A strange silence

Why aren't critics going to the root of the problem of paedophilia among the clergy? The author of a new study explains why. 
Giovanni Cucci | 20 July 2010
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The scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests and religious has done untold damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Here Edward Pentin interviews a priest psychologist,  Father Giovanni Cucci SJ, the co-author of a recent book about the problem.

* * * * * *

What conclusions do you come to in your book?

The book tries to outline the complex personality of the paedophile, possible causes of paedophilia, and points which demand attention in terms of diagnosis and treatment, specifically focusing on paedophile priests in the Catholic Church.

For this purpose, some points come into focus, especially regarding those who are called to evaluate requests of possible candidates to a seminary or novitiate, and relevant points concerning a unified and integrated formation. The second part of the book is devoted to this issue.

In conducting this research we have noticed some particularly significant points that deserve greater consideration, not only within the Church. It must be made clear that the problem of child abuse has always existed in our society. Today, there is growing sensitivity and awareness among citizens of both victims in civil society to address these cases. This is one reason why such painful facts have emerged in recent years.

However, we have found amid the general outcry a strange silence among those who know more than anyone and had the power to speak out. I am referring to the silence of those who work in the world of education and have experience in dealing with children (parents, teachers, sports coaches, community leaders, priests) and those who, as experts, can provide suitable comments about the issue of paedophilia: psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists.

Rarely in newspapers in recent months has it been possible to find anything that goes beyond a timely denunciation, to offer a broad reflection on this problem, investigating its causes, prevention possibilities, and also offering appropriate therapeutic proposals. On this front, there is an almost complete lack of action, not just in terms of opinions, statements, interviews, but also when it comes to publicising this issue.

One reason for this deficiency, in our view, is that the topic of deviance and perversion has become increasingly marginal within psychiatric and psychological research, which undoubtedly makes it difficult to operate in a manner that is equal to the seriousness of the problem. To this deficiency must be added a curious ambiguity: in our culture, while it rightly stigmatizes these acts, it forgets that in the past, society has not only tolerated them but also publicly encouraged them.

The cultural and political climate of the 70s and 80s repeatedly tried to publicly justify paedophilia, without encountering opposition or criticism. In 1998, the Italian Radical Party published a document entitled: 'Paedophilia and the Internet: old obsessions and new crusades', in which, among other things, it stated: "In a state of law, to be a paedophile, to proclaim to be one or to even to support its legitimacy, cannot be considered a crime; paedophilia, like any other sexual preference, becomes a crime at the moment it harms another person."

The same happened in Germany – also now in the news. In 1999, the Humanistische Union (HU) of Berlin fought to permit general pornography and all “consensual” sexual acts, including with minors. Looking at more recent news, the official birth of a legalized paedophile party, formed in Holland in 2006, arouses not a little astonishment.

All that has happened, therefore, can be put into a radically broader cultural context, one in which there is often uncritical acceptance, approval of transgressions and perversions as manifestations of freedom and spontaneity. It's a culture which takes a totally negative view of values and the moral law.

Paedophilia is a perversion and to be recognized as such and calls to recognize it as the norm should be resisted, ethically and psychologically, even before the law.

How can psychology help determine whether a priest has tendencies towards paedophilia, and what are the signs to look for?

First it should be clear that the paedophilia phenomenon has some common elements that psychologists describe as  "perversion," "deviance," "paraphilias." These terms mean a disorder of sexual excitement that is awakened only on very particular occasions, such as the sight of objects and clothing (fetish), the wearing of clothes of the opposite sex (transvestism), watching sex performed by others (voyeurism), showing nudity to others (exhibitionism), inflicting humiliation, violence, until the death of a partner (sadism, rape), or finally molestation, inflicting violence, or sexual relations with children and adolescents (paedophilia, ephebophilia). The paedophile is therefore a person sexually attracted to boys or girls under the age of 13 years. The majority of abuse perpetrated by priests of the Catholic Church is more related to cases of ephebophilia.

I should also say that psychology is certainly not a mathematical discipline, from which it is possible to reach clear and distinct conclusions. It is very difficult to define precisely the personality of a paedophile, because those who commit abuses rarely reveal their own tendencies and ways of thinking. It must also be said that many cases of violence stay secret and are not revealed, out of shame or fear of consequences.

From the latest research carried out in Italy, it seems that abusers are overwhelmingly male: according to data from Censis in 2000, most of the abuse (84-90 percent) took place in the family, and 27 percent of perpetrators were a close family member, that is, cases of incest. Studies show in particular some problematic areas, and some real "red flags" warrant particular attention. Among them are: infantile interests, lack of a clearly defined sexual orientation, a history of sexual deviance, hyper-sexualisation or sexual repression in the family, having suffered abuse as a child, or a poor upbringing lacking affection and communication. Naturally, the situation should be considered in its entirety, especially if an element recalls another.

What possible solutions to the problem are there?

A situation of ephebophilia, from a therapeutic point of view, is undoubtedly a more favourable prognosis. To quote the words of Kochansky and Cohen: "The psychodynamic and character traits of ephebolphilia are quite different from those of paedophilia. The typical ephebophile, except in cases of perversion, is a relatively healthy person. He is not a psychotic. And although some may have difficulty establishing close and intimate relationships and can therefore be somewhat antisocial, it's not an anti-social trait in the sense of a psycho-pathology." In the case of a paedophile personality, one is instead dealing with a sick person who, only through the support of specialists, can contain and control their own actions.

How should the Church - and wider society - best tackle this problem?

To report cases is important but not sufficient, as noted above. In the absence of professional points of reference, this can easily degenerate into what Philip Jenkins has called "moral panic", a mode of information that instead of reflecting on the problem in its effective dimensions instils in people fear and panic, leading to a generalizing, block phenomenon, a category, without providing any criteria for analysis and intervention. Thus, any contact with a child raises the suspicion of paedophilia.

In this way, potential victims, children, are even more damaged and helpless. Above all, they will be increasingly alone during a developmental period in which the educator's role is indispensable. I give you one concrete and significant example. In many kindergartens children are no longer cared for and cleaned, staying all day in their own excrement; the teachers absolutely don't want to touch them for fear of being accused of paedophilia. These are the typical consequences of moral panic, and the ones paying the price are, once again, children ...

Concerning the Church, faced with these facts, many say that the Vatican doesn't have procedures to deal with paedophile priests beyond laicizing them. Of course, this procedure can be right and proper, provided by the Code of Canon Law, but that's not to say, with all the facts in hand, that it is really the best thing for potential victims, children, and for the perpetrator himself, who often returns to society without any oversight and, left to himself, returns to committing abuse.

This was the case with James Porter, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River (Massachusetts): once discharged, he wasn't pursued by the civil authorities, he married, and shortly afterwards was charged with harassment against the babysitter of his children.

That said, you still have to reaffirm clearly that this painful event requires careful screening and adequate preparation on the part of formators and superiors who have responsibility over those who are seeking to become priests or religious, since the request can cover major difficulties in the area of sexuality and personality in general. In the book, we offer some possible steps. He should get to know a candidate in his human dimension, especially emotional and sexual. He should have an emotionality that should imbue also spirituality and the ideal of a priest.

A devastating human and spiritual poverty characterizes paedophiles, and the root of their behaviour is fixed on a state of infancy. More generally, from the perspective of human sciences, it is important to verify the emotional maturity and the overall balance and control of the impulses, which are basic requirements for the man of God, as Church documents, also recently, have repeatedly pointed out.

Some say that paedophilia is linked to homosexuality. How true is this?

There is no connection between paedophilia and homosexuality, just as there is no connection between celibacy and paedophilia. As said, the majority of paedophiles are married with children. The paedophile personality is very complex and includes the father of a family, the professional, the priest – it includes people who are really unexpected. Again, we warn against using easy labels in the hope of more easily understanding the phenomenon.

Will your research be available in English?

For the moment we have not thought of an English edition of the book. We have published one chapter in a theology magazine in India, and we will do so with another chapter. If a Catholic publisher, for example in the US, might be interested, we'd think about it.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome. Father Giovanni Cucci SJ and Father Hans Zollner SJ are the authors of ‘Chiesa e pedofilia. Una ferita aperta. Un approccio psicologico-pastorale’ (The Church and Paedophilia. An Open Wound. A Pastoral-Psychological Approach) Milan, Ancora, 2010.

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