Nielsen, M. E. (2003). Appalling acts in god's name. Society, 40(3), 16-19.
Page numbers are inserted in brackets.
© 2003 Society, Transaction Publishers
IN GOD'S NAME
As the headlines cry out, abuse by Roman Catholic priests against children and youth within the church is in the news. Indeed, a subscription to e-mail updates of religion stories on the New York Times will garner a daily dose of news about abusive priests, but little of anything else in the world of religion. What little research exists on the topic suggests that about 2% of Catholic priests engage in pedophilia, and an additional 4% in ephebophilia (sexual contact with post-pubescent adolescents). How do a few priests come to dominate the headlines?
Evidence of this is found in many areas of life. For instance, take politics. How many Catholics have been elected president? Only Kennedy, and his election just a few decades ago was seen as a big step forward in gaining acceptance by the rest of society. Better strides have been made in entertainment, with some positive portrayals of Catholics appearing from time to time. Perhaps the classic here is Father Flanagan, in Boy's Town, but there are abundant references to Catholics as Other. Remember the bigot in Blazing Saddles, who is willing to work with the Blacks and the Chinese, but not with the Irish Catholics? Or the more pointedly cruel Meaning of Life scene, featuring the singing and dancing Catholic family whose progeny are seemingly endless, all because the pope bans artificial birth control. Lest you think that these examples are too far distant to reflect current attitudes, consider the recent film, Keeping the Faith. In this love-triangle with a twist, two religious Others, a priest and a rabbi, share affections for the same woman. For the majority of Americans, a Catholic priest is a caricature, known more for what he is not (sexual) than for the things he is.
Which leads us to one of the most basic ways that Catholics are Other: sexuality. Sexual deviance - whether celibacy or homosexuality - helps to perpetuate the story. We are all, to some degree, voyeurs interested in the private lives of our neighbors, and most especially, those whose sexual practices may differ from our own. So, when priests, who have take vows of celibacy and are placed in positions of trust, betray that vow and trust, we are interested. We are doubly interested when the betrayal takes the form of homosexuality, as is true in the majority -- some experts suggest 80% -- of cases in the news.
For better or for worse, Catholic sexuality is perceived to lie outside the American mainstream. The official church position on matters of sexuality for lay members (no artificial birth control methods) and for clergy (celibacy), create a sense that Catholics are peculiar, outside the norm. Then when a priest, who represents Catholicism, violates additional norms (sex with an under-age person, usually homosexual), there is something of a double-whammy. The norm violation is magnified when the already different violates yet another norm. And, of course, the public is interested in stories like this.
Given the current interest in the story, we have a chance to consider some important questions about sex. Although discussion of sex may be dif-
ficult in a context that defines sex outside marriage as evil, and marital sex as bad if it is not for procreation, we now have an opportunity to discuss what it really means to be celibate in a highly sexualized world. Does celibacy mean absolutely no sex, ever? Or, can one be celibate and yet once or twice have a sexual encounter with another person? Or with oneself? How do we define what is "normal" in a lifestyle that is statistically not "normal"? A similar discussion is beginning now in the heterosexual community, as an increasing number of couples, once they are engaged to be married, refrain from premarital sex even though they lost their virginity long ago. Is it possible to have a "second celibacy", just as some couples are trying to obtain a "second virginity"? It is time to have this kind of discussion, so that as we discuss the role of celibacy in the priesthood, we understand better just what it means to be celibate.
We also have an opportunity to consider the effects of what we might call "third-person sex" on celibate priests. The priest who hears confessions encounters a wide range of sexual practices, ranging from adultery to homosexuality, and masturbation to zoophilia. Do we really understand and appreciate the force of this knowledge on a priest whose sexual experience is limited? Isn't this something like the experiment in which people are instructed not to think about a white elephant, and who then find themselves unable to avoid thinking of that elephant? Because people are naturally curious about the forbidden, priests need a better support system and training in order to help them carry out their ministerial responsibilities. This must extend to include matters of sexuality within the priesthood.
The issue may have been adopted by liberal and conservative Catholics, but the story remains in the news for at least one other reason: because Catholics are defined as "other". Roman Catholics are a stereotyped and stigmatized group. This may seem an odd claim to make, given that they comprise the largest single Christian denomination in the country, but for the majority of Americans, Catholics are "other", an outgroup whose religious beliefs and practices remain different from the dominant Protestant religion of their neighbors.
Before being carried away by questions of celibacy, it is important that we consider a basic question. Even if -- and it is a very unlikely "if" -- celibacy were no longer mandatory, and if women were ordained to the priesthood, would this eliminate the problem of sexual abuse by priests? No, of course not. We need only look at the many other examples of forbidden sex, of clergy who misuse their power and position to satisfy their sexuality, to see that this is not a solution.
Jehovah's Witnesses have found themselves in the headlines for their actions in the alleged sexual abuse of children. In one case, a New Jersey couple was disfellowshipped for their efforts to expose such abuse by a member of their church. Similar stories have been reported recently in Ohio and in Washington. Like the Roman Catholic cases, illicit sex is the focus. The Jehovah's Witnesses are highly insular, however, and require that allegations be substantiated by another person who witnessed the abuse before the church will act against the aggressor. The result? Reports of victims who must wait until judgment day for justice; of abusers who suffer little or no consequence for their misdeeds; and of whistleblowers who lose church standing because they believe a child who has no corroborating witness.
Another church dealing with charges of abuse is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). In some ways, allegations of abuse here also have the heightened intrigue of violated sexual norms, as Mormonism's polygamous past continues to color people's impressions of the church. To deal with this, church leaders have undergone a concerted campaign to shape its image. Along with an ongoing advertising campaign, they have changed the logo to emphasize the words "Jesus Christ", and have asked that news reporters refer to the church by its full name upon first reference, and thereafter as The Church of Jesus Christ. They have discouraged their members from using the terms "Mormon" or even "LDS", all to appear more mainstream, to distance themselves from their deviant past.
Despite these efforts, the church finds itself in headlines for sexual abuse in its ranks, sometimes paying millions in settlements. Still, since 1985 the church has instructed its clergy to consult with headquarters regarding cases of abuse, making the hierarchical structure of the church work more on behalf of the victim than has been the case with some other churches. Upon calling the abuse hotline, the clergyman is directed not only in the legal ramifications of the abuse, but also in how to obtain professional counseling for the victim. The system is fallible, but might serve as a model to improve upon for other organizations trying to deal with institutionalized abuse.
The similarities and differences between the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and the Roman Catholics, are instructive. All three groups are distinctly hierarchical, with strict "lines of authority" expected to be followed. Their hierarchical structure makes it easier for lawyers to accuse leaders of failing to act in cases of abuse, thereby winning larger settlements from the church as a whole than would be possible if limited to a more local level. Also, each church has been (and continues to be) seen as somewhat distinct religiously, relative to the rest of society; Roman Catholics are distinct by virtue of being the group that was rejected in the protestant reformation, and Jehovah's Witnesses & Mormons by virtue of their unusual theology-- beliefs different enough that many, more mainstream Protestant denominations debate whether or not the Christian label is appropriate, and whether a person converting from Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism needs to be baptized in order to gain full fellowship in their new church.
Some important differences also emerge. Unlike with the Catholics, abuse in the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon churches is more likely to take the form of heterosexual sex with a young victim. Hetero- vs. homo-sexual deviance means that the norm violation is more severe, and prurient interest is heightened, in the case of the Catholic priests gone astray. It plays into the stereotype of an older man who seduces a boy, "making" him homosexual in the process.
Another difference is the status of the abuser within each church group. In the Roman Catholic abuse cases, focus has been placed on the priest, a professional representative of the church. In contrast, the abusers in the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon cases typically are lay members, not necessarily local leaders. Thus, in those cases it becomes a matter of the organization failing to act, rather than acting inappropriately. Sins of omission are not nearly as interesting as sins of commission. Voyeurs would much rather watch something happen than watch for the failure of something to happen.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, we have the simple matter of size. There are about 1 million Jehovah's Witnesses in the U.S., 6 million Mormons, and well over 30 million Roman Catholics. If you were in charge of a television news network or newspaper, which story of abuse would seem most newsworthy, most marketable, and most interesting to the greatest number of your audience?
What should be done about the problem of sexual abuse in the priesthood? We must begin by recognizing that not all abusers are alike, that there are many different types of abusers. With his typology of abusive professionals (including doctors, dentists, and others in addition to clergy), John Gonsiorek offers a good place to begin. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who simply are na´ve about the consequences of their actions on others. They have a very simplistic understanding of what constitutes sexual impropriety. Next are the relatively normal people, who are stressed to the breaking point, and whose abuse comes more from faulty coping methods than from anything else. Finally are the more severely disturbed, who may be psychotic or sociopathic, out of touch with the reality that the majority of us share. There is some reason to be optimistic about treating some of these groups, but for many there is little reason for optimism. Treatment is unlikely to be sufficient to allow us to return all of these individuals to their former positions of trust.
Given that, we must look to other avenues for ways to address the problem. Prevention is a better first-step but it, too, is daunting. It is difficult to predict complex behaviors such as child abuse on the basis of psychological tests alone. There are warning signs, such as the fact that most of the priests who have abused were, themselves, abused as children, but none of these factors is 100% accurate. Our prevention methods must do more than try to prevent "bad apples" from entering the clergy; we must recognize that the stresses and strains of the position require proactive efforts. These can take many forms, but should include better education of priests and their supervisors. We must recognize that the multiple roles of a parish priest (leader, confidant, community member, etc.) makes it difficult for him to maintain proper boundaries, and that continuing education in this area is needed.
The organization itself can be improved to deal with these problems. Where policies don't exist, they need to be instituted; where they do exist, they need to be improved. Among the policies should be provisions for better record keeping & communication within the church, and for serious attention to the welfare of the victim. These changes can make explicit that the goal is to serve the community, and not to protect the church hierarchy. We also need better investigation of claims of abuse, ideally by third parties
who can maintain impartiality. These third parties should also be charged with collecting data so that we better understand the nature and extent of the problem, as well as monitor efforts to treat victims with respect. An impartial group such as this would help restore confidence in the church, which polls have seen fall sharply since abuse came to dominate the scene.
Indeed, there is a serious need for better treatment of abuse victims. Sylvia Demarest, an attorney who has represented victims of abusive priests, reports that over a course of 20 years of work in this area, in none of the cases she has investigated was a victim offered treatment. Not a single one. This is an abominable record, which must change.
We also need more research into the causes of abuse, its prevention, and treatment. For example, it is difficult to know the extent of the problem, because males are less likely than females are to seek therapy, and yet are more likely to report having been abused by priests. Does this mean that we have underestimated the extent of the problem? Only better, more systematic research can really address this vital question. We also need to know whether and how the effects of abuse differ as a function of the abuser's characteristics. That is, what additional effects, if any, accompany abuse at the hand of a person who is considered to represent God? Given research findings that people who use religion to cope with stress fare better than those who do not, what happens to the coping resources of a person abused by clergy? We might reasonably expect this to compound the problems of coping with stress, but the question begs to be studied more completely so that we can better help those who have been abused.
Finally, we must address the institution of religion and its role in child abuse. Although abuse by clergy is most likely to appear in the news, abuse by others is much more common... and it, too, often is done in the name of religion. In its extreme forms, such abuse can come to dominate the headlines. Take, for example, the case of Jacques Robidoux, convicted on June 14, 2002, of first-degree murder for starving his infant son Samuel for two months. He did it for religious reasons, because some other members of his little religious group felt impressed that the infant's mother should drink only almond milk in order to cure her of vanity. God's cure for vanity is harsh, however, and while members of the religion looked on for two months, Samuel starved and died. Does their God look down at the situation, pleased with a childless mother's newfound humility?
Religious abuse comes in many forms, most less dramatic than the Robidoux's. It comes in sufficient quantities that Bottoms and Shaver, psychologists who study cases such as these, state that more abuse occurs in the name of God than in the name of Satan. And they are right, when you look at the numbers. In their study, which asked psychologists and therapists to describe the cases of abuse that they had treated, 13% of the psychologists reported treating at least one case of religious abuse, but not a single instance of "satanic" abuse was reported. Clearly, physical and sexual abuse against children and teens is all too frequently justified for some religious reason. Enough is enough!
The problem of abuse is not limited to the Catholic church--- if only it were that simple! Society needs to examine its religious institutions. Give them credit for the many good things they do, but hold them responsible for the bad they do as well.
Michael Nielsen is Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of the Psychology of Religion Pages and has published widely on psychological aspects of religious life. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For more research on this topic I recommend: