Predatory Priests, Silenced Victims (Book Review)

Author:  Frawley-O’Dea, Mary Gail and Virginia Goldner
Publisher: The Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Edward J. Tejirian, Vol.XXVII, No. 4, pp. 49-51

This volume consists of seventeen chapters whose authors include psychoanalysts, psychologists, priests, teachers and writers in the field of religion, as well as novelists. Editor Frawley-O’Dea was the only mental health professional to address the 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the sexual abuse crisis, while co-editor Virginia Goldner is Clinical Professor in the postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at Adelphi. The primary quantitative framework for the volume is the 2004 study sponsored by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose focus was the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the United States. The salient finding was that, of 45,000 Catholic priests serving in the United States between 1950 and 2004, 4.75% were identified as having abused minors. Of these, 64% abused males, 22.6 % abused females, while only 3.6% abused both. Of the boys, 85 % were between the ages of eleven and seventeen. In earlier decades, the age at which a boy was first abused was most commonly between ten and fourteen. Interestingly, however, by the 1990’s 55% who were abused for the first time were between fifteen to seventeen years of age. Of the abusers 67% were pastors or associate pastors, that is to say priests charged with responsibilities in the parishes from which their victims were drawn.

Although the range of backgrounds of the contributors to this volume is impressively and usefully broad, there is one omission. One would have liked to see included one or two contributors conversant with cross cultural and historical aspects of sexuality. The lack of these perspectives is noticeable in the chapter by Gerald Kochansky and Murray Cohen on priests who sexualize minors. To their credit, they make a useful and important distinction between the sexual desire for pre-pubertal boys, to which they apply the term “pedophilia” and attraction to post-pubertal boys, which they call “ephebophilia.” (More commonly, the term “pedophilia” is used to refer to sexual behavior with any legally underage boy or girl.)

However, they muddy the waters by referring to both kinds of sexual attraction as a “perversion.” We know that in other cultures and in other times, sexual attraction to male adolescents has been seen as a normal aspect of male sexual desire. The best known of such instances is probably Greek culture of the classical period, where the attraction of the adult man to the adolescent boy was accepted and idealized. K.J. Dover (1978) has written what may be the definitive text on this subject. More recently Khaled al-Rouayher (2005) has written about the erotic attraction of man for youth in the pre-modern (1500-1800) Arab-Islamic world. And apropos, on the Op-Ed page of a recent New York Times, Richard A. Schweder (2007) writes about an anthropologist who advises American forces in Afghanistan, warning them not to impose their cultural values on a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” for what is understood by all to be an erotic interlude. This is not the place to delve into this subject in the detail that it deserves, but to ignore it runs the risk of conflating two disparate issues: on the one hand, an aspect of male sexual feeling that our contemporary culture rejects but that other cultures have accepted; and on the other hand, the insinuation of sexuality by the more powerful party into a dyadic relationship that is socially and psychologically constructed as one of guidance, teaching, or altruism. My sense is that in cultures where men’s attraction to adolescent males has been permissible it has been felt to be incumbent upon the older party to behave honorably and responsibly toward the younger. Our culture has no such guidelines. Further, men who engage young adolescents in spite of the cultural injunction against such engagement are likely to be immature and lacking in the understanding of the emotional vulnerabilities and needs of a young person.

The chapter by Kochansky and Cohen discusses the backgrounds of priests who abuse, emphasizing the prominence of narcissism in the personalities of many of them. Unfortunately, however, nowhere in this volume is there an in-depth analytic case study of such a priest, although Kochansky has treated many Roman Catholic priests and seminarians. To be fair, one might raise the question of the susceptibility to analysis of a narcissistic, serial abuser. That description would aptly fit the priest who seduced a patient I had in treatment recently. My patient was twenty-eight when I began to see him; the seduction had been initiated when he was barely twelve years old. By the time my patient was fifteen, his seducer was casting an eye around for a younger boy. This was his parish priest, who was also a friend of his mother’s — one of the classic patterns in priestly abuse, as readers of this volume will learn.

There is, in fact, one “case study” offered by contributor Andrea Celenza but it is unsatisfactory for two reasons, First, it deals with a priest who had a series of sexual affairs with adult female parishioners, while the overwhelmingly typical case is that of sexual engagement of minors, especially an adolescent boy or series of boys. The second reason, however, is the strange decision on the part of the author of this chapter to present a “case study” that was actually a composite of a number of priests who had been in therapy with her. This seriously vitiates the utility of the contribution and one wonders why the editors agreed to include it.

On the other hand, a very strong chapter in the book is by editor Frawley-O’Dea, in which she discusses some of the behavioral consequences of abuse that persist into later life, consequences that can also manifest themselves in the therapeutic relationship. She notes, “…the survivor enacts with some frequency some aspects of the perpetrator’s lack of respect for others,” and she wisely adds, “an empathic understanding of the source of the survivor’s sometimes outrageous behavior is essential to remember” (p.78).

Another excellent chapter is by Thomas P. Doyle, an ordained Dominican priest who has served as an expert witness in several hundred clergy abuse cases. The title of the chapter, “Clericalism and Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse” refers to the special status of the clerical caste — priests, bishops, and the whole hierarchy of the church with the pope at the pinnacle — as divinely appointed to mediate between God and the Catholic faithful. The ultimate expression of this function is in the Mass, wherein the wafer and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Only an ordained priest has the power to effect this transubstantiation. Although the Catholic clergy married until the middle of the 12th Century, celibacy came to be seen as an essential prerequisite to the purity required to administer the sacraments, particularly Holy Communion and indeed, was one of the arguments put forward for the abolition of priestly marriage (Tejirian, 1990, p.173 ff.) Fr. Doyle points out that, in the recent past, young men, even while still adolescents, were recruited into seminaries where continence in thought, word, and deed was stressed, with no understanding or preparation for what a life of sexual abstinence would mean. In psychological terms, this means that many men charged with the spiritual guidance of others—guidance that can and does include matters of sexuality — were arrested in their own sexual lives at about the age of the adolescent boys they subsequently seduced.

Kochansky and Cohen point out — as my own limited research in a treatment center for sex offenders has suggested—that the seduction can be an enactment in erotic terms of the need for love and attention on the part of the man while he was still a boy himself. His adolescent self is projected onto the younger partner while he takes the role of the adult from whom he wanted love. To some degree, this can be an aspect of non-erotic mentoring of adolescent youth by older men — one that is both psychologically meaningful to both sides while also having constructive social value. But when acted out by a sexually immature, narcissistic adult who is incapable of genuine, mature empathy for the young, the result can be catastrophic for the young person.

In her chapter on misconduct by male priests in the Episcopal Church, Ann Richards, herself an Episcopal priest, notes that the great majority of instances involved married heterosexual priests who had relationships with adult women in their parishes. The problem in such instances would be analogous to a therapist having a sexual relationship with an adult woman being seen in treatment. Richards brings an interesting perspective to the discussion when she proposes that spiritual and sexual energy are fundamentally the same and that the priest is therefore a sexual icon. In this sense the model for a relationship between a priest and an adult woman is the transgression of a taboo — in the sense of something that is both sacred and forbidden — rather than sexual abuse, as would be the case in the sexual engagement of an adolescent boy or girl.

The last contributor that I will cite is novelist Mary Gordon. She writes, “The particular kind of access that priests are given is a product of their institutional identity; the kind of safety that their roles suggest comes to them from the authority of the institution. Therefore, the institution must examine itself to see what its structure and history has contributed to the problem. And this is precisely what the Catholic Church refuses to do” (p.210). Right. Institutions, however, are not naturally self-reflective. The automatic tendency is to go with the “few bad apples” theory favored after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. One of the “fixes” that have been mentioned by the Catholic hierarchy is to reduce the number of homosexually oriented men who are accepted into seminaries.

In this tendency to externalize the problem rather than to examine how its own institutional structure has generated it, the Church is not very different from American society at large, which continues to be in the throes of a decades-long identity crisis about sexuality. Its ambivalence about how to treat — and indeed even to recognize the reality of — adolescent sexuality reflects a national reluctance to “grow up” — to integrate sexuality into its national self-representation. It’s as if, as a nation, we were a conflicted adolescent, trying on the one hand to repress his sexuality through religious fervor and other forms of repression and denial and on the other hand acting out through a series of sexual sub-personalities. (How else to explain a television program in which the internet is used to draw a man into e-mail correspondence with a middle-aged man pretending to be a fifteen year old girl in order to arrest him on television him when he shows up for the phony assignation?)

In its inability to come to grips with the realities of human sexual need, both for the clergy and laity, the Catholic Church is merely an exaggerated expression of a national problem. Nationally, young people are left to negotiate the hazards of adolescence, to “figure out” the “rules” on their own and in the process, as unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections among the young attest, many suffer another form of victimization. In a sense, the priests who have victimized young people were themselves victims — not in the sense of having been seduced themselves, but of a system that denied the reality of their own sexuality.

If there is one thing about this volume that might leave the psychoanalytically inclined reader dissatisfied, it is that the empathy with the pain of the victim is not matched by an in-depth analytic understanding of the full range of his emotional and sexual responses. In spite of our culture’s conflicts and denials about it, an adolescent IS a sexual being, and I think that, in order to help the patient in therapy, we must not replicate the cultural denial of the reality and normality of his sexual feelings in such a situation. My patient responded with excitement and desire to the powerful forces of sexual pleasure released by the seduction. Initially, however, and before sex was introduced (along with alcohol) he felt valued and special because of the attention of his parish priest. Sex, when it was introduced, operated to keep him in thrall to the older man, even as the sense that the surrounding culture regarded what was occurring as wrong exponentially increased his sense of guilt and shame about his sexual responses and desires. But it was not the sex in and of itself, but rather the realization that he was not so much an object of love as a temporary instrument — one in a long line, at that—for the fulfillment of the needs of the older man that contributed to the disillusionment, rage, and damaging self-hatred that followed the abandonment by him.

A further observation with respect to an understanding of the nature of the dyadic relationship with which this book is concerned: I think that there are bound to be significant differences that are related to the age at which the young person is sexually engaged, for example, the difference between age eleven and age sixteen, that remain unexplored in this book, as do experiences of boys who develop along gay versus heterosexual paths, and the differential experiences of girls in contrast to boys. But to be fair, no single volume could be expected to do justice to the breadth and complexity of this subject. The few reservations that I have noted aside, this remains a worthwhile compilation on an important and difficult subject and would be worth reading by any therapist working with a victim of clerical abuse or who might contemplate doing so.

References

Dover, K.J. (1978) Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
El-Rouayher, Khaled (2005) Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Schweder, Richard A. “A True Culture War.” New York Times, Oct. 27, 2007, p. A17.
Tejirian, Edward J. (1990) Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power, and Fear in Male Psychology. New York: Routledge.

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