Breaking the cycle of priest sex abuse

It’s widely recognized that children who grow up in the midst of criticism tend to criticize others. Children raised with violence are at risk for perpetuating violence as adults. And children who grow up with experiences of sexual abuse are at greater risk for abusing another person sexually later in life.

Part of the human condition is that people who are hurt are vulnerable to acting out that hurt towards another person later on. It doesn’t mean they absolutely will, and most people go to great lengths not to pass on the hurts they endured. But it is a human vulnerability we need to understand well�especially in dealing with the current church scandal.

Shedding light on the dynamics of sex abuse is a recent important article in the Los Angeles Times, “Many Accused Priests Were Once Abuse Victims Themselves, Experts Say” (May 18).

About two thirds of abusing priests were victims of abuse as youths, says Father Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and sex abuse consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops .

Father Paul Shanley, who is charged with raping a boy in Massachusetts, wrote to a Boston Archdiocese administrator in 1995 that he had been abused as a teenager and later as a seminarian by a priest, a faculty member, and a pastor.

The article also cites Father Kevin Clohessy, who was recently accused publicly of molesting a male college student in Missouri a decade ago. His brother, David, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests , said he and Kevin were molested as boys by the same priest.

I think there’s a growing consensus among Catholic laity that once it is determined that a priest acted out the crime of pedophilia, he needs to be permanently barred from serving as priest.

What also has to be discussed is how do we protect our children when these defrocked men go back into society at large. Because if we settle for demonizing abusing priests, we’ll miss the opportunity to really understand how abuse perpetuates itself generation after generation and what we can do to break that cycle.

Recently, I’ve been hearing people speculate that pedophilia is incurable. Our hopelessness is understandable, especially after hearing about priests who go through treatment only to abuse again. But although the cure for AIDS and cancer often seem elusive, millions of dollars are spent every year in research because we believe we can ultimately win this battle.

For the future of our church and our children, we need to adopt a similar resolve with regards to sex abuse. Breaking the cycle might mean listening and learning from people who were abused as children and DID NOT perpetuate the abuse. What made the difference? How did they heal from the experience? What kind of counseling proved helpful? How did their faith guide them?

As crass as it can feel sometimes to talk about sex and especially about pedophilia, more than ever we as Catholics need to learn how to talk about sex in intelligent ways. This is a topic that just too important to leave to the Howard Sterns and Jerry Springers of the world.