Sexual abuse, the Catholic Church and society

Sexual abuse, the Catholic Church and society

Catholic church an integral part of the process that produces child sex abuse.

1. Pointing the finger

Laymen and professionals alike have a habit of oversimplifying, taking sides and confusing the issues of child sex abuse. We all love pointing fingers at others, when in fact a deeper, more analytical and balanced investigation of this matter will show that not only the Catholic Church, but everyone and everything is to blame.

2. Relevant information to broaden perspectives

This is a rather obscure fact – sociologists and anthropologists report that for centuries, countless hundreds of thousands of children have been innocently introduced into sexual experiences by older family members or acquaintances, either voluntarily, by persuasive coercion or sometimes forcefully and unwillingly. Published reports by social anthropologists who carried out field studies several decades ago report that it was normal practice for children in certain primitive tribes to be introduced into sexual experiences by adults or the older children of the tribe. Such children experienced these encounters without any trauma and later progressed into uncomplicated adult relationships. Psychologists who study personality development in modern Western society report that some children experience sexual encounters with adults in a positive way, others with mixed feelings and some with serious misgivings. For many children, later experiences and encounters resolved and ameliorated the mixed or negative feelings, allowing progress to uncomplicated adult relationships. On the other hand, children who were violently or forcibly raped would obviously be traumatized. The focus of this article is on sex abuse in the Catholic Church where violence is not typical.

3. Causes of dysfunctional personality

Children who continue to be troubled by early sexual experiences and eventually become dysfunctional personalities are not simply the product of sexual abuse – there’s a lot more to this puzzle. Modern research has found that dysfunctional personalities are almost always the product of both inherited genetic factors and social factors. In fact the dominant factor turns out to be the genetic make-up of the child. The influence of parents or other significant socializers [besides the sex abuser] are contributory factors. To state the situation quite bluntly, not all instances of sex abuse or molesting of children by adults cause trauma or dysfunction in the children involved. Secondly in cases where emotional dysfunction is associated with child abuse, the person identified as the child abuser is only a collaborator (and not the sole perpetrator) in a socio-biological process that produces dysfunction. Only those psychologists who really understand personality development in all its many facets will know and agree with this. Modern research shows that many victims of sexual abuse [including non-violent child sex abuse] have particular personality characteristics and circumstances that will as much attract them to the abuser as the abuser is attracted and alerted towards them. Those children don’t run and hide, most actually return for more of the same.

4. The making of a sex abuser

Now turn the spotlight on the abuser. It is extremely rare that a Catholic priest or brother might enter the religious life with the premeditated intention of molesting children. Biologists and psychologists report that the sex drive is distributed in the human population in widely differing degrees of potency. Many of those who enter the religious life of the Catholic Church have a particular biological constitution which provides little if any sex drive and need for fulfilment within the kind of co-dependency relationship that is characteristic of marriage or co-habitation. These emotionally independent people make ideal candidates for the religious life and fulfil valuable roles within the religious community and in the larger community where they are employed. Institutions like the Catholic Church provide the structure and supportive guidelines within which these rare and honourable people live out their roles of serving others. At the same time, these institutions attract into their ranks others who are less suited to this kind of service. Among these less suited people are some who join up for various personal but consciously unrecognised reasons and eventually end up sexually abusing minors. Psychologists who really understand personality development in all its many facets can explain that these less-suited religious people have previously struggled to develop satisfying personal relationships within ordinary secular society and this struggle unconsciously motivated them to seek an alternative lifestyle within the religious community. To state the situation quite bluntly, the person identified as the sex abuser is not only a collaborator in a crime but is himself or herself as much a victim of the biological constitution he or she inherited and of the circumstances in which he or she was brought up. Some were themselves the victims of emotional or sexual abuse. They grew up unable to understand and deal with feelings of sexual guilt, shame, loneliness, confusion and self-doubt concerning their role in society. In fact deep down inside, they later despise themselves as much as the rest of society does for what they have done to the children. They are helpless, dysfunctional personalities in the sense that they struggle to fit into secular society and later the religious life as well. They are consigned by society to no-man’s-land and are as much in need of help as the children they have abused.

5. The role of the Catholic Church

Now turn the spotlight onto the Catholic Church. All candidates for the religious life are appraised by superiors for suitability to the religious vocation. Usually, unsuitable candidates are rejected by this process. But the insight and experience required to screen out all potential problems waiting to happen is not always available in all quarters. One might also assume that sometimes less obvious issues [like suppressed homosexuality] may be overlooked in the interest of bolstering quotas of candidates. Like others in the rest of society, the senior office bearers in the church are less than perfect. While the failure to screen correctly through lack of insight and experience can be excused, the failure to deal with an obvious mistake cannot.

Then consider, the values and beliefs of the Catholic church. Doctrines of the Catholic church explicitly teach that married life is as noble and valued a vocation as the religious vocation, but the idea that the religious life is superior (spiritually at least if not also in other respects) is implicitly conveyed in the accounts of the lives of the saints and through the rites and rituals practised among the faithful. So it is inevitable that both suitable and unsuitable candidates are attracted to and integrated into the religious life, the latter being the unwitting victims of their biology and circumstances. In fact, if those child abusers and their parents or care-takers had not been subjected to the influence of the Catholic church and instead had been born or adopted into one of those primitive societies already mentioned, they would have been introduced into sexual experiences by older people as a normal part of socialisation and would never have found themselves in the unhappy predicament they now find themselves. In other words, the Catholic church is unwittingly an integral part of the process that produces child sex abuse.

6. What to do about the problem?

Finally, turn the spotlight onto society at large. The consensus of society seems to be that the church should denounce, discharge and punish the child abuser at the first instance and pay huge sums of money in compensation to the abused. What the abused and subsequently dysfunctional person needs is not financial compensation but a properly designed and executed remedial program to correct their personality dysfunction. Unfortunately most psychologists only offer sympathy and the opportunity and encouragement for such children to express their emotional reaction to a past situation of abuse. That is not always enough, but most psychologists know no better and simply do the best they can. So compensation is perhaps in order. Consider the case of adults who were abused as children and genuinely suffered trauma as a result. Such people have a choice set before them. They can either continue to see themselves as victims and continue to wallow in self-pity and demand compensation, or they can resolve to accept help from professionals, rise above their circumstances, move on and be freed from their self pity. Under correct training and supervision they can eventually become good counsellors for helping problem children. They can help children to overcome all kinds of commonly experienced problems in growing up into normal well-adjusted adults, not just the effects of sexual abuse. Society needs experienced over-comers to show the way, not armchair counsellors.

7. The role of society and our genes

The child abuser is both a criminal and a victim. They are the product of their own genetic make-up as well as the product of the mistakes and sometimes unfair treatment by an imperfect society and an imperfect church and are as much in need of help and correction as the children. The child molester has been familiar with loneliness, guilt, mistrust, depression or anxiety, but if they are willing to co-operate in a properly designed and executed long term remedial program they can be cured.

8. Who is going to pay?

But who is going to pay for all this remedial work? The Catholic church??? The Catholic church cannot be blamed for inherited genetic characteristics. Nor can the state. In the light of modern research, should we not be sharing around more evenly, the blame for what has happened, and the responsibility and costs for correcting the mistakes? Surely everyone has a part to play – the church, the state, the abuser and the abused? In reality we should all take responsibility, but in practice I don’t expect to see that happening. We’re all too quick to point fingers. And we’re too caught up in our own little worlds to take on our share of the responsibility. It’s a crazy world we live in.


Engineer and psychologist

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