Monsters with Human Voices

Nowhere have the revelations of child sexual abuse been more painful than in the various exposés of Catholic priests and religious. Once the silence about abuse in the church was broken, a host of new voices have been heard: victims, victim advocates, the media, the bishops, and even the pope. One voice that hasn’t been heard as often is that of priest-abusers. Marie Keenan, an Irish scholar and psychotherapist, has worked for over twenty years with survivors and perpetrators of sexual crimes. Her interviews with nine abusers—eight priests and one religious brother—form the centerpiece of her book.

Keenan embeds the voices of abusers in an extensive review of relevant literature (the references run to forty-two pages). In order to document the extent of abuse, she cites Irish investigations of clerical child abuse, reports from various U.S. attorneys general, and the two studies commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by John Jay College. And she discusses scholarly investigations—particularly in the field of sociology—that analyze the effect of institutional structure on individual behavior. Finally, Keenan assesses how canon law, moral theology, and ecclesiology shape patterns of thought and behavior for priests and religious. The result is a persuasive understanding of a very problematic model of the priesthood and the clerical self.

Keenan is no apologist for abusers. Crime is crime and sin is sin, but labels like “predator” do little more than place the abuser beyond our understanding. “In the research that is presented in this book, ‘the monster’ spoke and it had a human voice,” Keenan writes in her conclusion, adding that “all the men in my research tried to remain good and faithful priests.” The abusers’ ideas about themselves as priests masked or even fostered serious personal deficits that they “solved” in their sexual activities. Keenan is clear that the problem is not celibacy as such, but rather the self created by priestly formation, which blunted the abusers development as mature adults. “I entered the seminary at eighteen,” one priest told Keenan, “and left seven years later still aged eighteen.” If priests are psychosexually immature when they leave seminary—if they remain essentially adolescent in their understanding of sexual relationships—is it any wonder that some of them would find intimacy with the immature?

How did seminary training fail? Keenan cites a comment by a well-known Irish priest, Rev. Donal Dorr. As part of his preparation for the priesthood, Dorr studied moral theology for seven years. He spent more years studying for a doctorate in moral theology, and still more years teaching moral theology. Child abuse was never mentioned. Dorr suggests that the subject was ignored because sex was discussed in purely physical terms and focused on abstract rules. Broadly put, the issue was “what organ of what body was placed into what part of another body.” The fact that the other body might belong to a child was irrelevant morally. The abusers interviewed by Keenan saw morality as a set of rules that if necessary could be bargained over, minimized, or skirted. Sex with women was clearly sinful but, more important, it was also understood as the fundamental betrayal of priestly celibacy. Yet when it came to sex with boys the abuser said to himself, “it was only touching,” or “he did not resist,” and so on. Keenan calls such self-justifying thinking a failure of empathy. The abuser is following a rule without recognizing that he is responsible for his relation to another person. Frequent confession resulted in relief from feelings of guilt, not moral accountability. One interviewee noted that only one confessor ever chastised him for committing a crime. The emphasis on canon law and metaphysical theology in seminary education leads to the “abstraction” of moral questions, leaving priests ill prepared for the complexity of actual human experience. “Moral theology was taught by men who had no experience of the real world,” according to one interviewee. “They based their teaching totally on canon law…. No mention was made of...what it is like to be a human and a priest.... We talked about everything except ourselves as persons.”

That these men sensed something lacking in priestly training is not surprising. In the 1970s, the U.S. bishops commissioned Eugene Kennedy to study the psychological development of priests. Whatever one may think about the difficulty of establishing exact criteria for personal “development,” Kennedy’s research is troubling: 66 percent of priests in the study were psychologically “underdeveloped,” 8 percent “maldeveloped,” 18 percent “developing,” and only 7 percent “developed.” When Kennedy followed up informally in 1997, there was little change. That should not be surprising. A 1998 report done under episcopal auspices indicated that the bishops had taken no action in response to Kennedy’s original study. In 1992, the Vatican published Pastores dabo vobis, which recommended increased attention to human development and pastoral training in seminary education. Research in Ireland in 2002, however, suggested that there was more rhetoric than reality in the changes. New subjects were tacked onto an already overstuffed curriculum, and largely taught by the same priest-academics who “had no experience of the real world.”

If there were problems with priestly formation, the situation faced by the priest after ordination compounded them. Irish tradition has held priestly “power” in high regard. The priest’s place was at the top of a hierarchy of masculinity. Yet while the priest is invested by the church with special power, he operates in an organization of top-down authority that does not always celebrate personal initiative and decision. That structure has remained fixed while the wider culture in which priests minister has not. According to Keenan, changes in cultural attitudes toward sexuality (even in Ireland) mean that priests are now viewed as representing “marginalized masculinity,” which complicates priestly self-understanding even further. At one time the strength to transcend sexuality was seen as the highest form of masculine strength; in today’s culture it raises questions.

Keenan is interested in undermining not only the common understanding about priest-abusers, but also stereotyping about the response of the bishops. What actually happened in the church in response to the abuse of children by priests is considerably more complex than “bishops covering up for predators.” Keenan tells the story of one bishop who was anguished because stringent action against an offending priest would destroy the only life the man had ever known. Relying on canon law or instructions from Rome meant dealing with inadequate regulations, shifting authority, and bureaucratic muddle. When bishops sought to take swift action to remove priests, they were often checked by procedures of canon law that regarded the accused as innocent until proven guilty in a canonical trial. The Congregation for Clergy normally had jurisdiction in such cases, but as the revelations grew, jurisdiction was shifted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Eventually, however, the number of cases became so numerous that jurisdiction was remanded to the local bishops. In short, even the most well-meaning bishop was caught in a system of confusing dictates and authorities. Keenan’s conclusion: “‘failures’ lay not in non-compliance with institutional norms but the opposite...conformity with institutional culture.”

Keenan is emphatic that she is not trying to identify the cause of clerical abuse. It is clear that the vast majority of priests are not abusers. She regards her findings as “provisional and tentative.” Her principal interest is to move away from seeing sexual abuse as an individual psychic or moral aberration and toward an understanding of how the institution in which the priest-abuser functioned fostered personal crises that perpetrators addressed with unacceptable conduct. As a study of clerical abuse and the social organization of the priesthood, this work is important and deserves the attention of all Catholics, especially bishops.

Published in the 2013-01-25 issue: 
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Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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