Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
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.