I am a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, and a psychoanalyst. It’s a peculiar life that I lead, listening to, thinking about, and trying to heal the maladies of mood, thought, character and self-regard (or lack thereof) that are brought to my office and to my couch. It was strange the first six months that I did it, and strange ten years later, and still strange twenty-plus years into it, as I am now. Not strange to me, just strange to most other people. I am enough of an introvert that most of the time I am content to sit with the muddle and the misery and keep them largely to myself, save for the conversations I have, usually at a somewhat abstract level, with other therapists and analysts who do what I do in their own offices. The epiphanies I share with individual patients have a way of sustaining a person like me, whose penchant for privacy and wealth of reserve is a good fit, and maybe even a necessary one, for the work that I do.
There’s something about the ongoing debacle of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, however, that leaves me feeling like the kid in the back of class raising his hand with something to say, and never called on. Years of listening to and thinking about the voices of the sexually abused, from every perspective, on and behind the couch, have led me to feel particularly endowed and particularly burdened with insight into these matters. The experience of growing up Catholic and spending time in “formation” at a Catholic seminary prior to medical school gives me a particular vantage from which to view the church. Yet my status as a gay man who is frequently singled out for particular censure by the Catholic hierarchy gives me pause when I think of commenting on their failings. Would anyone hear my voice and not think I am just peeved at my own excommunication from the fold? But it turns out I have a lot to say on the subject of pedophilia in the church. The dilemma seems only to be: Where do I start?
One of the observations made recently in the media that I found particularly trenchant came from Maureen Dowd, commenting on Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the Holy See, who said that the abuse scandal showed that Satan uses priests to try to destroy the church, “and so we should not be surprised if priests too ... fall into temptation. They also live in the world and can fall like men of the world.”
Dowd’s comment was “Actually, falling into temptation is eating cupcakes after you’ve given them up for Lent. Rape and molestation of children is far beyond what most of us think of as succumbing to worldly temptation.”
The failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to contemplate that maybe there is something about the church and the priesthood itself that breeds the sickness of pedophilia is exasperating in the extreme. The easy answer they prefer, that it is cultural permissiveness about sexuality that fosters the sexual abuse of children, is so lacking in insight and rich in smug self-regard that it makes me nearly apopleptic. The idea that mastery of a sexual life might be what guards against the trends that end in sexual abuse of children is so far from their comprehension that I hold little hope of their arriving at a position of moral wisdom on this subject, at least in my lifetime. They are as bought-in as a group of people can be to their doctrine that sexuality is sinful unless it is subordinate to procreation, and it is precisely this equation of all other aspects of sexuality, however they might be viewed by the rest of “the secular world” as opposites, as optimal and healthy on one end of the scale and deranged and perverse at the other, that disables their moral reasoning on the subject of sex. I think it also attracts the pedophilic character structure to the priesthood. If you know, deep in your heart, that your sexual and interpersonal reality is one that successful, actualized adults view as twisted and insufferable, then the twin enticements of the priesthood are these: The elusive ideal of chastity is seen as superior to a sexually expressive relationship between adults, and the intention to fulfill or attain it, even if doomed to occasional or frequent or, as we have seen, compulsive lapses, provides a balm of superiority to the battered self-esteem of the emotionally-hobbled pedophile. And the doctrine that all non-procreative acts are equally or at least similarly in violation of natural law, the view that enables Father Gabriele Amorth to think of child seduction or rape as “giving into temptation” instead of acts of an entirely other order, likewise appeals to the fractured vanity of the pedophile, who can feel he’s no worse than all the fornicating, contraception-using, masturbating masses, and maybe even a step above them, as he has worn the cloak of priestly virtues in at least some traditional respects, comforting the bereaved, preaching charity, forgoing personal wealth, stifling the impulse to petty gossip, and the like.
Certainly the Catholic priesthood over the centuries has attracted exemplary men, men of exceptional ego strength, uncompromised virtue, and true sacrifice. But it has also attracted quite the opposite, and the church cannot pretend that its attraction of large numbers of pedophiles has nothing to do with the contours of the institution it has created. The longstanding and current assertion that it is permissiveness about homosexuality in the secular world with which the church must coexist, or perhaps on the formation staffs of its own seminaries, that accounts for the ghastly pervasiveness of sexual abuse by ordained priests, is not merely misguided and inaccurate. It is that (misguided and inaccurate), and it's a logical outgrowth of their superiority complex about the renunciation of sex for gratification’s sake, but it is also pathetic, dishonest, and selfish—-the scapegoating of yet another vulnerable population-—and it’s unworthy of anyone who would make claims to honesty, charity or moral authority.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy exists in a world of their own deliberate perpetuation that is pre-modern and basically ahistorical with respect to sexuality. The actual world in which we live, in which health and maturity are achieved, or in which they prove to be beyond the capacity of certain unfortunate or, yes, morally defective individuals, is not one in which moral wisdom exists only in the valuing of virginity and the observance of due gravity about procreative capacity. Almost any normal, moral, mature adult could tell you this. The hierarchy of the church, however, cannot or will not. While we know the large chasm, and many differences, between the activities of a pedophile with a child and the consensual, respectful, tender activities of two adults who are motivated by many things but not by any wish to conceive a child, the church hierarchy conflates them in an instant, and points to our tolerance for the supposed evils of the latter as breeding ground for the former. Psychologically, this happens to be the exact opposite of the truth, and in the twenty-first century we are not such victims of misinformation that we can’t come right out and say so. Pedophiles cannot manage the rigors that adults in functional, intimate, ongoing sexual relationships with other adults must rise to: We must let another whole, more-or-less equal person, whose interests we must consider mutually with our own, into the vulnerable and messy recesses of our lives, and not only survive it but come back to it another day and in fact come back to it on a string of other days stretching forward into an indefinite future. Pedophiles, on the other hand, are terrified of vulnerability. They either avoid it entirely, or keep an internal running score of acts of domination that compensate for what they feel are the accumulated humiliations of interpersonal relations, and so lead split lives of seeming normalcy alongside hidden perversity that, in their view of things, equalizes the psychic imbalance. It is the capacity to accept ourselves as imperfect and messy and perhaps at times ridiculous in our own eyes, and in the eyes of at least our chosen intimate partner, and the ability not to judge our imperfections too harshly, that makes us capable of sexual intimacy in its most moral form. It is the inability to tolerate any such thing that prompts the pedophile to do what he does. The teaching that sexual relations for purposes that are not procreative, or even masturbation, are evil in the eyes of God does not help any individual prepare for sexual or interpersonal maturity, or to direct their sexual energies into channels that are consistent with health instead of the tortured path of sickness and depravity.
A second subject, tangled up with the splitting of life into normalcy and perversity that so often attends to the existence of pedophilia, is the meaning of secret-keeping. Part of the domination of a child by a pedophile is coercion to accept that the reality of these events is authored only by the abuser; they have only the meaning he gives them or are in fact made magically unreal by his wish that they be so. Most any survivor of sexual abuse can tell you that secrecy about the events of their abuse protects the abuser and perpetuates the destruction of the victim. How is it that members of the hierarchy can unselfconsciously utter the assertion that they thought secrecy was in the best interests of the Universal Church? They are more than a bit like Michael Jackson telling Martin Brashear on network television that there was nothing wrong about an adult sharing his bed with children, in fact nothing more beautiful in the world, and not realizing that he had, by his own obliviousness, convicted himself in the court of public opinion. No one in their right moral mind could have said what he said, and most everyone but him knew it instantly. Exactly what is the moral derangement that allows some, many, in fact, in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to perceive a greater moral good in secret-keeping about priestly pedophilia than in bringing pedophilia into the light, and marshalling every force, religious and civil, that could bring it to an end? That greater moral good is not apparent to we mere lay people, and we do not suspect, as a matter of fact, than any exists. I for one suspect that the hierarchy’s different ordering of values has something to do with the very notion of hierarchy-—that the mutuality and equality that orders life for those of us who maintain intimate adult relationships is at odds with the hierarchical order of Roman Catholic clerical life, and the idea that one’s subordinates should accept bearing a cross for the good or the aggrandizement of someone or something greater seems more in keeping with moral order when everyone is one up or one down, and never straight across the breakfast table from you.
Few in the Roman Catholic hierarchy could care less what I think, except perhaps if there’s an advantage to be gained in tying an unwelcome message to a messenger as discredited as me. But I believe, nevertheless, that the reformation necessary to address what’s ailing their church is one in which the inequalities between clergy and laity, male and female, celibate and sexual, adult and child, gay and straight, all begin to bend to the sensibilities of the-—heaven forfend!—-modern world in which we find ourselves. Only then will the exploitation of the weak, and the cover-ups that perpetuate it, strike them in something like the way it strikes us—as an unmitigated injustice, with no veneer of godliness.