When the scandal involving Catholic priests first made the headlines, my initial question was why. Was there something about priests which inclined them to be abusive? Was celibacy the problem? How could men dedicated to service of others betray their parishioners?
I waited for an explanation. None emerged. Shock, disbelief and outrage all understandably took center stage. Some people blamed the Catholic Church. Some tried to minimize the problem. Bishops covered it up by moving abusive priests like checkers on a board, hoping they could remain hidden.
Authors and reporters have thoroughly chronicled the effect on victims. The courts have demanded accountability through prison sentences for priests and financial penalties for the dioceses involved. It seemed that this crisis suddenly emerged in the past few decades. But church documents chronicle attempts to correct this problem in the first few centuries. It’s not a new problem but a taboo topic as incest was before the 1970’s.
So now what? Pope Benedict has pronounced that he will prevent future abuse by priests without saying exactly how he and the church hierarchy will go about the task. One of my main concerns is that in our rush to end the problem we have not first stopped to understand it. Of course, discussion of sexual abuse is unpalatable. No one wants to imagine it could even happen. Yet it does. Although there might be fewer cases lately, priest sexual abuse still shows up in the news on a regular basis.
Where do we start? The John Jay Commission has taken an overview of the problem. Now it is time to look more closely at the contributing factors. What inclines people to abuse others, particularly children and adolescents? What is there about our culture which encourages sexual abuse? Is there something about the structure of the church which encourages priests to become abusive or attracts potential abusers to the priesthood? What role does the expectation of celibacy play? Research and speculation have explored all of these issues or at least begun the search for understanding.
The mind of the abusive priest is one resource which has been studiously overlooked. Of course it would be uncomfortable to get into their minds. It would be like wallowing in a cesspool. But maybe that’s where some good clues to this problem might emerge.
In researching material for my novel, The Pastor’s Inferno, I was able to find only one study of the minds of molesters, Unspeakable Acts: Why Men Sexually Abuse Children by Douglas Pryor. I found no studies of the inner workings of abusive priests. Maybe it is time we as a society open this chapter.
Life Lab Lessons
1.Is there something in your past life which shames you?
2.What led you to act this way?
3.Did you try to stop yourself?
4.What kept you from controlling yourself?
5.What have you done to get back on the right path?