21Nov Vilification of abusers won’t contribute to solution

If we want to understand sexual violence, we have to get to know its perpetrators and the worlds in which they were formed. In the particular context in which Marie Keenan is interested — clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up in the U.S. and Ireland since the middle of the 20th century — such an adage goes from truism to nonstarter. Pressure not to get to know clerical abusers and the institutional, educational and social worlds of their formation comes from many angles of varying validity.

A posture of attentiveness to abusers may strike some abuse victims and their advocates as excusing the abuse and losing sight of the harm it may have inflicted. For their part, media outlets have helped uncover abuse, but they have also contributed to the vilification of clerical offenders, fixating on the category of pedophilia (at the expense of other abusive scenarios), and fomenting moral panic.

Church officials, on the other hand, want to isolate abusers and officials complicit in cover-up. They would have us pay attention to abusers only as aberrant pathological individuals. The theological or institutional context for their production as clergy is more or less off-limits.

Keenan, a researcher and lecturer in applied social science at University College Dublin and a registered psychotherapist, plunges into these taboo waters, taking her readers into the theological, moral and institutional contexts for abuse and cover-up. Working with the ever-present caution that to “understand all is never to forgive it all,” Keenan makes this journey in part through analysis of extensive conversations with nine Catholic men — all retired or laicized Irish priests and brothers — who admitted to having sexually abused minors in the past.

The premise for such a move is simple: Vilification of abusers prohibits thick understandings of their lives. Content to turn “them” into monsters, we avoid their (and our) implication in wider contexts that helped produce the abuse. Humanizing abusers offers significant new angles on the problem. Listening to these men’s stories allows Keenan to see that they “were not in themselves ‘bad’ men, rather, they were trying to be ‘perfect’ priests.” Description of what it meant to be “perfect” — to practice the priesthood in the officially celebrated manner — goes a long way toward explaining how these men could “rationalize” their behavior and the secrecy that surrounded it.

Keenan does not rush into a presentation of the perpetrators’ stories, as if they alone were enough. Instead, the first half of the book includes a review of the existing literature on clerical sexual abuse, the culture of seminaries, and psychologies of abusive behavior. This first half of the book also includes an insightful reading of the complexities of “power” as theorized by contemporary scholars of gender. She interprets these sources clearly and cautiously. These chapters alone make Keenan’s work immensely useful. But the book’s real contribution comes from its exploration of the stories of nine abusive clergymen in Ireland.

This latter section of the book develops several themes relevant to the rise of abuse in Roman Catholic settings. Her focus is on seminary culture and education (in the period before the 1990s) and the kind of living it enabled and disabled. In these spaces priests learned to fear sexuality, disavow their bodies and emotions, bury non-priestly components of themselves, and adapt to emotionally isolated and lonely lives.

Two additional themes enhance her critique of clerical formation. The first is a paradox of clerical life, a condition she describes as simultaneously powerful and powerless. Valorized as special beings with unique ritual powers and heightened virtue, priests and brothers were also demeaned and devalued by expectations of humility and deference to their clerical superiors. Often unsupported and unsupervised and yet conditioned toward obedience to those above, many clerics experienced frustration in a church that demanded so much of them.

These conditions, along with sexual immaturity fostered by lifelong silence surrounding sexuality, helped produce priests who had an “emotional congruence” with children. Keenan sees perpetrators of abuse tragically seeking to navigate their emotional tempests in the presence and with the bodies of young people, whom abusers saw as equal, if easily silenced, partners.

The other most compelling theme concerns moral education. The church, Keenan argues, has offered poor tools for making judgments. Instead of judging out of a context of relationships with particular others and dynamic processes of introspection and empathy, seminarians were instructed in the technical and intellectual application of fixed, universal and external rules. Impersonal and abstract, this moral theology enabled abusers to treat their behavior as a matter of sin against God and purity and not as a matter of harm for others. Moreover, the confessional, with its seal of secrecy, further enabled the abuse by providing a context for expiation of this sin. Regular confession helped convince the priests that they were at least trying to meet God’s standards. All of the nine priests confessed their abuse in confession — according to their reports, only once did a confessor alert the abuser to the criminal nature of the offense. The system advanced a purity ethic at the expense of a relational ethic.

If all or most priests and brothers were trained amid these conditions until very recently, why did some abuse while others did not? Keenan argues that abusers were more likely to be those inclined to be rule followers rather than rule breakers. Many clergy had the ability or cunning to know which rules they needed to bend or break in order to make seminary and clerical life humane. Others, those aspiring to the most strict and idealized version of the priesthood (what Keenan calls “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity”) were essentially harmed by the church in the process. Buying into the impossible standards of this idealized clerical identity stifled opportunity for these men to openly explore their humanity and sexuality, develop intimate and satisfying adult relationships, account morally for their impact on others, and see themselves outside their duties to powerful superiors.

The stunning conclusion of this work is that for those who embraced the idealized model of perfect celibate clerical masculinity, seminary and priestly life were in themselves abusive contexts. Overly credulous or unsavvy, they accepted standards that led to “soul death.” Eventually, children were the “sacrificial lambs” on the altar of this image of clerical perfection. Until recently, victims’ silence allowed Catholics to ignore their complicity in the institutional secrecy and hypocrisy that helped these sacrifices continue.

For Keenan, it remains a question whether these voices speaking up will result in real change. Vilification or dismissal of abusers won’t contribute to the solution. Apologies, shame and even strict “zero tolerance” policies will not constitute the kind of structural reform that will begin to solve the problem in the Roman Catholic church. Only a “new model of the church” will do. Keenan’s hard-nosed and sophisticated book is a step in that direction.

The rveiewer, John C. Seitz, Fordham University associate professor of theology, published No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns in 2011.


6 Responses

  1. Kevin

    She is right on so many levels I believe. This is what scares the hell out of me some times seeing what is happening now with the new brigades coming out. History repeating itself and it will. The spiritual honeymoon wears off and these now younger men, and women in some contexts, will face their humanity, their loneliness and all that implies as they age. And some won’t cope. At what cost.

    For over a week now I have not gone near the Church. Was going every day before that and seemingly living it. But something was just not right. Been saying any sense of peace was a temporary, delusion. have been trying to understand what the hell has been bugging me so much, scaring me to some degree, and I believe this is giving me a large part of the answer. Red lights flashing all over the place. “Nothing has really changed and these people won’t change it, cannot, don’t know how.” And they don’t listen, don’t want to – don’t know how. I am not talking here on the site but the clerics here not immune either. It’s scared, cause the loss of just one more life is one way, way too many. And they don’t listen, don’t want to…… don’t know how. I am past caring about that now. But can’t not care that others are not exposed to the same – abused and a users, who have been so deeply wounded too by this spiritual sickness. Young people are not stupid. They see the insanity for what it is and stay away.

    And we need to take care of ourselves, our own lives, and if those are under threat by the Church as it remains, and they are – then any remaining level of mental health would suggest to get the hell out.

    But there is a redeeming factor too.

    To quote good ol’ Sinead O’ Connor, “there has to be remembering, grieving……. UNDERSTANDING and THEN…… HEALING.” This applies to these men too. To all of us inside, on the margins or outside the ‘church’. How you get that understanding I don’t know. They don’t listen, don’t want to, don’t know how. They too are some of the sickest of the sick at the top….. down.

    I will read this one.

  2. Gene Carr

    We know from the reserach of Professor Charon Shakeshaft that abuse of children and minors is rampant in the very secularized US public school system; according to Shakeshaft it is much worse proportionaltely than in the Church and the same cover ups are practiced. Recent reports have also indicated a very large problem in the Boy Scouts of America among scout masters. Can we now assume that a ‘thick’ understanding of the behavior of public school teachers and scout masters can be laid at the door of their striving for ‘perfection’ or because they were possessors of special powers of ritual. Did they act this way because they had embraced the ‘idealized model of perfect . . . .masculinity’ etc etc etc. Contemporary psychotherapy has decended into absurdity; if my information is correct, the majority of US clerical abusers who were allowed back into parishes had been ‘cleared’ by psychotherapists.

  3. Eddie Finnegan

    I take it, Gene, that (like myself) you haven’t got around to reading Marie Keenan’s book yet. Maybe, as Paddy Ferry suggested some months back, we should do just that before commenting further or consigning her work to the Hades of absurdity.
    By the way, Professor Shakeshaft (surely a linguistic sister of the Bard?) is Charol, not Charon or even Carol or Sharon. Charon is the guy who’ll ferry us across the Styx and Acheron one day, so don’t mess around with his name and make sure you have your obol ready.

  4. Richard Wagner

    As a sexologist with years of experience interacting with priest abusers as well as those abused, I concur with Marie Keenan’s conclusions. I was an Oblate of Mary Immaculate for 20 years. I was also abused by my religious superior in minor seminary in Belleville, IL when i was 14 years old. So, besides my sexological training, I have a unique insider’s perspective to this tragedy.

    What we have here is a structural problem. The Church’s clericalism and the woeful lack of any education around the topic of human sexuality, coupled with the standard sexual and emotional immaturity of my fellow priests and religious is the culprit. By vilifying the perpetrator alone, the Church avoids its culpability in creating and perpetuating this crisis.

  5. Rory Connor

    “By vilifying the perpetrator alone, the Church avoids its culpatibility in creating and perpetuating the crisis.”
    It is actually the MEDIA that is vilifying the perpetrator although “accused” woulld often be a better word. Remember the headlines about Nora Wall- “Vile Nun”, Pervert Nun”, “I was Raped by Anti-Christ” and then the quick descent into silence as soon as the case against her (and Pablo McCabe) collapsed?

    Incidentaly I see the Sisters of Mercy had the following to say about the acquittal of Sister Mary Theresa Grogan – as per the Irish Independent:
    “Sr Grogan has always denied these charges and asserted her innocence throughout the perod of seven years since these allegations were first made against her. This criminal trial has been very difficult for everyone concerned.”
    Yes indeed for Sister Mary Theresa AND her accusers!

  6. Teilhard

    ‘Spot on’ is what I have to say to Kevin [#1] and to Richard [#4]. As someone who has decades of experience working with youth and living the RCC lifestyle, I totally agree with the analysis given by Kevin and Richard. This RCC problem is, at its most elemental level, one of structure and one that will not be addressed by merely ‘tweaking’ the system! It is generations and centuries beyond that cure!

    As someone else on this site commented weeks ago, “The problem is with the very model of hierarchy that the RCC holds onto.” I would go one step further and suggest that the problem is with ANY model of hierarchy. We need to return to what Jesus told us: “All are equal in the Kingdom: NO divisions or ranks: a community of equals.” And yes, that would apply to male and female, black, yellow and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, cleric and lay, liberal and conservative, churched and unchurched: NO DIVISIONS.

    It is no wonder that this system of religion [RCC] is dysfunctional, it is NOT of Jesus. Time to get back to the original and dump all the copies that have been produced over the centuries!

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