On this page today we publish an abridged version of what is probably the hardest-edged commentary we've yet published on Catholica. We also publish the unabridged version in pdf format. It is from an address Fr Tom Doyle gave to the annual gathering of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) in Chicago on 13 July 2008. The paper might be of particular interest to readers of Catholica Australia for two reasons: Firstly, it is one of the most comprehensive discussions you're likely to find anywhere on the steps that are necessary to bring the maximum possible healing to victims of abuse. Allied to that what Fr Doyle has to say might provide valuable insights for any person who is dealing with the effects of abuse, either as a victim or a person endeavouring to provide support to victims. Secondly, the necessary discussion on the nature of priesthood and the nature of the Church Tom Doyle engages in provides a wealth a valuable reflections that dovetail in exceedingly well with the on-going discussion we've been having on priesthood. While Doyle largely raises these issues in the negative context of what went wrong, when viewed in a positive light they also shed light on what needs to be done to bring about a more effective priesthood that can better minister to the needs ot people today.
The pdf file of the full report (11,000 words approx cf 4,500 words approx in this abridged version) can be found at: www.catholica.com.au/gc2/td/pdf/SurvivalOfTheSpirit_Doyle.pdf
From the Preface…
I have been a Catholic all my life. I was ordained a priest in 1970 and at that time and for many years thereafter I accepted without question the doctrine and law of the Catholic Church in every way. I believed in the particular teachings about the pope, bishops and priests. I believed that the Church was a response to a personal God who knew what I did at all times, responded to my prayers, was deeply concerned about human behavior and was displeased by sin and sinners. This God invoked both love and fear and gave us the security of communicating his will for us through the special medium of his popes and bishops.
I believed that all of the robes, rituals, customs, rules and traditions had an essential place in God's special community on earth. I believed that priests and bishops really were "different" and possessed special powers given them by God through ordination. I firmly believed that this was the only way to God and the only true Church.
Not just emotional and psychological trauma but spiritual trauma as well…
Those who have been sexually assaulted by Catholic clergy or religious have experienced spiritual trauma as well as emotional and psychological trauma. The impact on the soul is often subtle and grows more painful and debilitating as time passes. Many survivors have said that this spiritual pain has been worse than the emotional pain. To be sure, the assault on the spirit is not limited to the actual victims but to the many others who are caught up in the collateral damage. Parents, spouses and siblings are the most obvious but it spreads to others who know, love or care for the victims. The spiritual damage has been experienced by attorneys, counsellors, media persons and law enforcement professionals who become involved with clergy abuse victims. What they have seen and heard is a severe jolt to the spiritual or religious belief system.
My remarks are based on twenty-four years of experience of direct communication with victims of clergy sexual abuse. During these years I have also come to know the parents and family members of victims and have had their pain seared into my soul. Finally, I draw on my own experience of a long, challenging and often painful struggle for spiritual survival.
Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Socio-Historical Context
A centuries old problem…
Sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons by Catholic clerics has been a significant though shameful aspect of Catholic clerical culture for centuries. The revelations that began in the United States in 1984 and reached a crescendo with the Boston Globe expose in 2002 did not portray a new reality. Rather, they uncovered what had existed below the surface for centuries.
The darkest aspect of mandatory celibacy has been the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, adolescents and vulnerable adult men and women. The earliest officially documented example of the Church's awareness of such abuse is found in the canons of the 4th century Synod of Elvira. Here we find the first of a series of legislative and disciplinary laws or regulations issued by Church sources in response to violations of celibacy. Although there is ample evidence that clerics engaged in sex with women and young girls, most of the legislation was directed at those who sexually abused young boys.
Church authorities did not ignore sexual abuse throughout the centuries. On the contrary there has been a steady stream of edicts, interventions and admonitions dating from the early 4th century to the present day. Church legislation forbade any sexual contact between clerics and minors and in several instances it imposed or urged substantial penalties for offenders. When Church legislation was codified for the first time in 1917 a canon was inserted which made sexual contact between a cleric and a minor of either sex a crime. The prescribed penalties include dismissal or defrocking as it is commonly called.
The contemporary scandal has focused on two aspects of clergy sexual abuse: the actual deviant sexual acts perpetrated by dysfunctional clerics and, the extensive policy of cover-up engaged in by the Church office-holders. The present-day criticism of the hierarchy for their disastrous response to the abuse scandal is unique. There is scant evidence from previous centuries that points to an awareness that superiors who enabled abusive clerics themselves shared in the guilt of the crime. Peter Damian spoke out against superiors who looked the other way and two Church councils, the IV Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Basle (1449) imposed penalties on superiors who tolerated clerics who violated their celibate promises.
The official attitude…
The official voice of the Catholic Church has consistently framed clergy sexual abuse as a moral/volitional issue in keeping with its fundamental teaching on human sexuality. Recent popes have referred to abusive clerics as sinners and abuse as sin. This approach has had a profound influence on the response to the offending clerics and to their victims as well. In keeping with the Catholic theology of penance and forgiveness, the clergy abuser is encouraged to acknowledge his sinful actions, seek God's forgiveness and sin no more. Victims are encouraged to forgive those who have abused them. This unrealistic emphasis is not on the abuse and its powerfully destructive effects on the victim, but on a future wherein the sexual abuse is not a cause for embarrassment for the institutional Church. The fallacy of considering clergy abuse only in terms of sin is that it serves as an excuse to overlook the criminality of the act. It also serves as a distraction from the need for accountability on the part of the abuser as well as the ecclesiastical system that formed, enabled and in the end, covered for the abusive cleric.
By failing to look beyond the moral/volitional dimensions of sexual abuse, Church leadership has failed to comprehend the complex and often subtle effects of sexual abuse on the victims. In the recent past it has not been uncommon for Churchmen to urge victims to "put it behind you and move on with your life". This attitude is as unrealistic and naive as expecting a compulsive pedophile or ephebophile to "repent and sin no more". Catholic bishops in general have scant awareness of the nature of sexual dysfunction and even less awareness of the damaging effects of abuse on victims. Prior to 1984 there is no evidence that bishops' groups ever sponsored any training or education in the effects of abuse. Between 1985 and 2002 there were several workshops and seminars given around the U.S. on clergy sex abuse. In most of these a psychologist or psychiatrist was a featured speaker; however they limited their presentations to the pathology of the abusers. Presentations sponsored by official Church sources on the welfare of the victims have been extremely rare.
Historically there is little documentation about the manner with which Church officials responded to victims if they responded at all. One study from 16th century Italy describes how a young adolescent victim of a cleric was punished for his participation in the illicit sexual acts, but the punishment was minimized because he had been an unwilling participant. The premise was that all sexual activity outside of marriage was seriously sinful and participation in any sexual activity involved at least some degree of volitional assent. Other than looking at the effects on victims from a strictly moral perspective there is little historical evidence of any awareness of or concern for the emotional or spiritual impact of abuse by a clergyman. This lack of attention to the needs of victims has carried over to the contemporary scene as well. To date there have been no initiatives sponsored by any official Catholic Church body from the Vatican down to the diocesan level to explore the impact of abuse on victims and to find ways to provide effective assistance and healing.
Priests viewed as "men set apart"…
Catholic clerics are obliged to total sexual abstinence as a result of mandatory celibacy. The only exceptions are Eastern rite priests and the very small number of Episcopal priests who have embraced Catholicism. Celibacy further enhances the public perception of priests as men set apart. This perception is grounded in official Church teaching about the nature and role of the priesthood and the bishopric. The Church is based on a socio-cultural model of a stratified society with a monarchical system of government. The leadership is restricted to those in holy orders who are ordained to provide spiritual nourishment and guidance for lay people who constitute the vast majority of the Church. The common belief is that once a man is ordained an ontological change takes place and he is fundamentally different from lay people. His soul is different because he is, in the words of the late Pope John Paul II, "configured to Christ." This common perception of who priests are and the power they possess is a distinguishing factor in the unique nature of the traumatic effects of sexual abuse by clerics.
The spiritual trauma inflicted on victims
The spiritual trauma associated with clergy abuse is directly related to the belief system of the victims which is usually a mixture of authentic doctrine and irrational beliefs that are planted and nourished by the Church itself. The irrational beliefs are a combination of myth and magical thinking.
Issue 1: The nature of God…
The foundational issue is the belief about the very nature of God. Traditional Christian religious systems have portrayed God as a theistic being with omniscience and complete power. Exaggerated human emotions such as anger, happiness, tenderness and concern are projected to this Supreme Being. Christians are taught that God punishes transgressions and rewards good behavior. A "sin" is an action, thought or omission that is offensive to God. Since God is believed to be just, "he" punishes sins. This is where mythology sets in. There is a common belief that God punishes sins not only in the afterlife but in this life, primarily through health problems or mishaps that result in some degree of suffering. It is not uncommon to hear Catholics and other Christians interpret physical defects, illness or accidents as God's revenge for some supposedly sinful act. The clergy have an inside communication channel to God. God prefers the clergy and especially the bishops and is highly pleased with the laity's obedience to his special chosen ones……or so the common mythology goes.
Issue 2: Original Sin…
The traditional doctrine of "original sin" adds another layer of irrational belief about the Supreme Being and the individual's standing in the eyes of this being. Original sin is commonly believed to be inherited from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Theologians have studied and written much about original sin. The basic idea is captured in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:
As a result of original sin human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death; and inclined to sin. This inclination is called concupiscence.
The premise of original sin leads to the belief that people are basically sinful and prone to evil and therefore must earn God's love. Such thinking is especially powerful when it is imposed on children. Securing this love is a risky endeavor since humans are so prone to sin from an almost infinite variety of sources. Traditionally the Catholic Church's teaching on human sexuality has held that all sex outside of marriage is gravely or mortally sinful. This means that any sexual act, thought or desire with oneself or another is so heinous that to die with the sin unabsolved meant eternity in hell. Catholics are taught that their safety net is absolution by the priest through the sacrament of penance, or confession as it is commonly known. This belief leads to feelings of helplessness and rejection. It also fortifies the toxic dependence upon the priest.
Though such a belief in God as a super-being perpetually angry, especially over sexual matters, runs contrary to the teachings of Christ in the gospels, it is nevertheless dominant in Church teaching and in the image of God commonly held by victims and non-victims alike.
Issue 3: The nature of the Church…
The next belief that we must examine is that which defines the nature of the Church. Catholic teaching holds that the institutional Catholic Church was founded by God and intended by Him from all eternity. Devout Catholics believe that the visible Church, because it was instituted by Jesus Christ to save sinful people, is essential for their spiritual welfare. They are taught that the hierarchical governmental structure of the Church was not an option decided upon by the Church's earliest members, but directly instituted by God. Most clergy abuse victims are devout, practicing and docile Catholics. When taught that the institutional Church is the kingdom of God on earth and the only source for interpreting the Divine Will they believe it. When taught that the bishops were chosen by God to govern His kingdom, they believe it. When taught that an offense against the institutional Church or one of its consecrated leaders is an offense against God, they believe it.
The Church and its clerics are presented as far superior to lay persons and especially to children. The Church is not only an immense behemoth standing before the intimidated and fear-filled victim, but it is perfect and therefore not capable of inflicting suffering or of committing wrong-doing. This is a core aspect of the erroneous and toxic belief held by countless men and women. They often turn the guilt back on themselves asking themselves "what have I done wrong to be punished like this?" Though the actual sexual abuse may have happened in childhood or adolescence, the toxic beliefs not only remain into adulthood but become more painful as time passes.
Issue 4: The understanding of forgiveness…
The doctrine of forgiveness forms the basis for yet another belief that becomes toxic when merged with the Church's response to sexual abuse. Most people misunderstand the theological concept and believe it means leaving the offense behind and essentially forgetting about it while forgoing any expectation of justice or punishment for the offender. How often have victims cringed at the words arrogantly uttered by a bishop or high ranking cleric that "we are a forgiving Church?" This attitude imposes misplaced guilt on the victims for their justifiably angry feelings against their perpetrators.
There is a degree of confusion about the meaning of forgiveness. When Church officials speak of it and ask victims to dutifully forgive their abusers, this easily translates into re-victimization. It is a conscious attempt to misuse a theological concept to avoid responsibility and accountability for the crime of abuse. To the victim, forgiveness may translate to acting and thinking as if the event did not happen and to the offender it translates into deliverance from taking responsibility for the abuse.
Victims are often reminded that forgiveness is at the core of the Christian belief system. They easily confuse the authentic notion of forgiveness with the feeling of forgiveness and the consequence that all is forgiven and forgotten. Yet most, perhaps all cannot feel any benevolence toward a sexual abuser. The feeling of anger simply cannot be controlled or willed away in the name of a misunderstood and certainly misused religious doctrine. Churchmen or others who urge forgiveness intentionally misinterpret the doctrine of forgiveness for their own selfish benefit. They also do not comprehend the depth of pain that comes from sexual abuse nor do they understand what re-victimization means.
Beliefs about forgiveness quickly become toxic for the victim and for the institution as well. The victim experiences intense guilt over not being able to feel a sense of forgiveness. The institutional Church hinders its own painful growth toward pastoral authenticity by using forgiveness to push the whole issue into the shadows. Margaret Kennedy summed it up well: "Churches use the concept of forgiveness to short circuit the survival empowerment process…The Church cannot bear to hear about child sexual abuse, so the quicker a child forgives, the easier it is for the listener."
Bishop Geoff Robinson provides a lucid and realistic description of forgiveness in the context of clergy sexual abuse in his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. He correctly points out that authentic forgiveness can benefit the victim if he or she arrives at the point of shedding the emotional control the abuser had over him or her even years after the actual tragic event took place. True forgiveness is happening when the victim moves beyond the place where the sexual assault dominates feelings and emotions and continuously disturbs the ability to love and be at peace. It is happening when the victim controls his or her anger rather than being devoured and obsessed by it. At this point, the abuser himself and the enabling Church system have lost control over the victim.
Issue 5: The identity of the abuser…
Possibly the most toxic beliefs are those about the identity of the abuser. Sexual abuse perpetrated by a Catholic priest on a believing Catholic can be more devastating precisely because of the spiritual component. Priest abuse differs from incest or abuse by anyone else including religious ministers of other denominations precisely because of the beliefs about the nature of the priesthood. In short, the priest is viewed not only as a representative of God, but as God by many victims. This belief is not based on free-floating Catholic mythology but is solidly grounded in Church teaching. Priests believe they are ontologically different because of their ordination. The language used by the official Church can easily lead a person to the belief that the priest is the closest thing to God on this earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this teaching when it says:
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his body…This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts "in persona Christi capitis" [in the person of Christ as head].
Pope Pius XII enunciated the traditional teaching even more directly in his encyclical Mediator Dei which was published in 1947:
Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest [Jesus Christ] and possesses the authority to act in the power and person of Christ himself.
Lest one think that such presumptuous theology was replaced by more enlightened teaching after the Second Vatican Council, one need only look to the idea of the priesthood propagated by Pope John Paul II. The priest, from the moment of ordination, is configured to Christ and thereby ontologically different from other men and women. Thus the pope continues the highly mystical notion that a priest's soul is different from that of other persons. One does not need much reflection to see how such a strange theological doctrine, propagated by a popular pope, could lead to highly toxic beliefs by victims of the clergy.
No amount of theological distinction or subtle nuancing of the official texts can change the traditional impression of priests that is absorbed by Catholics from childhood. They see priests as unique beings, different from ordinary men, deserving of their respect, obedience and even awe. In Catholic culture the priest is in a far superior position to lay persons because of his vast, mysterious powers. The power a priest holds over lay people plus the erroneous mystique that he actually stands in the place of god sets a clergy victim up for severe emotional and spiritual trauma.
The concept of God, the nature of the Church and the identity of the priest mesh together to form a devastating source of trauma for abuse victims. They believe in a theistic God, that is, a God that is a "super person" with human emotions and reactions. This God actually does things in the lives of people. The Church is God's special enclave on earth and its clergy are his personal representatives complete with some of his powers. He shows himself through the priests and bishops. If a cleric is kind it is often seen as God's kindness manifested through him. If a priest is angry or somehow destructive to a person this is seen as a divine act, possibly to punish something the person did wrong. Far too many clergy abuse victims see their abuse as retribution or far worse, as a sexual assault by God. Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the oldest and largest victim support organization, SNAP  said in a 2002 interview, "Many of us feel as if we had been raped by God."
Trauma Bond between victim and abuser…
The power a priest has over his victims as well as the erroneous beliefs about the nature of the priesthood contribute to the creation of a toxic bond between victim and perpetrator, commonly known as a trauma bond. The existence of this bond explains why victims tolerate repeated acts of abuse, why victims appear to be involved in an actual relationship with abusers, why they are fearful of disclosing their sexual abuse and why they experience persistent fear, shame and isolation. The trauma bond is especially strong when fortified by religion-based beliefs and fears. During the grooming process whereby the clergy-perpetrator develops the "relationship" with his victim, the victim often experiences feelings of "specialness" at receiving the coveted attentions of a priest. Once the actual sexual contact is initiated by the cleric a whole new set of feelings develop including confusion, fear, shame and guilt. In spite of these conflicting feelings many clergy victims remain trapped because the trauma bond only grows stronger with the passage of time. In a very real sense this is incest. In her address to the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 2002, Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea explained it clearly:
The sexual violation of a child or adolescent by a priest is incest. It is a sexual and relational transgression perpetrated by THE father of the child's extended family; a man in whom the child is taught from birth to trust above everyone else in his life, to trust second only to God. Priest abuse IS incest.
The pain and fear related to any form of sexual abuse is magnified when the perpetrator is a clergyman and even more so if he is a priest. Many victims report that their abusers threatened them with dire consequences if they disclosed. Some were told that the priest's abusive attentions were God's will and others that to disclose would harm the priest and the Church. Still others were led to believe that this secret was meant to be kept between them and disclosure would bring God's wrath to family or friends. Perhaps one of the more bizarre twists with clergy victims is the reversal of guilt. Believing the priest takes God's place many victims were convinced that priests can do no wrong and because of their celibacy, could not experience any sexual feeling much less sexual contact. The sexual assault by the cleric caused some victims to believe that they had led the priest to commit a sexual act and they assumed the guilt and responsibility for their own sexual transgression and that of the priest as well.
Children are especially prone to the paralyzing fear that follows sexual abuse because of their pre-existing beliefs about priests, the Church and God. The fear is compounded by deep confusion over the morality of the sexual actions and their feelings for the abuser. Catholic children are taught that any sexual thought, desire or action is mortally sinful if it occurs outside of marriage. Furthermore they are taught that spiritual relief and reconciliation with God comes through the intervention of the priest to whom one confesses and receives absolution from the sin. If the priest is, in the mind of the victim, the cause of the sin, then the sole avenue for relief is cut off and the victim's sense of guilt and fear of divine punishment is compounded.
Many victims erroneously believe that any pleasurable feelings they may experience are sinful. They may not have intended these feelings and almost always fail to understand that they are involuntary and therefore beyond their control. Their sense of guilt and shame is often magnified if they assume the abuser's sinfulness. The Church's teaching on homosexuality is an additional source of trauma for the majority of youthful victims who are male. The traditional teaching has consistently framed homosexuality and same-sex relations as mortally sinful. The Catholic Catechism repeats the official position that homosexuality and homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered and contrary to the natural law. If a male or female victim sees himself or herself as heterosexual and experiences sexual abuse by a member of the same sex (priest or nun for example), the moral confusion and sense of isolation and shame is even more intense.
Traditional Catholic spirituality is commonly associated with self-denial, participation in liturgical rituals, dependence on the clergy and the prescriptive pronouncements of the Church for spiritual security. The pre-Christian Stoic dualism that heavily influenced the formation of the primitive Church's sexual ethic is still evident in the emphasis on self-denial and the exaltation of sexual abstinence. Catholics believe that the sacraments are their primary source for spiritual security since the Church teaches that they are necessary for salvation. They are dependent on the clergy for the sacraments since the clergy have the power to judge eligibility for them and are the actual ministers for all but one of the sacraments. Thus Catholic spirituality is essentially a dependent spirituality. Lay persons occupy the passive role with clerics as the actors. Since a secure spirituality involves being both obedient to Church teachings and being as free from sin as possible, it is obvious how essential a role priests play. Catholics are not taught to take responsibility for their spiritual choices. They are told what to choose and that an opposite choice brings the opprobrium of the clergy and its consequent feelings of guilt.
Even in its official response to clergy sexual abuse, especially since the Boston revelations in 2002, the Church continues to show that it is blind to the revictimization this dependent spirituality has on the abused. There have been cases wherein Church officials, while trying to sound sympathetic to victims, have urged that they "go to confession" or urged that they return to active participation in the Church's rituals. Many of the victim oriented liturgies have actually acted as triggers for re-experiencing the trauma associated with the abuse. Even the suggestion of liturgies of penance or lamentation, in spite of the possibly good intentions of the Church officials, indicate the inability to comprehend the nature of the spiritual and emotional damage from clergy abuse. Liturgies performed primarily by clerics, though they express regret and sorrow, end up by giving the clerics the feeling that they have "done something" but have little long term healing effect on victims. The Church here confuses gesture or ritual with substantial healing. In reality the liturgies are symbolic and quickly forgotten, but they illustrate the continuing attempts by clerics to maintain control over the scandal they have caused.
The pdf file of the full report (11,000 words approx cf 4,500 words approx in this abridged version) can be found at: www.catholica.com.au/gc2/td/pdf/SurvivalOfTheSpirit_Doyle.pdf
What are your thoughts on this commentary by Fr Tom Doyle?