Who Can We Forgive?

What I’ve learned from counseling sex offenders
Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick arrives at Dedham District Court in Dedham, Massachusetts (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters).

 

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After 2018, it seemed safe to say that Theodore McCarrick had become the most reviled man in the U.S. Catholic Church. Catholics who voted for Biden and those who still pine for Trump, those who love the Latin Mass and those who don’t, can all agree on this: McCarrick is vile, and we hate him.

Not long ago I saw TV footage of this lonely and loathsome ninety-one-year-old shuffling into a courtroom in Massachusetts. In that moment I briefly felt something approaching sorrow for him. My superego swiftly moved in to forbid further feelings of sorrow or pity, and to insist that I think of him only as a moral monster. In this feeling I reckon I speak for nearly everybody today. I have, in fact, some modest evidence to confirm this: an informal poll of thirty undergraduates. When I asked them in class, “Can you love sexual abusers?”, they gave me such looks of disgust. The ferocity of their verbal responses staggered me. About a quarter of the class applauded the normally timid girl who stood up and announced that such people should simply be shot on sight.

These students, like many and perhaps all of us at some point, seemed to think we are on firm ground when we refuse to entertain the thought that sexual abusers are anything other than grotesques. Even in a society as morally incoherent as ours, where we disagree on so much, at least we agree that some people are just evil.

As I marveled at the same harshness in myself, which refused to feel even a fleeting moment of pity for McCarrick, my superego, swiftly changing course, found fresh material with which to rebuke me: How, it asked, can you deny pity to a McCarrick when, in another context, you would never dream of doing so to other human beings who find themselves in a similar situation? That other context is the work I do as a psychotherapist. About half of my current caseload consists of young patients who are ordered by the courts into treatment for sexual offenses against victims who are all underage children or adolescents.

When I learned that such programs existed, my “ick switch” immediately flipped on. I couldn’t imagine even being in the same room with such a person. When I first dreamed of a clinical career a quarter-century ago, the model I had in mind was that of the classical psychoanalyst who dealt exclusively with the “worried well” from the upper-middle class. Such people would be mildly depressed or neurotic, or maybe struggling with an addiction: common maladies found in the well-thumbed sections of my Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Such patients would never send me to the section on Sexual Sadism Disorder. But I have had to become familiar with those pages as I sought to understand some of my patients. People tend to assume that these patients must all come from “bad” or broken homes, but I can tell you that in one such case the parents stressed repeatedly during the diagnostic interview that the whole family was God-fearing, churchgoing, patriotic, and successful. Both parents held advanced degrees and had high-paying and highly respected jobs. And yet they discovered that their teenage son had been raping his little brother for nearly three years, and was defiantly unapologetic about it.

Some sexual offenders are from successful middle-class families; some come from impoverished and unbelievably traumatized backgrounds; some are cardinals in the Catholic Church. There is no one “type” or profile of abuser, and one cannot easily detect them in a room full of people.

Even in a society as morally incoherent as ours, where we disagree on so much, at least we agree that some people are just evil.

The example I have offered is by no means the most horrific. To read about such cases, with or without the most disturbing details, understandably provokes revulsion in most of us. We are tempted to preemptively condemn such offenders to the lowest circle of hell, and maybe even wonder if they wouldn’t be better off dead. But facile demonization is not permitted to Christians or clinicians, and I attempt to be both.

I never thought I’d want to work with people who have confessed to sexual offenses, especially against children. And yet I have found—much to my own surprise—that the work I do with such patients can be very rewarding. How is that possible? In one way, the answer is simple. As a matter of professional obligation, I have to see these patients as individuals, and try to see them in full, just as I would do with any other patient. I see the good things they do, often in their own quirky ways.

I am not an agent of the court—or at least I do not consider myself one, even as I file monthly reports with probation officers on how my patients are progressing. So I have before my eyes their full humanity in all its complexity, and not merely one label: “Sexual Offender.” As I long ago learned from the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the dangers of labeling and abstraction lie precisely in their dehumanizing power. As Levinas taught me, I must always keep before me the human face of each person, and never reduce a human being to some neat category. I must see them as Brock or Vladimir, as Mohammad or Pierre, and not as “Defendant A” or “Prisoner B.” Thus does basic Psychotherapy 101 join hands with Theology 101: all patients, all people, are intrinsic bearers of the image and likeness of God, and consequently have full human dignity, no matter what they’ve done.

Stated negatively, and in terms the great child therapist Melanie Klein pioneered, we refuse to engage in splitting human beings into good and bad. We can, we must, see them—and ourselves!—always as both, or at least always as capable of both. In words I quote to my students every semester from Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. That is true of me and my students, and it is no less true of my patients.

If we are to make any progress in therapy, then the evil my patients have done must be discussed, looked at, puzzled over; they must come to mourn and repent of their actions and seek forgiveness for them. My patients are worthy of love and forgiveness while also needing to be held accountable. We don’t coddle sex offenders. Good psychotherapy, I tell my introductory students, must never just be about affirmation. If it merely soothes and calms, it isn’t going to be useful; it will just infantilize. Instead, good psychotherapy, not unlike good spiritual direction and confession, must also be about challenging—graciously and at the opportune time—people to change. Nobody comes to my consulting room because things are going well. They are in pain or distress and, however inchoately and ambivalently, want something to change. In the case of my court-ordered patients, society as a whole wants some change in them so they can deal with what they have done, take responsibility, and offer reparations for their actions where that is possible and appropriate. Only by doing these things can patients be expected to improve and eventually move on. As the great pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said, “We all hope that our patients will finish with us and forget us, and that they will find living itself to be the therapy that makes sense.”

One can both acknowledge one’s revulsion at McCarrick’s abuses and still see him as one of us, a fellow human being in the eyes of God.

To return to McCarrick, the lesson I am learning with him is one that my patients have taught me—for patients always teach us more than any textbook ever will. One can both acknowledge one’s revulsion at McCarrick’s abuses and still see him as one of us, a fellow human being in the eyes of God. That second acknowledgement doesn’t negate the first.

But, admittedly, this is not an easy balance to strike. I am currently struggling to help one of my patients see that she really can hold several things in tension. First, that what she suffered at the hands of her father when she was a child was evil; she is right to finally allow herself to begin working through the stark terror of having been regularly beaten and locked in a closet overnight from the age of seven until she was removed from his care some years later. Second, that she can allow herself to feel hatred for all that her father did to her; these feelings will not be, as she was told by an unhelpful family member, a “crutch” and “excuse” for her to avoid getting on with leading a “productive” life. Third, that she can also allow herself some feelings of interest in her father. If she decided she wanted to talk with him once a year at Christmas, there would be nothing wrong with that.

My patient, in other words, has gradually been able to understand that her father did truly monstrous things to her, but is not therefore an irremediable monster: he is still her father, and always will be. Does she ever want to live with or even near him again? No. Does she want him to continue to face justice and serve out his prison term? Yes, she does. Will she consent to some possible future contact with him? That remains to be seen.

Can my patient be a model for Catholics looking at the McCarricks in our midst? Perhaps Catholics must first deal with a prior question: Why should we want to do anything other than revile people like McCarrick? Perhaps, some might concede, not hating abusers is a professional obligation for clinicians, but the rest of us are entitled to our disgust. It seems to me that Christians are vulnerable here in an acutely difficult way. Is not the petition “forgive us our sins as we forgive others” right there in the prayer Christ taught us? To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should forgive McCarrick merely because, if we don’t, a sadistic God will inflict some punishment on us. Forgiveness can never be demanded; it must be freely given, and not at the behest of a sadistic superego masquerading (as it so often does with Catholics) as the voice of conscience. Above all, forgiveness must be given by victims first and foremost, and on their own timetable.

But when it is finally given, we should celebrate that fact. Forgiveness breaks deathly cycles of destruction and recrimination, at least some of the time and in some ways. And real forgiveness is capacious enough that it does not require uniformity of practice. It does not require that we ever again like or be close to a person who has done evil to us. Nor is it necessarily completed in one discrete action; it may gradually unfold over time. A forgiving people can at the same time be revolted by an abuser’s actions, demand that he face justice and make reparations to his victims, insist he be permanently ejected from all positions in the Church, work tirelessly to overthrow the corrupt systems that allowed him to get away with his abuse for so long—and also love him as a fallen human being and a child of the merciful God who saw his own son sadistically abused, humiliated, and killed. A forgiving, loving people whom God has set free can grieve for the enormous damage many abusers have inflicted on individual victims and the Church as a whole, while also hoping with real love that, in God’s good time, they might be reconciled to us, and we to them.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor of psychology at the University of Saint Francis and in part-time private practice as a psychotherapist at Phoenix Associates, both in Fort Wayne, Indiana. All names and clinical details in this article have been heavily disguised in keeping with standard ethical practice.

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