priesthood protects sex-offending ministers from detection, that this deference has unwittingly served to camouflage and shield their crimes.

We plead with you: Do not dismiss what is now being disclosed, across the nation, as a mere aberration. Cruelty and violence take many forms. For us it has taken the form of a clerical shirt and collar.

You asked the community to understand: Priests are literally adopted into many Catholic families. This is why you believe the priesthood is so unique. But this is also why the wound the priest offender inflicts is so unique.

I am not condemning the ministry because there are pedophiles that happen to be priests. Root out the priest sex offender, yes; but also root out, when necessary, any attitude or perception that may have, directly or indirectly, assisted him in committing his crimes.

There is one other reason, however, more hidden, more elusive, as to why the survivor fears to speak: There is something about our trauma that resists speech, that refuses to be taken up into language, that simply cannot be named.

It is the recognition of this silence that I searched for in vain as I read and reread your remarks.

If this recognition were present, I believe that from the very first sentence you would have made known your deep desire for solidarity with we survivors, you would have acknowledged why it is proper for us to speak now, and you would have welcomed our voices after so long an absence. I wanted to hear you say not only that one sex-offending priest is one too many but also that even one day a survivor is imprisoned in the memory of his trauma is one day too many.

I am also troubled that some of your words may be misinterpreted by others to support claims about pedophilia that are not fully substantiated by research. I am concerned if you are hinting that sexual offenses may be primarily related to overwork or a societal preoccupation with pornography. I am troubled when you suddenly adopt the passive voice, as when you write: "Saying pedophilia is less frequent among priests than among the rest of the population does not console much . . ."

Compelling arguments have been forwarded by research that church ministers, because they are granted such extraordinary access to children and families, may actually accommodate a higher percentage of sex offenders. Let us not forget, sexual abuse is perhaps the most underreported crime in our community.

I am pleased, however, that you now endorse the clinical and empirical consensus concerning pedophilia: There is no known, reliable, treatment cure. Follow the lead of other social institutions working with children and have your policies and directives embrace this fact.

I am confused as to why church leaders have not sufficiently understood this. I hope this is not because there is an unwritten belief that the priest-pedophile is somehow different from other pedophiles. I hope the church does not believe it possesses special healing powers unavailable to secular treatment specialists.

Individuals inflicted with this disorder should not be ministers, just as they should not be schoolteachers, or Scout leaders. If priest-pedophiles are sincere about managing their disorder, they will resign from the active priesthood, seek treatment, and try to make appropriate reparations.

It is easy to be inadvertently seduced into the thinking of the offender who appeals to our desire to appear understanding or forgiving.

Perhaps this is why I do not hear anger, from you, towards these priest offenders. Are you and your colleagues not enraged by how these men have deceived you and taken advantage of your good office? I urge you to learn from treatment specialists the many and often inventive strategies that sex offenders use to keep alive the one thing they care most about unimpeded access to children.

I also question your too exclusive endorsement of the disease model to guide your understanding of pedophilia. Treatment results using this model are controversial, and recidivism with it is high. If pedophilia is an addictive disorder, there is a difference in kind, but not in degree, from other disorders of addiction, such as alcohol or substance dependency. Why? Because pedophilic desire requires the presence of a child who must assume the role of a victim.

As a psychotherapist, I am pleased by your statement that you want to sympathize with the victims of sexual abuse. I am concerned, however, that you do not acknowledge the often severe clinical consequences of child molestation and its possible long-term effects: depression; post-trauma thought and somatic disorders; traumatic amnesia that can last for years; sexual dysfunctions; alcohol and drug addiction; debilitating anxiety and panic; pathogenic fear; impaired interpersonal functioning; eve n psychosis and suicide.

But most disturbing, in a small number of cases there is an inverted repetition of the trauma, in which the victim assumes the role of the offender. This means that even if every current priest-pedophile would never assault again, the impact of their crimes will continue into the unforeseeable future.

Unlike the offender, however, prognosis for most victims is good, if help comes early, or often.

I wonder: Am I asking too much of you? Surely our friends and spouses and family members who have helped us heal, who have kept faith with our pain, sometimes feel we require an empathy beyond their means.

Perhaps you speak so little, betray so little of an understanding for our dilemma, because you do not really know us, and have not been permitted by us to speak on our behalf.

I want you to take the side of the victims of sexual abuse whoever they are, whatever the profession of their offenders. Every Sunday, when a priest looks out into a congregation, he faces an unknown number of survivors and offenders. Each one of these congregants is closely watching how the church will grapple with this problem, now that members of its own rank have been implicated.

How well you respond to the abuse taking place in churches and rectories will signal how well you will respond to the abuse taking place inside other institutions and homes.

I hope you take these remarks in the spirit of the genuine respect I feel for your leadership. But is it selfish of me to want you to make our cause the cause of the survivor your cause?

I ask especially you, Archbishop Weakland, to plead our case before the American church, as you have so eloquently done with many difficult matters facing Roman Catholics.

Of this I am sure: Without the aid of the survivor you will never achieve the understanding you seek. Offer us a place within the church from which we can listen and then tell you: You have heard our tale, you have recognized our plight.

The sex offender always commits at least two crimes: First he steals the body; then he steals the voice.

You can hear the impact of this theft whenever we survivors talk about what has happened to us, in how we reach for words we know will be inadequate to the violation, in how our discourse is so often arrested by moments of mute remembrance. This obstinacy, so characteristic of childhood trauma, has a particular poignancy for sexual abuse survivors, for it is through sexuality that humans enact, with unparalleled intensity, the drama for recognition.

It is this drama that the priest-offender so violently negates. It is this drama that survivors must take up daily, carrying the sad knowledge of how fragile and elusive it truly is.

What is each one of us, after all, if not the experiences we have undergone?

To say that the victim can be healed of his wounds is not to say that he can be what he would have been before the abject touch of the abuser entered his body and soul. Healing neither restores us to a previous state nor confers on us the magical status of the normal.

Healing does mean that every single one of us, no matter what our private pain, can fully assume the human vocation to be happy . . . but let it never be a happiness that excludes, and certainly never one that forgets.

Very sincerely,

J. Peter Isely, M.S., M. Div.








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