Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 1. 2004.
History: From Thy Bayou To Boston
Most writers agree that the Catholic Church’s contemporary sexual-abuse scandal began in Henry, LA when molestation allegations were made against Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in 1983 (Berry, 1992, 2000; Bruni and Burkett, 1993; Jenkins, 1996; Wills, 2000; Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002). The Gauthe case contained all the elements that eventually would become associated with the Church crisis. In fact, a review of the relevant literature, including over 100 newspaper articles, suggests a deadeningly repetitive paradigm of perpetration and cover-up, first revealed in the Gauthe case and lived out for decades across the United States.
Typically, a priest arrived in a parish or other Church setting sometime between 1960 and 1990. Often energetic and charismatic, he focused his ministry on youth activities. Gradually, he developed friendships with young people, frequently boys between 11 and 15 years old, some from difficult homes and in need of attention, others from stable and loving families. All had been taught from birth to respect and trust priests as Christ’s representatives on earth. Eventually, Father introduced sex into his relationship with a young person.
Somewhere along the way, a fellow priest, a parishioner, a victim’s parent, or a victim complained about Father to the pastor, a diocesan representative, or the bishop, either when the abuse was occurring or later. When an accusation was made, there were a couple of likely outcomes. Years ago, the complainant may have been scolded for trying to “bring scandal to the Church,” an overused term connoting an offense considered by too many clerics to be far graver than anything Father may have done (Sipe, 1995; Wills, 2000; Kennedy, 2001; Cozzens, 2002; Paulson, 2002). In such a case, the chastened person was sent home and, as rumors of the accusations surfaced in the gossip mill of the parish, he or she might end up shunned by priests and fellow faithful alike (Bruni and Burkett, 1993, 2002; Briggs, 2002).
Back at the rectory, Father was confronted and, not always but in a remarkable number of cases, acknowledged the accuracy of the allegations. Having confessed, he promised not to sin again. As the decades passed, it became increasingly likely that Father would be sent off for psychological evaluation or treatment or both; earlier on, his resolve to change was taken at face value. In either case, Father sooner or later left the parish or school and, either with no treatment or after being treated, turned up in another setting where no one was informed about his prior alleged or acknowledged problems. Too many times, he abused again, and the sequence was repeated.
As years passed and the bishops came under public pressure to do more about sexual abuse, another scenario played out when a priest was accused of past or present abuse. Here, the complainant was taken seriously. She or he was assured that Father would be removed from any ministry involved with children. The Church offered to pay for the victim’s counseling. As accusers became more aggressive in their demands for redress, sometimes engaging attorneys to help them, secret settlement agreements were reached in which money was given to the plaintiffs. Although the Church has been lambasted for negotiating secret legal settlements, it was very often victims who wanted their abuse and the payouts to remain confidential.
Now, Father almost always was sent for psychological evaluation and treatment. Sometimes he was returned to ministry with access to children; sometimes he was placed in a hospital or nursing-home ministry ostensibly removed from young people; sometimes he was laicized; sometimes he resigned. Treatment programs and discharge plans varied widely in their competence and credibility. Recommendations about fitness for ministry did not always represent well the priest’s psychosexual organization or his propensity to reoffend. When priests were reassigned, the receiving clergy and community typically were not informed about the priest’s background.
Although there were wide variations within the paradigm presented here, this was more or less the characteristic pattern of sexual abuse and the response to it enacted by the Catholic Church for decades, perhaps for centuries.
Emblematic not only of the perpetration and cover-up of sexual abuse within the Church, the Gauthe case also shattered previously sacred relationships protecting the Catholic Church from scandals associated with sexually predatory priests. Lay people who at one time would have done what they were told by priests and bishops stood up to the clergy and demanded accountability for the crimes of a priest and the complicity of his ecclesiastical superiors. Newspaper publishers and editors, once deferential to the Church, stayed on the story and made it national news. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges who years before might have colluded with secrecy and silence went forward with the Gauthe case even when it pained them deeply to battle their Church. Mental health professionals who may once have known little about the impact of sexual trauma on young children testified about the terrible damage inflicted on Gauthe’s young victims.
Between 198,3 and 1987, an average of one case per week of past or present sexual abuse by a priest was reported nationwide (Sipe, 1990). Beginning in 1987, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America began to address more formally the burgeoning sexual-abuse crisis. At one end of the spectrum of response, the Church attempted to protect itself from its “enemies,” still defined by too many clergy as external to the Church. Many members of the clergy blamed the media, anti-Catholicism, or money-hungry victims for their troubles.
At the same time that some bishops defensively postured, others, led by Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, were ready to acknowledge the destructive reality of sexual abuse by priests and to respond as pastors rather than as corporate executives. Aware of both pastoral and corporate responsibilities and authority in his archdiocese, Bernadin privileged the former, thus modeling a stance toward victims, the laity, and his priests that too few bishops chose to follow over the next decade. His actions in Chicago, however, did begin to change the way bishops approached sexual abuse within their own dioceses.
In 1992, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops developed what came to be known then as the Five Principles. On the basis of Bernadin’s work in Chicago, the principles urged greater openness about abuse allegations, prompt response to allegations, removal of accused offenders from ministry for referral for evaluation and treatment, compliance with civil law, and reaching out to victims and their families. After 1992, many bishops, indeed, took steps to strengthen their response to new cases of alleged sexual abuse, including establishing advisory panels with lay representation to help them evaluate sexual-abuse reports.
The major drawback to the principles was that their execution by a given bishop rested on his determination that there was sufficient evidence to support an allegation. Unfortunately, by then many bishops themselves had left a trail of sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that they were either unable or unwilling to discern the credibility of an accusation against one of their priests. In addition, the principles did not address well enough the way in which bishops were to respond to the many alleged adult survivors of priest abuse who were coming forward to accuse older priests of incidents occurring years before and for which the statute of limitations had long expired.
In the early 1990s, networks for victims/survivors of priest abuse were founded. For over a decade, they persistently confronted the Church hierarchy as a group and in individual dioceses about the perceived mishandling of sexual-abuse cases, and they empowered many victims to feel safe enough to come forward to speak of their victimizations, perhaps for the first time.
Now much more fully aware that too many priests sexually abused too many minors much too often, USCCB formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse in 1993. The Ad Hoc Committee was mandated to develop suggested diocesan guidelines for responding to accused or guilty clergy, as well as to victims and their families, and to help bishops better screen candidates for the seminary. Eventually, the committee proposed a standardized diocesan approach to sexual-abuse allegations that was adopted effectively in many dioceses nationwide (Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, 1996). For the rest of the 1990s, many bishops responded more pastorally to complaints about their priests, especially new complaints. Things got much better, but they did not get good enough in enough dioceses to stave off the coming widening scandal.
As litigation of cases of priestly sexual abuse became more common, judgments against the Church got bigger. In 1997, a Dallas jury edged that diocese toward the brink of bankruptcy when it awarded $119.6 million to the families of 11 minors abused by Fr. Rudolph Kos. Jurors later said they were disgusted that the Church had kept Kos in ministry even after complaints had been made against him in the past. Although the families of Kos’s victims eventually settled for less, the jury award was the largest made against the Catholic Church to that point in time (Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002).
In 2002, the dam broke for sexual-abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church. After Fr. John Geoghan’s serial abuse of children in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s and the Boston Archdiocese’s concomitant cover-up became front-page news in January, new developments were measured in days rather than years.
The year witnessed the resignations of several bishops because of their sexual histories with adults or children (Keinen and Zahn, 2002; Johnson, 2002; Slowik, 2002). Bishops were hauled into attorneys’ offices and courts to provide depositions and trial testimony (Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002; Kurkjian and Carroll, 2002), and judges demanded public submission of diocesan documents that heretofore would have remained secreted within chancery vaults (Burge, 2002; Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002). In April, the American cardinals were called to Rome to discuss with the Pope the ongoing “American problem” (Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002). Both the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2002) and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (2002), the analog to the USCCB for religious orders, used their summer meetings to apologize profusely to victims and to pass finally the strongest measures yet to keep abusing priests-past, present, and future-away from children.
Back in the dioceses, priests whose abusive incidents went back decades were relieved of their ministerial duties or resigned themselves (Blaney, 2002; Gembrowski and Dolbee, 2002; Goodstein and Dillon, 2002; Thorsen and Ruizdeluzuriaga, 2002; Tunkieicz and Heinen, 2002). Dioceses struggled for cash as their stock portfolios followed the market into bear territory and contributions lagged owing to the scandals (Investigative Staff of The Boston Globe, 2002; Marchocki, 2002; Scheid, 2002). The Voice of the Faithful in Boston and other groups of lay people, aware of the power of their purses, organized to exert financial and pastoral power within their dioceses (Cebula, 2002; Convey, 2002; O’Donnell, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Catholics also organized to defend their Church by forming groups with names like Faithful Voice. By the end of the summer, accused priests began to countersue their alleged victims for slander (Breckenridge, 2002; Dillon, 2002; Smith and Fallik, 2002). Rank-and-file priests, feeling as abandoned by their hierarchy as the victims always had felt, also organized to support each other and to take on a voice in the controversy.
The Vatican, long suspicious of what too many within it wanted to view as a peculiarly American problem, seriously questioned many of the steps taken by the bishops and their counterparts in the religious orders over the summer of 2002. In October, Rome rejected some portions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People passed by the bishops in June (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002). Specifically, Vatican officials wanted a tighter definition of sexual abuse, a determinate statute of limitations on potential allegations, due process for accused priests that conformed to Canon Law, and a limited delegation of authority to lay councils appointed to oversee sexual-abuse cases. Some Vatican priests disagreed that allegations of sexual abuse should be reported to civil authorities, and they also were appalled at the costly settlements made with victims. In November 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revised the Dallas norms to conform to Vatican demands. Although the bishops insisted that the spirit of the Dallas reforms remain intact, the process for removing a priest from ministry became once again more cumbersome and, perhaps more important, more secret than ever before.
The Church’s own annus horribile ended with the resignation of Cardinal Law of Boston from his position as Archbishop. After the court-ordered release of thousands of pages of Boston Church documents revealed decades of sexual misconduct by priests, some of it horrendously ugly and lurid, coupled with the repeated failure of bishops to confront the incidents effectively, the priests and the lay people of Boston alike demanded Law’s head. In mid-December, Pope John II accepted the resignation of the theretofore most powerful American prelate.
Although the denouement of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal is yet to be written, the consequences for its victims are clear. For thousands of men and women across the country, the Catholic sexual-abuse crisis is not a newspaper story but rather a central thematic strand of their own lives. The sexual violation of a child or adolescent by a priest is, in fact, incest. It is a sexual and relational betrayal perpetrated by the father of the child’s extended family: a man in whom the child is-or was-taught from birth onward to trust above everyone else in his life, to trust second only to God. The aftermath of clergy sexual abuse, therefore, is devastating and long-lasting. Further, the traumatogenic sequeale of sexual abuse by priests were exacerbated for many victims by the dishonesty of Church officials and by their willingness endlessly to cover up the criminal behaviors of their priests.
Consequences of Sexual Abuse: What Happened to Victims?
Let us begin our examination of the consequences for victims of clergy sexual abuse with a true crime story, a story told in my consultation room recently by a 30-something-year-old man. When I have presented this case to Catholic clergy, I have asked them to try to imagine themselves as him, to listen more with their bodies, guts, and emotions than with their heads so that they can connect with victims more than with their fellow priests even if only for a day. Since we all want to distance ourselves from the tumultuous internal states evoked by intimacy with sexual abuse, I ask you also to engage the following as much with your own body, guts, feelings, and fantasies as with your intellectual prowess.
Imagine, then, that you are eight years old and have just become an altar boy. Your parents, struggling with marital problems and alcoholism, are not very available to you, so you are especially proud to have a place in the family of your parish. It is a bright, cold February Sunday and you have just finished helping Fr. Bill, your favorite priest, serve Mass. As you enter the sacristy, Fr. Bill tells you that you did a great job at this last Mass of the morning, and you can feel the pride and happiness filling you up. The priest-your priest-offers to help you pull the cassock over your head. He jokes that he still can’t get used to wearing dresses. But, as Fr. Bill lifts the cassock up, he holds it over your face with one hand, unzips his trousers with the other, and pushes his erect penis into your back. You feel him moving back and forth and back and forth against you. Blindfolded by the cassock, you can only stand still until, after moaning and leaning into you one more time, Fr. Bill loosens his grip. You feel moisture on your back but, as he pulls the cassock all the way off, he is wiping your back with a towel and mumbling about the heat from the steam radiator making you sweaty. He pats you on the back and tells you to turn the lights off before you leave for the day. Not a word is said about what just happened. What did just happen, you wonder? You feel funny-scared but not really sure if you have any reason to be. It’s Fr. Bill, after all. Your favorite priest. Can you imagine?
For the next three years, Fr. Bill repeats these acts in many places at many times. Empty classrooms, the sacristy, the small school chapel, the nurse’s office, the rectory all become sexualized spaces. He tells your parents he would like to take you to his summer place at the beach, and they are relieved not to have to worry about you. There, the abuse, during which you always are blindfolded, meshes with fishing expeditions, movies, riding the ocean waves, clam digging, and other activities a lonely only child living in a city apartment building with drunk and arguing parents finds amazing. That fun and adventure fills your days. Your nights, on the other hand, find Fr. Bill rubbing his penis between your buttocks, caressing and sucking on your now erect penis, tongue kissing you, and pushing your blindfolded face onto his penis. You clench your teeth tightly and, as far as you can remember, never let him get inside your mouth. It is a small but important act of defiance and selfprotection. Imagine.
You are now 11, and prepubertal acne is spurting on your face. On the first day of sixth grade, Fr. Bill pulls you into a storage room and, as lie tries Io kiss you, he tells you that your “badness” is coming out all over your face. This time, you push him off and run. He never touches you again.
Can you imagine the life of this young boy from ages 8 to 11? And afterward? He never spoke of the abuse until beginning treatment. He had read in the paper that Fr. Bill was accused of sexually molesting boys 30 years earlier in another parish. Although removed from ministry, Fr. Bill denied all the charges and was quoted in the paper saying that he was being scapegoated in the Church scandal and had never even known his accusers by name when they were boys. At that point, my patient contacted other men in their parish who he suspected had been molested by Fr. Bill, and a number of them went to the newspaper with their stories. My patient is not suing anyone, nor does he plan to sue anyone. He does say the following:
“It is something that I have thought about every day of my life yet have always been far too ashamed to talk about. I am still ashamed. After reading Fr. Bill’s denials in the papers, though, I decided I couldn’t hide my story any longer. I was robbed of my youth and my faith at a very young age. If I can prevent this from happening to other children, then perhaps I am on the right track. I am not a practicing Catholic, and I certainly don’t need the Catholic Church to teach my children morals and values and right from wrong. In fact, it will probably be years before I have to answer the question, “Hey, Daddy, what’s a priest?”
Can You Imagine?
Like my patient, sexual-abuse victims often are young people for whom something or someone is missing. They yearn for an adult who sees them, hears them, understands them, makes time for them, and enjoys their company. Unfortunately, sexual predators are exquisitely attuned to the emotional and relational needs of potential victims. Ingratiating themselves into the lives of their victims, they evoke respect, trust, and dependency long before the first touch takes place.
There are those who devalue survivors of childhood, and especially adolescent, sexual abuse for not disclosing their victimization when it was occurring. secrecy, however, is the acknowledged cornerstone of sexual abuse. Some perpetrators overtly extract secrecy by suggesting that the victim will be blamed for the abuse, then taken from his or her home and placed in an orphanage. Or they threaten that, if the victim discloses, the perpetrator will harm her or members of her family. A sexual abuser may also blame the victim, accusing her of seducing him and thus filling the victim with the shame and self-loathing more appropriately experienced by the victimizer. In a more covert covenant of secrecy, the abuser provides the victim with gifts and special privileges that both buy silence and instill terrible and long-lasting guilt.
In addition, many abused minors maintain silence because they accurately perceive that there is no one in their environment who will help them if they disclose. It is more hopeful for them to preserve a fantasy that if they tell, someone will protect them than it is to reveal the abuse to another who ignores, blames, or reabuses them. Finally, some children and teenagers do not disclose the sexual-abuse secret because they care for the perpetrator. A central cruelty of sexual abuse, in fact, is the perpetrator’s trampling of the young person’s generously and freely bestowed affection and respect. It is from this epicenter of betrayed trust that the mind-splitting impact of sexual abuse ripples outward.
Let me now guide you on a tour through the corridors of a psyche twisted by sexual transgression. It is a trip through a traumatogenically constructed psychological House of Horrors in which experiences of self and other are grotesquely distorted and terrifying images unexpectedly pop out from seemingly safe places. The visitor lurches from one emotional shock to another in an interior atmosphere of darkness, one punctuated only by frightening flashing lights and nightmarish unreality. As we travel, try to hang on to your reactions to Fr. Bill and my patient. These states are the experiential map that will make our tour even more meaningful to you. Our first stop is the organization of the victim’s images of self and others.
When a young person is being abused, the psychological shock is so great that the normal self cannot absorb or make sense of what is happening to it. In a valiant attempt to cope with the overwhelming overstimulation and sense of betrayal literally embodied in sexual trauma, the self splits, using the psychic mechanism of dissociation. The normal operation of dissociation allows, for example, each of us to drive 10 miles and then “come to” with no memory of the time just past. For the victim of child or adolescent sexual violation, however, dissociation is an exponentially more dramatic process, one that is both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, by entering into an entirely different state of consciousness while being abused, the victim preserves a functional and safe self who is removed from the trauma and is therefore able to learn, grow, play, and work. Many a patient has reported, for instance, that she-the self recognized as “I”-floated above the bed on which that “other kid”-the alienated victim self-was being abused. On the other hand, the curse of dissociation condemns the state of self who experienced the abuse to a trapped existence in the inner world of the survivor, a place dominated by terror, impotent but seething rage, and grief for which there literally are no words. Because trauma impels the brain to process events quickly and in a state of organismic hyperarousal, verbalizing pathways are bypassed. Instead, the sexual violations are encoded by the child and retrieved by the survivor as nonverbal, often highly disorganizing feelings, somatic states, anxieties, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and sometimes dangerous behaviors.
Often the adult survivor’s life is wracked by unexpected regressions to his victimized self that are triggered by seemingly neutral stimuli. Much as the Vietnam vet who hits the floor during a thunderstorm is, in a very real way, back in the Mekong Delta seconds before his buddy’s skull is blown off, so too the sexual-abuse survivor may be triggered into a regression by something or someone reminiscent of his earlier traumas. No longer firmly located in the present, the survivor thinks, feels, experiences his body, and behaves as the victim he once was, badly confusing himself and those around him. For victims of priest abuse, a Roman collar, the scent of incense, light streaming through stained glass at a certain time of day, organ music, or, most certainly, interacting with priests and bishops about their abuse may well evoke the appearance of usually dissociated selfstates.
Coexisting with the violated, terrorized, grief-stricken victim self, there is within the adult survivor of sexual abuse a state of being that is identified with the perpetrator. Through this unconscious, ongoing bond to the predator, the survivor preserves her attachment to the abuser by becoming like him in some ways. When threatened by experiences of helplessness, vulnerability, or anticipated betrayal, the survivor unconsciously accesses this self-state to gain a sense of empowerment. Subjectively experiencing herself as righteously indignant, the survivor may enact at times breathtaking boundary smashing, cold contempt, and red-hot rage. Not surprisingly, survivors are sickened by the thought that they resemble in any way their perpetrators and therefore avert their gaze from these aspects of self for long periods of time lest they fragment even further at the sight of their own abusive tendencies.
I want to be clear here that I am not saying the victim necessarily becomes sexually abusive. While that can happen, it is exceedingly rare. Rather, the survivor enacts with some frequency some aspects of the perpetrator’s lack of respect for others. It is important for others to recognize that the clay of the survivor’s abuser self was molded quite literally by the hands of a master-the sexual and relational victimizer. While those in relationship with survivors can model setting limits on what they will tolerate in a relationship with another, an empathie understanding of the source of the survivor’s sometimes outrageous behavior is essential to hold in mind.
Finally, the sexual-abuse survivor sometimes may enact a long split-off aspect of self that is greedy, grandiose, and insatiably entitled. In addition to representing another identification with an abuser whose appetites were insatiable, this aspect of self gives voice to often long-split-off demands for restitution. There comes a day in every survivor’s recovery when he fully comprehends what was so cruelly taken from him. Further personal growth and healing require that the survivor then mourn the childhood or adolescence that never was, the defensively idealized caretakers who never existed, and, perhaps most poignantly, the self that could have been had trust, hope, and possibility not been so brutally shattered.
I cannot exaggerate, nor can I adequately convey, the soul-searing pain of this phase of recovery. One patient, at this point in treatment, cried, “This is too much. I can’t stand it-I won’t-you can’t make me. I can deal with the abuse-maybe, perhaps. But the idea that I can’t go back, that my childhood is broken forever-I can’t live with that. I won’t know that I never was and never will be just a kid” (Davies and Frawley, 1994).
Quite understandably, the sexual-abuse survivor may try to avoid the ultimate mourning necessary to move on from the abuse and all that was stolen from him. Launching a lawsuit against the perpetrator or against those who abetted the abuser may be one strategy employed to deny unrecoverable loss while pursuing an illusion of full restitution of that which, tragically, never can be restored. No matter the amount of the ensuing financial settlement, a residue of emptiness and lost hope persists. At the core of the survivor’s being, the worst has happened yet again; he has been paid off to go away while life goes on relatively untouched for the perpetrator and those who shielded him.
Now let me be absolutely clear. Money can be a little better than nothing, and nothing is mostly what the Church historically offered victims. Many survivors, in fact, resorted to lawsuits only after being stonewalled in their quest for more personal reparative gestures. Legal action, in this situation, represents a last-ditch effort by the survivor to become an agent in his own life. Further, a lawsuit, when all else has failed, puts into action an understandable demand that the truth be told one way or another. In addition, many survivors need financial assistance for therapy, substance-abuse rehabilitation, or educational or vocational training previously unattainable because of posttraumatic stress symptoms plaguing them.
Leaving the realm of the sexual-abuse survivor’s organization of self, we enter a related corridor on our tour, one in which we explore characteristics typical of victims’ interpersonal relationships.
Survivors’ relationships with other people are hued and shaded by expectations and anxieties forged during their traumatic experiences. Approaching others from within the psychological confines of posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma survivors exhibit rapidly shifting relational stances, painfully lurching from periods of extremely dependent clinging to those marked by vicious rage aimed at the same person. Stark terror and tears can switch in an instant to cold aloofness; warmth and vivacity may turn kaleidoscopically to paranoid suspicion. All this, of course, leads to many chaotically unstable relationships, often alternating with stretches of the loneliest isolation.
Perhaps needless to say, normal sexual functioning is almost impossible for most survivors until they are well into their recovery. Too often, sex, even with a trusted other, triggers terrifyingly disorganizing flashbacks during which survivors sometimes literally see the face of their abuser superimposed on the visage of their sexual partner and experience dreadful relivings of their sexual traumas. In addition, survivors frequently are disgusted by and ashamed of their own bodies and sexual strivings. Unfairly blaming their abuse on their own sexuality, they often desperately insist that it never would have happened were it not for their self-perceived horribly seductive bodies and deplorable sexual desires.
Heterosexual boys abused by men are additionally tormented, wondering what it was about them that attracted their victimizers. Sexual-abuse survivors of all genders and sexual orientations are deprived of the right to grow gradually into a mature sexuality and, instead, are forced or seduced into premature sexual encounters they are emotionally ill equipped to handle. As adults, therefore, these men and women often spin between periods of promiscuous and self-destructive sexual acting out and times of complete sexual shutdown during which, like burn victims, they experience the gentlest physical contact as excruciatingly painful.
Finally, there is a characteristic relational stance assumed by many sexual-abuse survivors that is particularly germane to the Church. It involves others who did not abuse them but also did not protect them. If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one-whenever a minor is sexually violated, someone’s eyes are closed. Throughout history and in every segment of society, the most common response to the suspicion or even the disclosure of childhood sexual abuse has been self-defensive denial and dissociation. No one finds it easy to stand in the overwhelming and destabilizing reality of sexual abuse. Blindness, deafness, and elective mutism are responses endemic to many confronted by victimized children, adult survivors, or perpetrating adults. What is important to recognize is that adult survivors of sexual abuse frequently are, at least initially, even angrier with adults who failed to protect them than they are with the perpetrators themselves. Because the survivor’s internal relationship with his abuser is organized around paradoxical feelings of attachment and hate; he often feels freer to turn the full blast of his long-pent-up rage and bitterness on those who did not protect him and who, in addition, failed to provide for him in ways the perpetrator seemed to, albeit at an unholy cost to the exploited child or adolescent.
Turning down another corridor on our tour of a psyche ravaged by early sexual trauma, we examine the impact of sexual abuse on the cognitive functioning of the victim/survivor. Part of what is overwhelmed during sexual abuse is the young person’s ability cognitively to contain, process, and put into words the enormity of the relational betrayal and physical impingement with which he is faced. It is striking and often bewildering to observe in adult survivors completely contradictory thought processes that ebb and flow with little predictability. One moment, you are speaking with an intelligent adult, capable of complex, flexible, abstract, and self-decentered thinking. Under sufficient internal or external stress, however, or in situations somehow reminiscent of her abuse, the cognitive integrity of the survivor shatters, and she becomes locked in rigidly inflexible, self-centered thought patterns, simplistic black-and-white opinions devoid of nuance, and an immutable conviction that her future is destined to be both short and unalterably empty.
If a survivor’s cognitive functioning is severely ruptured by sexual abuse, his affective life, the next stop on our tour, is even more impaired. When a young person is sexually traumatized, the hyperarousal of the autonomie nervous system and the body’s subsequent attempt to restore order disrupt the brain’s neurochemical regulation of emotion. In addition, we are now learning, attachment relationships also affect the brain’s ability to modulate feelings; traumatic attachment experiences interfere with effective neuropsychological regulation of affect. The brain of a sexually abused minor thus suffers a double assault. The sexual traumas themselves as well as the betrayal of an attachment relationship assail the flow of affect-modulating neurochemicals (Krystal, 1988; Waites, 1993; Schone, 1994; Davidson and van der Kolk, 1996; van der Kolk, 1996a, b).
As an adult, the survivor shifts, sometimes quite rapidly, between states of chaotically intense hyperarousal and deadened states of psychic numbing. This inability to modulate emotional arousal often leads to interpersonally inappropriate verbal or motoric actions when the survivor is hyperstimulated and to similarly inappropriate emotional and psychomotor constriction as the person moves into psychic numbing. Further, autonomie arousal becomes a generalized reaction to stress in the midst of which the sexual-abuse survivor is unable to discern realistically the severity of a perceived threat. Instead of reacting at the actual level of psychological danger, the survivor may engage in seemingly irrational behaviors like temper tantrums or terrified withdrawal. These behaviors do not fit the present-day situation but are perfectly complementary to the now affectively revived earlier trauma. Because of the damage done by sexual abuse to affective brain functioning, adult survivors often need psychotropic medications for a period of time during recovery. For some, their impairments are sufficiently intractable to require lifelong medication.
We now are almost finished with our psychological tour and are about to enter what can be the most shocking corridor of all. Also partly owing to disrupted brain functioning, sexual abuse survivors often display a truly spectacular array of selfdestructive behaviors. They slice their arms, thighs, and genitalia with knives, razors, or shards of broken glass. They burn themselves with cigarettes, pull hair from their heads and pubic areas, walk through Central Park alone at night, play chicken with trains at railroad crossings, pick up strangers in bars to have unprotected and anonymous sex, drive recklessly at high speeds, gamble compulsively, further destroy their minds and bodies with alcohol and the whole range of street drugs, or engage in any combination of these behaviors. Male and female prostitutes alike tend to have backgrounds of early sexual abuse. Survivors also are two to three times more likely than adults without abuse histories to make at least one suicide attempt in their lives. Sometimes they die.
Survivor self-abuse performs a myriad of functions too complex to address adequately here. A quick inventory of survivors’ motivations to act self-destructively includes punishment for the abuse they blame themselves for, mastering victimization by taking charge of the timing and execution of harm, self-medication for turbulent affective storms, and unconsciously seeking states of hyperarousal that then trigger the release of brain opioids, providing the survivors with a temporary sense of calm. At an even more deeply unconscious level, frighteningly self-destructive sexual-abuse survivors want to turn the tables on present-day stand-ins for those who violated and neglected them. Unconsciously, they long to see their own terror, helplessness, impotent rage, and shocked recognition of utter betrayal reflected now on the face of someone in their lives. Who can blame them?
As we exit now from our tour of the terrifyingly disorienting psychological House of Horrors constructed amidst sexual abuse and maintained by its aftermath, it should be clear that a survivor’s recovery is a long, complicated, sometimes treacherous process. Leonard Shengold (1989) titled his book on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, Soul Murder. I do not think that early sexual trauma necessarily has to result in soul murder, but it most surely batters and deadens the soul of the young victim and the adult survivor. That this ravaging of souls has been administered by priests entrusted with a sacred covenant to protect and enliven souls is despicable. That bishops and other clerical leaders have covered up and lied about the sexual crimes committed by priests in their charge is as bad, or worse-it is evil itself.
The Catholic Church and its American leaders are at a crossroads. Like recovering victims of sexual abuse, those in authority can choose to defend, deny, retrench, and rigidify. They can turn away from all their decency, all their love and generosity, all their arrogance and indifference. When a survivor takes that familiar and well-worn road, further fragmentation and diminished integrity of mind and soul ensues. But, as is the case for so many sexual-abuse survivors, another road can be chosen. The Catholic Church, pushed and prodded by its leadership, rank-and-file priests, laity, and competent professionals can decide on a path of recovery, growth, and restored faith. This horrible scandal could become a new epicenter from which ripples change and the revitalization and retoration of souls. Which road is taken is a matter of will.