Psychosocial Anatomy of the Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal

Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 2. 2004.

As the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church captured headlines throughout 2002 and into 2003, many within the Church and outside of it have tried to understand how it all had happened. Perhaps understandably, there is a temptation to keep it simple, to find one or two identifiable, easily grasped causes for the crisis. Some within the Church blame homosexuals and suggest that excluding gays from the priesthood will rid the Church of the potential for future scandals. Celibacy, the absence of women from the halls of ecclesiastical power, the lack of lay power from parishes to the Vatican, and a failure of fidelity to Church teachings-all have been tried as explanations for the terrible scandal.

Despite the allure of simple answers, it must be recognized that the root causes of the crisis are embedded in an intricate matrix of power relationships, traditions, and teachings that, in combination, rendered the abuse scandal almost inevitable. Further, every constituency within the Church-bishops, abusing priests, rank and file priests, and the laity, as well as the Vatican and Pope John Paul II-shares, to a varying degree, accountability for tolerating for decades, if not centuries, of sexual abuse of the Church’s young. This article introduces a comprehensive view of the underpinnings of the scandal.

The Hierarchy

The hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church incorporates traditions, principles, and structures that led almost certainly to the cover-up of sexual abuse by its priests.

Centralized Power

The Catholic Church is organized as a male, medieval monarchy. Within this monarchy, cardinals are the princes and bishops the lords, who answer only to the Pope. Under John Paul II, there has been a movement to restore the monarchical structure of the Church to what it was prior to Vatican II (McBrien, 1998; Kennedy, 2001; Cozzens, 2002; Wills, 2002). In addition, during John Paul’s papacy, theologians, teachers, priests, brothers, and religious women determined by him to be in dissent from Church teachings have been silenced by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith through processes experienced as humiliating by those censured (McBrien, 1998; Aldworth, 2002; Paulson, 2002b; Wills, 2002). This kind of organizational structure is liable to engender psychological processes that isolate bishops and cardinals from influence from below. Instead, they look to their own hierarchy for approbation and are unlikely to bring into view any kind of disgrace in their dioceses. Secrecy about problems likely to evoke displeasure from ecclesiastical “parents” is a predictable outcome of the Church’s power structure.

In some ways, it is easy for the bishops to accommodate to and exercise centralized authority within the feudal kingdoms of their dioceses. In a very real way, many American bishops in power from the 1950s to today never lived as adult men in the democratic culture of the United States. Rather, they lived in the Church. They usually entered high school seminaries at the age of 14, so that their only significant lived experience was within an ecclesiastically governed state from which they peered out at their “host country.” They lived their adult lives taking orders until they earned the right to give them to others (Cozzens, 2002). Perhaps understandably, they expect to receive the kind of deference that they spent decades extending to those hierarchically above them. Clergy and church officials closest to members of the hierarchy have been on the same career path. They are not enculturated toward transparency in decision making, public airing of problems within the diocese, or consultation with lay or non-Catholic “outsiders” who might have recommended steps other than those taken in most dioceses when a priest sexually abused a youngster or an older survivor came forward with complaints from years ago.


Liberal (McBrien, 2002) and conservative (Weigel, 2002) theologians agree that, although the office of bishop is intended to be a ministry, not a promotion or status symbol, it too often has become associated as much with velvet-draped chanceries and chauffeured limousines as with the pastoral care of priests and faithful in a diocesan locale. Some bishops and cardinals feel entitled to be treated differently than “ordinary” men whom they have been taught they reign over. They even can come to think that the rule of law does not apply to them, that, as clerical royalty, they need not bow to the demands of secular authorities or lay people. Clericalism may prevent members of the hierarchy from experiencing a need to respond openly or effectively to sexual abuse in their dioceses.

Call in the Experts, Our Experts

The seemingly paradoxical f Upside of the absolute power coin was the bishops’ tendency to rely on diocesan lawyers, insurance companies, and sometimes questionable treatment centers to direct their handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

When selecting experts, the hierarchy has taken an insular approach. They usually choose from their own, from those known by their own, or from those they had worked with before. Consciously or unconsciously, the bishops select advisors who, by station or through experience, come to them in deference and respect. These are not always the voices they need to hear to help them respond to sexual abuse.

Institutionalism versus Pastoralism

Centralized power and reliance on user-friendly experts intersects with a deeply engrained commitment to avoid, at almost any cost, “bringing scandal to the Church” (Sipe, 2000; Cozzens, 2002; Editorial, 2002; Kenneally, 2002; Melady, 2002; Neuhaus, 2002; Paulson, 2002a; Weigel, 2002; Wills, 2002). For too long, the hierarchy has tried to conceal rather than openly portray and confront the burgeoning sexual abuse crisis. In the end they only scandalized the Church even more. Increasingly, the American bishops have acted like “branch managers for a multinational religious corporation” (Felder and Heagle, 2002) rather than pastorally attending to their brother priests and suffering faithful.

The bishops, of course, are executives of corporations that deliver the concretized programs involved in pastoral care. Even in the best of times, the dual roles they play sometimes give rise to deeply conflicting agendas. In times of crisis, the incompatibility of their corporate and ministerial personae challenges the bishops’ ability to hold in mind simultaneously their divergent responsibilities and cares. To achieve that balance, always privileging pastoral duties, however, is a bishop’s job.

For the American bishops to function first as pastors, they must experience themselves as recognized and supported by the papacy. Rather than responding pastorally to the bishops, though, the Vatican has made it clear to them that it is up to the American hierarchy to solve this problem-its problem-on its own. Further, the Pope and other Vatican officials have implicitly conveyed that the bishops must address the crisis without capitulating to the demands of the media, civil authorities, or a decadently sexualized modern public (Decosse, 2002). This is an organizational formula for paralysis, abdication of accountability, and defensive scapegoating-for unconsciously doing unto others what was being done to them-rather than for pastoral creativity and original problem solving.

Rejection or Modernity

At the beginning of the 21st century, Western intellectual life was marked by an ongoing exegesis of postmodern thought. As modernity had destabilized the certainty of faith, post-modernism unsettled the certainty and stability of science. Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, the papal wars on modernity, energetically suspended by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and more ambivalently by his successor, Paul VI (1963-1978) (Wills, 2002) were reopened in some domains by John Paul II (1978-) and extended in particular to include postmodernism.

When Pius IX (1903-1914) issued the papal encyclical, Pascendi Domenici Gregis (Pope Pius IX, 1907), it directed the bishops to ban modernist works from seminaries; to forbid the faithful from reading modern writers; and to prohibit clergy from meeting in groups lest modern ideas infect discussions (pp. 50, 52, 54). Eventually, every priest was required to take an Oath Against Modernism at Ordination; the oath was not discontinued until 1967 (Cozzens, 2002).

Vatican II, however, threw open the doors of the Catholic Church to science, social science, and technology. Catholics, even priests, could study modern subjects; they were admonished only to integrate them into their faith and, in turn, to bring their faith into their pursuits. Clergy and vowed religious men and women were encouraged to be as much in the world as out of it and even began to look more like their fellow human travelers as priests exchanged cassocks for trousers and nuns threw off their veils and wimples. It thus was stunning to the Catholic community when Pope Paul VI (1968) slammed shut the doors of the Church on artificial contraception.

Despite the recommendations of a 58-member papal commission mandated to study birth control and overwhelmingly in favor of changing the teaching of the Church on contraception, Paul could not bring himself to suggest that past teachings therefore had been in error (Wills, 2000). His 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, reasserted the ban on artificial contraception and instructed bishops and priests to get behind it in their ministries. Apparently, sex was one area of life in which Catholics were to remain dissociated from modern developments in social science and technology, as well as from their own consciences.

Whatever hope there was that Paul’s successor would reopen dialogue about the Magisterium (official Church teachings), especially regarding matters of morality, was dashed by John Paul II. Despite his worldwide popularity and admirable extension of the papal hand to Catholics and non-Catholics across the world, Pope John Paul II has been a very conservative pope. He has urged bishops once again to ensure that seminary and Catholic school and university faculty teach only in accordance with official Church teachings. Teachers in Catholic institutions once again are expected to sign statements of loyalty to Catholic teachings (Paulson, 2002b). Everything old, it seems, is new again.

An internalized mistrust of empiricism, psychological and biological conceptualizations of the personality, especially about sexuality and gender, and the devaluing of some aspects of modernity and much of postmodernism coming out of Rome made it highly unlikely that bishops would access hard and social scientific resources to deepen their understanding of sexual abuse. Prior to the mid-80s, of course, there was virtually no empirical, theoretical, or clinical literature regarding early sexual trauma. As that body of knowledge grew exponentially after 1984, however, too many American bishops remained, and are still, ignorant or skeptical about it.

The Shortage of Priests

A major problem facing bishops in the second half of the 20th century was the ever-growing shortage of priests. For the past 50 years, the bishops had been faced with a declining population of clergy, the meaning of which is denied by the Vatican and by many bishops themselves. Although many younger priests resigned in order to marry (Sipe, 1995; Kennedy, 2001) discussions among bishops about married priests or the even more controversial ordination of women simply were forbidden. The only options acceptable to the Vatican and, thus per force to bishops, were to construct more enthusiastic recruitment campaigns and to increase the volume and fervency of prayers for vocations.

It was the classic double bind: the bishops knew in their hearts that the shortage of priests was more likely to get worse than better. Their “parents,” the Holy Mother Church and the Holy Father, however, insisted that what the bishops saw year after year did not exist or could be changed through traditional means. A bishop speaking the truth was likely to lose the love of his spiritual parents and might lose his job as well. In order to survive, he had to join in the denial of an ever-shrinking and likely permanent supply of priests. Certainly a bishop in this situation might consciously or unconsciously ordain priests about whom doubts were expressed in the seminary, or he might do everything possible to “keep his numbers up” by recycling priests about whom claims of sexual abuse had been made, thus contributing to what would become the sexual abuse scandal (Gumbleton, 2002).

Belief in Redemption

Many sexually abusive priests confessed their offenses when confronted by their bishops with accusations made about them. They asked for forgiveness and promised that they would sin no more. Believing profoundly in a person’s ability to redeem himself, a bishop often took his priest’s word at face value and arranged for him to start again somewhere else, perhaps after evaluation and treatment at a facility likely to give the priest a positive prognosis.

While understanding the cultural and psychological milieu in which American bishops have lived is not exculpatory of their acts of omission and commission, it is important to view the scandal and its participants through a lens offering a three dimensional model of sex abuse in the Church. Priests are the next actors on the stage.

Abusing Priests: Who Are They?

Sipe (1995) estimates that six percent of Catholic priests have abused minors. Some priests, like Fr. John Geoghan of Boston, appear to meet the criteria for compulsive and repetitive pedophilia (Fullam, 2002; Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe, 2002). Others, like Fr. Larry Brett from Stamford, CT, seem to incorporate malignant narcissism (Kernberg, 1985) and antisocial personality characteristics; those priests were not only sexually predatory, they also were cruel (Fullam, 2002; Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe, 2002).

Yet another group of abusing priests comprises men who themselves were abused by priests as children. While the vast majority of men abused as youths never go on to become sexual predators (Gartner, 1999), it is also true that many sexual predators were once sexually traumatized. In such cases, the victims may consciously have entered the priesthood to undo the wrong done them. Wanting to repair the damage done in their own lives, they might have intended to become the good and decent priests their abusers never were. Or some of these priests may have been attracted to the priesthood before they were abused and later became determined that their sexual abuse by a priest was not going to rob them of a vocation they believed was a gift from God. Unconsciously, however, these priests did identify with their predators in ways that were not clear, and they became like their abusers in some ways.

A final cohort of abusing priests, some among the older priests discharged from ministry under the Bishops’ “Zero Tolerance” policy forged at their June 2002 national meeting (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002), may fall into a different category that is important to understand. These priests, unlike confirmed pedophiles and men with serious personality disorders, may have been successfully treated (see, e.g., Lothstein, this issue, and Markham, this issue). Further, the very formation and life of a Catholic priest may have left this group of priests vulnerable to predatory behavior in which they might not have engaged had they not been priests. Unfortunately, there are no statistics available at this point that inform us about how many priests occupy each category of sexual predator. There are indications, however, that some number of priests who offended in the 1970s and 1980s were treated, continued in aftercare, were reassigned to ministry, and did not reoffend.

Central to this cohort of abusers is their psychosexual immaturity. Many of these priests entered seminaries when they were as young as 14 years old. Throughout their adolescence, sexuality was wholly dissociated from the verbally validated and symbolically processed realm of life. They simply were not to have sex of any kind, talk about sex of any kind, or think about sex of any kind. Celibacy was a rule, but these boys, later men, were given no guidance for growing to mature manhood in which celibacy could become a comprehensible, freely made choice. In addition, seminary staff, concerned about the potential for sexual acting out, discouraged “particular friendships” between seminarians (Cozzens, 2000; Rivera and Tu, 2002).

Contributing to a priest’s arrested development was his view of women. Most seminarians had virtually no access to women, who thus were rendered mystifying and more than a little dangerous. The two women welcomed into a seminarian’s life were his biological mother and Mary, the Mother of God, both of whom were idealized.

All these aspects of priestly formation combined to infantilize many priests, to keep them eternal boys intellectually, sexually, and relationally. They were encouraged, even required, to remain forever children of their biological mothers, the Blessed Mother, Holy Mother Church, the Holy Father, and their bishops.

Jarringly juxtaposed with the sexual and relational infantilization of many developing priests, however, was the message that they were a breed apart from other men, superior to them and deserving of deference and great reverence. Priests consciously or unconsciously searching for a sense of empowerment and manhood could feed narcissistic needs by focusing on their spiritual and ecclesiastical power as well as on their iconicized place in the community. Revered by his congregants as a virtual Christ on earth; allowed to park illegally, speed, and drive drunk by cops who gave Father a pass; able to get immediate and free dental and health care from faithful doctors and dentists, the otherwise disempowered cleric often became convinced that he was above rather than more problematically dissociated from the usual order of the world and the rules that govern it.

During preconciliar training years, the protected collegial environments of seminaries shielded their residents from many worldly phenomena and temptations while providing camaraderie something akin to sleep-away camp lasting more than a decade. After ordination, however, these young men arrived in parishes often staffed by older priests, parishes and ostensible mentors shortly to be convulsed by the liberalization of the Church ushered in by Vatican II. Frequently assigned to handle youth activities, the priest, juggling his adolescent psychosexual development and his sense of priestly power, was suddenly surrounded by idealizing young people living their teenage years very differently than he had.

Some priests who became predators developed the heretofore prohibited “particular friendships” with teenage boys they were charged with supervising. At some point, the sexual urges and the relational yearnings for intimacy, including touch, contained within the adolescently organized priest, took hold and a line was crossed. Once the dam of pent-up longings and sexual strivings burst, too many priests continued to seek sexual satisfaction and relational adulation with adolescent boys who were entrusted to their care. As difficult as it may be for us to take in and to stomach, these priests often subjectively failed to experience what they were doing as nonconsensual or exploitative, much less criminal. For these priests, the detachment from the damage they did stemmed more from immaturity, naivete, and a childish self-absorption than from a ruthless lack of empathy, devoid of conscience, for another human being.

As psychologically unsound and abusing priests continued in ministry, decent priests who complained about known or suspected inappropriate behavior by other priests frequently were punished rather than praised for their efforts (Archibald, 2002; Baker, 2003; Russell, 2003). Too many times, good priests, disgusted with the sexually predatory or inappropriate behavior of their brethren, learned quickly that their own careers depended on their compliance with the silence and secrecy supporting priestly sexual abuse. Certainly this prejudice against priests who complained about fellow priests contributed to the depth and breadth of the sexual abuse crisis over the years.

Fathers, not Parents

Catholic priests are called “Father” and are the symbolic patriarchs of their parishioners’ families. Catholic children and adults alike look to their priest for the moral and spiritual guidance traditionally associated with paternal roles within a family. Especially salient is the priest’s position as the living icon of the Law-the Law of God, the Law of the Father. As a representative of the Law, the priest serves as an embodied reminder that Catholics in his care are to regulate their actions to conform to the cultural demands of their faith.

Over the last decade or so, fatherhood as a developmental stage for men has received increased attention within the social sciences. Particularly emphasized in contemporary views of male development is the importance of the father’s ability to provide what psychoanalyst Michael Diamond (1997) calls protective watchfulness over his child and its mother. In his role as watchful protector of his family, the man relinquishes remaining claims to more adolescent notions of limitless freedom and narcissistic omnipotence-a macho sense that he can do anything. Instead, psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel (1985) asserts that, as a nurturing father, the man identifies with the nourishing Father in the Lord’s Prayer, a father who provides daily bread at the same time that He forgives sins and asserts His will. The man who has become a successfully watchful and protective father is unlikely to violate a child or to stand by while someone else does it.

Catholic tradition holds that celibacy is notjust different from marriage and parenthood but is a superior state in which to live. At least to the Pope and other members of the hierarchy, the sacramental powers and responsibilities of clergy elevate them to a status higher and of greater import to civilization than that of men who marry, work out in the world, contribute to the financial and emotional well being of their families, and coparent children. By implication, then, the women and children in those families also are assigned a life status inferior to that of Catholic clergy. Under these circumstances, when a priest acts out sexually, with an adult or with a child, he consciously or unconsciously may experience an entitlement to visit himself upon an individual already degraded in his eyes, a person with less claim than he to respect and great care.

Although, within the Church, celibacy and priesthood may have been considered consciously superior to, rather than different from, active sexuality and fatherhood, most priests would know at least unconsciously that the wider world celebrates as ultimately potent the man who has produced progeny. Throughout history, for example, kings attained legitimacy as regents only after they had delivered an heir to the kingdom. The king or emperor appearing on the palace balcony and holding his child, especially his son, high in the air for all to see was showing off his genital accomplishment as much as the embodied being of his new heir.

For some priests who sexually violated minors, unconscious comparisons with a child’s father may well have elicited desperately denied feelings of envy and hatred toward men who clearly had achieved a version of manhood closed to the priest. Thus, sexual abuse at times also may incorporate an unconscious assault against the father’s virility, masculinity, and capacity to fulfill his culturally prescribed role of protecting the young as much as it represents a direct exploitation of the young victim.

Certainly there are men who can grow to mature manhood without fathering children. To do so, however, requires reflection on the loss of that opportunity and a process of grieving. It is only through mourning the family that will not be constituted that a man is able adaptively to redirect generative strivings, including those to protect and watch over a child in whom the man sees his reflection. A priest, however, cannot mourn because he has been taught that he has, in fact, lost nothing by becoming a priest. During his priestly formation and later in his life in the rectory or school, there are no words, no syntax given to the priest for symbolizing the pain of childlessness. And even if he does find the words, there is no one to listen to them. Sexual abuse, in this context, represents, in part, a manic denial of impossibility, an impulse-driven insistence that the priest can “have” a child whenever he wants one.

Clerical Sex: The Unacknowledged Known

Given the Catholic Church’s teachings about sex, it is not surprising that the Church has never conducted an empirically sound study of priestly sexuality. Sipe (1995), however, concludes that, at any given time, fewer than half of priests are living celibately.

The Catholic priesthood is electively mute about the sexuality in its midst. For centuries, it has dissociated the actual sexual behavior of its members from its inflexibly maintained fantasy about successfully celibate priests. Priests are celibate: that is the teaching and the condition that is declared true and unchangeable. At least some priests engage in some kind of sexuality at least some of the time, and sometimes it is violent or even criminal-that is the truth and the reality of priestly sexuality that cannot be spoken. There is no language, no vocabulary for talking about priests raping nuns, priests living with paramours, priests masturbating regularly, priests dying of AIDS, priests sodomizing children, priests soothing their loneliness in the arms of beloved women or men. Further, the act of finding words, of developing a vocabulary, is prohibited.

The unacknowledged known of priestly sexuality, grating against the Pope’s ongoing decree that the known sexual activity of priests can never be acknowledged, form the rumbling fault line of the sexual abuse scandal. Ultimately, it will not be until the Catholic Church removes its blinders and finds a language of desired and enacted priestly sexuality that the Catholic Church can reassure its faithful that such a crisis will never reoccur.

Catholic Laity

The parents of most of the victims of priestly sexual abuse taking place in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s were brought up at the tail end of what Eugene Kennedy (2001) calls the “Brick and Mortar” stage of the American Catholic Church. This was an era spanning the late 1800s to the middle of the 20th century, a time of burgeoning growth and exuberance within Catholicism. To question the integrity of a priest was unthinkable to most Catholics of this period. Far from being suspicious of a priest who showed abundant interest in a child, parents were likely to be thrilled that Father thought Johnny or Suzie had potential; and, therefore, they willingly sent their children off to spend time with the parish priest.

If Catholic parents or other parishioners had an uncomfortable feeling about a priest’s relationship with a minor, they were likely to feel bad about themselves for allowing such suspicions to enter their minds. In this way, they were not much different from most people in society confronted with the possibility that someone they knew was sexually abusing a child. For Catholics, however, society’s typical denial of the sexual victimization of children was heightened by the deeply felt need to think only the best of Father. Further, when and if parents or parishioners did complain about a priest, they could expect to be scolded by priests and shunned by fellow parishioners (Bruni and Burkett, 1993).

Given the importance of the parish and the faith to most Catholics old enough to be parents of the victims coming forward since the mid-80s, it is understandable that most turned a blind eye to what they may have seen or suspected rather than be shunned and despised. Denying potential or observed sexual abuse was what most people did in the wider society anyway, and the stakes for someone speaking up were even higher within a Church community. So the lambs were silent and the abuse continued.

Bishops, priests, and Catholic laity were socioculturally and psychologically constructed to enable priests to abuse minors sexually and to cover up for them afterward. Overarching all the other individual and group factors considered has been the profoundly hypocritical and utterly denied chasm between sexual practice as taught by the Church and sexual practice as lived out by the members of each constituency within the faith.

From the Vatican to the laity, some teachings, policies, and traditions of the Catholic Church generated and supported, for decades if not centuries, the secret sexual abuse of minors by priests. From 1983 onward, however, the secret unraveled and scandal swept like a tsunami over the Church.