The Moment after Suffering: Lessons from the Pedophilia Scandal

By Connors, Canice | Commonweal, October 21, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Moment after Suffering: Lessons from the Pedophilia Scandal


Connors, Canice, Commonweal


The poet and mystic Jessica Powers writes: "Time's cupped hand holds no place so lenient, so calm, as this, the moment after suffering."

Her lines hold relevance for us after our ten years of suffering through the priest pedophilia scandal so well described by John Dreese in these pages ["A Priest Looks at Priest Pedophilia," April 22]. The withdrawal of unfounded charges against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin provided a period of respite from intense - sometimes perfervid - media scrutiny. Such moments after suffering, Jessica Powers believes, should allow us to feast on a rich, succulent wisdom.

But is such wisdom available? Are we using it? My answers, as of the moment: Much relatively new and valuable knowledge is indeed available; it isn't always used, or used wisely. Widespread misinformation about the problem, ignorance of its nature, undifferentiated anger against those responsible - all these are understandable, but they are poor guides for policy. Experience-based reforms are needed in many areas: in seminary admissions procedures, in seminary programs on human sexuality, in mentoring and further education of the newly and not so newly ordained, in methods (other than denial) of dealing with scandal when it erupts. Common sense and intuition alone will not provide an adequate basis for making the needed changes.

There are those, for example, who blame the whole problem on a shabby screening system and poor monitoring in the seminaries. One such critic, a church liability insurer, sought for patterns by identifying seminaries where disproportionate numbers of abusers had been educated. But there was no particular wisdom there: practically all seminaries had produced their share. Were acceptance procedures porous everywhere? Should all rectors and faculties be indicted for malpractice? Research-based answers are not currently available. But perhaps it should not surprise us that many abusers got into and through the seminary system. Most pedophiles and ephebophiles (terms briefly explained below) appear quite normal on the instruments frequently used in psychological screening, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory [MMPI] and the Millan Clinical Multiaxial Inventory [MCMI]. After ordination, the sexual crises of those who had always been potential abusers came into play in the less structured and minimally supervised parish setting.

Hindsight, with its peculiar clarity, asks why abusers were not detected earlier in their parish assignments. It is seldom reported that postabuse investigations have rarely yielded real surprises. Most often - despite the secrecy guarded by abusers, as well as by their victims - confreres, colleagues, and congregants felt uneasy with the abusers' preoccupation with minors. Yet insight was suppressed or judgment was withheld because few could fuse in their minds the reality they experienced - of a good celebrant, or an excellent teacher, or a dependable parish organizer - with the horror of child abuse.

The media have played more than one role in bringing about the present state of understanding and misunderstanding. They deserve great credit for breaking stories that were hard to credit in the first place, distasteful to many readers and viewers, risky because hard to document, strongly resisted by church authorities. They are to be blamed in some instances for sensationalized and/or simplistic coverage and for failure to follow through on the topic beyond the revelations of shocking conduct by priests and of denial and evasion by church authorities.

A composite image drawn from the media would portray all molesters as monsters baked in a single mold. The reality is otherwise. Researchers who have studied the populations extensively are unanimous about the complexity and heterogeneity of the groups known as "child molesters." In the face of their findings, it is next to useless to say simply that the clergy have a problem with child sexual abuse. …

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