12 SEXUAL ABUSE OF BOYS BY CLERGY
Recent media exposure of sexual abuse of boys by Catholic clergy has engendered a crisis in the Catholic Church. One of the less painful sequelae has been an attempt to understand this phenomenon better. This abuse is a subset of the wider problem of child sexual abuse, and presents one of the least-understood aspects of this problem-sexual abuse of boys by male perpetrators. This chapter reports on 26 adolescent boys and adult men who describe having been sexually abused by Catholic priests as children or adolescents. The length of time that it takes boys and men to report this abuse; the characteristics of priests’ abuse; psychological sequelae, including psychiatric diagnosis; sexual concerns such as fantasies and questioning orientation; sexual abuse of others; and impact on spirituality will be discussed. Two cases, the first of an adolescent boy who entered therapy only a few years after the abuse occurred, and the second of a man who waited over four decades to tell his story, are presented in depth. On average, the men waited more than 18 years before coming forward to seek psychological help or legal action.
The period of silence that has accompanied male sexual abuse has not been entirely quiet, however, because myths have flourished. Among them are the beliefs that men who have been abused will abuse, that men who have been abused will be gay, and that they should not be trusted with children. Our study counters these myths but raises other concerns such as loss of spirituality, sexual difficulties, profound depression, and substance abuse. Knowing the real risks in this tragedy helps shape solutions for the future.
Although a significant percentage of boys (with estimates ranging from 3% to 31%) are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays (Finkelhor, 1984; Spencer and Dunklee, 1986; Wyatt and Powell, 1988; Watkins and Bentovim, 1992; Shrier et al., 1998; Hinds and Baskin, 1999), the issue of male sexual abuse received little attention until the recent crisis in the Catholic Church. This oversight was a serious one, as the aftereffects of male sexual abuse have proved to be severe. Substance abuse is particularly widespread in this population (Garnefski and Arends, 1998; Simpson and Miller, 2002), possibly stemming from attempts to self-medicate to control overwhelming negative emotions. Depression and suicidal thinking have also been frequently reported as a response to sexual abuse (Choquet et al, 1997; Shrier et al., 1998; Garnefski and Arends, 1998; Edgardh and Ormstad, 2000), with some studies suggesting that males display this pattern after childhood sexual abuse even more frequently than females (Dykman et al., 1997; Garnefski and Diekstra, 1997). In addition, sexual confusion, fear of intimacy, and lost trust are common issues for both male and female child sexual abuse survivors (Bruckner and Johnson, 1987).
Despite a recent influx of topical books on the subject, only a handful of academic articles have been written about either the abusing priests (Haywood, Kravitz, Grossman, et al., 1996; Hayward, Kravitz, Wasyliw, et al., 1996; Jenkins, 1996; Fönes et al., 1999; Plante, 1999; Langevin, Curnoe, and Bain, 2000) or the victims of these atrocities (Rosetti, 1995; Isely, 1997; Berezin de Guiter, 2000; Fater and Mullaney, 2000; Disch and Avery, 2001). Of the four articles on victims of clergy sexual abuse, only two have used sample sizes of 10 or more. Disch and Avery (2001) compiled data on a mixed population of survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and medical and mental health professionals. Their study reported that a larger number of males are abused by clergy members: 26.3%, as opposed to the 9.5% abused by medical professionals and 6.7% by mental health professionals. In clergy abuse, a larger number (94.4%) of the abusers were men, whereas a smaller number (64.3%) of the abusers were heterosexual than in the other two groups. Rosetti examined 1,800 adult Catholics, divided into three groups: those who reported no childhood sexual abuse (n = 1,376), those who reported childhood sexual abuse, but not by clergy (n = 307), and those who reported childhood sexual abuse by clergy (n 40). Rosetti (1995) found that those abused by clergy reported significantly lower levels of trust in the priesthood, church, and God than those in the other two groups. Fater and Mullaney described a small sample of seven men who were sexually abused by clergy as children. All reported anger and spiritual distress, during semistructured interviews. Berezin de Guiter (2000) composed a single case study of a 10year-old boy whose father died when he was 2, who was abused by a priest; the boy’s sexual response, anger, and violent reactions to these life events are discussed. Last, Isely (1997) wrote his dissertation on the effects of clergy abuse, interviewing nine men who were abused by clergy as children. Isely described symptoms of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, guilt, low self-worth, loss of religion, anger, difficulty managing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and depression.
When we look behind the sensationalism and media coverage at the research that has been done to date, we discover a highly symptomatic group of men, many of whom have been silent about their abuse for decades. A summary of previous research indicated that the most common psychological effects of sexual abuse by priests include depression (Isely, 1997), loss of religious faith (Rosetti, 1995; Isely, 1997; Fater and Mullaney, 2000), anxiety (Isely, 1997), emotional turmoil (Isely, 1997; Disch and Avery, 2001), symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Isely, 1997), anger (Isely, 1997; Fater and Mullaney, 2000), guilt (Isely, 1997), mistrust (Disch and Avery, 2001), low self-worth (Isely, 1997), issues regarding intimacy (Isely, 1997; Disch and Avery, 2001), and sexual difficulties (Berezin de Guiter, 2000). Many of these psychological responses, in addition to other sequelae, were found in our research. Although both men and women have been abused by clergy members, the percentage of abused men is much more significant and has not yet been effectively addressed; therefore, this paper focuses on male victims and highlights the lack of research in this key area.
METHOD OF THE STUDY
The participants in this study were 26 boys and men who had been sexually abused by priests and who were seen for psychiatric evaluation in the office of the first author, an adolescent psychiatrist experienced in evaluating sexual abuse. There were several sources of referral, among them the Catholic archdioceses of California, attorneys representing men in legal actions against the dioceses, physicians and therapists in whom the men had confided, and friends and support groups who heard about the service. The initial evaluations were conducted to determine the magnitude of the abuse and whether or not psychiatric treatment was indicated. Treatment was offered to those who wished it.
Measures and Data Analysis
Each individual’s depression and substance abuse were given numerical values, based on severity. The group was then subdivided based on the type of sexual abuse that occurred, the use of force, and the circumstances of abuse. Following this, the data were analyzed using Pearson correlations, f-tests, and one-way ANOVAs. The data presented were accumulated over a 10-year period during diagnostic evaluation interviews that lasted between three and six hours, although many of the individuals later participated in psychotherapy with the psychiatric evaluator.
From the initial notes taken during the clinical interview, each man’s level of depression was rated on a three-point scale, with zero indicating no evidence of depression, one indicating mild, two indicating moderate, and three indicating severe; the scale was based on a similar rating scale used in the DSMIV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Mild episodes are characterized by the presence of only five or six depressive symptoms and either mild disability or the capacity to function normally. Episodes that are severe are characterized by the presence of most of the criteria symptoms and clear-cut, observable disability. Moderate episodes have a severity that is intermediate between mild and severe. Twenty-two of the men (85%) were evaluated as suffering from depression, and the average depression rating across the entire group was 1.92.
A similar scale was used to rate substance abuse, and 23 of the men (88%) admitted to past or present misuse of alcohol or drugs. Like the depression index, the substance abuse rating scale lists zero as indicating no evidence of substance abuse, one indicating mild abuse, two indicating moderate abuse, and three indicating severe substance abuse. Mild substance abuse is characterized by the presence of one of the four criteria listed in the DSM-IV-TR, severe substance abuse is characterized by the presence of most or all of the criteria, and moderate substance abuse is intermediate between mild and severe. The average intensity of substance abuse for the 26 men was 2.04. The substance most commonly abused by the men was alcohol.
The average age of initial abuse was approximately 12 years, with a range from 5 to 17 years of age. The duration of abuse varied from a single incident to an 18-year coercive sexual relationship; among all the cases, the average duration was approximately 2 years. On average, the men waited 18 years to disclose their abuse to anyone. Physical force was used by the clergy member in exactly 50% of the cases of sexual abuse, and some form of coercion was present in all cases. The abuse cases ranged from single incidents of fondling to hundreds of incidents of oral and anal sex spanning 18 years. Oral sex was part of the abuse in 13 cases (50%) and anal sex in 8 (31%) cases. Five (19%) of the men had unclear memories of the abuse and could not remember exactly what had taken place.
Only one of the men (4%) reported subsequent sexual abuse after the priest episode. Two men (8%) reported that the sexual abuse by the clergy member spanned most of their adolescence, lasting longer than five years.
Contrary to past findings, eleven of the men (42%) reported that they grew up in “warm, close” families, and only three (12%) reported that their fathers were absent during their childhood. However, five of the men (19%) mentioned physical abuse or severe dysfunction in their families of origin. The remaining six men (23%) reported that their families were intact but that one or both of their parents were emotionally distant. Only two of the men (8%) disclosed that they had later become perpetrators of sexual abuse, each as an adolescent. In both cases, they sexually abused their younger siblings within five years of their own abuse.
Of the 26 men interviewed, 85% met DSM-IV-TR criteria for current depression, and 88% met the criteria for current substance abuse. Symptoms of suicidality (55%), loss of spirituality (54%), and sexual issues (73%) were also common. Sexual issues included confusion about sexual orientation, fears about sexual performance, issues with sexual arousal, and problems regarding sexual behavior. Confusion about sexual orientation was discussed by 31% of the men, although only one man (4%) was self-identified as homosexual.
The 26 men were divided into three groups: Group A, whose members had distinct memories of anal penetration during the abuse (n = 8); Group B, whose members could not clearly remember the details (n = 5); and Group C, whose members remembered that the abuse did not include anal penetration (n = 13). The level of depression for group A was 2.63, which was significantly higher than the total average. The level of depression reported for Group B averaged 2.20, and for Group C, it was 1.38, signifying less-severe depression. A one-way ANOVA of the data in the three groups showed significant differentiation: F(2, 23) = 3.62, p
The age at initial abuse appeared to be a major factor in the development of depression, substance abuse problems, and suicidality. Those who were initially abused when they were under ten (n = 3) scored at the highest possible level of depression, 3.00. Broadening the first group to include those who were first abused at 13 years of age or younger (n = 19) lowered the depression score to 2.26. Those who were older than thirteen when first abused (n = 7) scored much lower, at 1.00. The Pearson correlation between age at initial abuse and severity of depression achieved statistical significance, as r(24) = -.45, p
As mentioned earlier, physical force was used by the priests in half of the cases (n = 13) and had an effect on both the later depression and suicidality of the victims. The level of depression for the forced group was 2.15 versus 1.69 for the nonforced group. Of the men in the forced group, 58% acknowledged past or present suicidal thoughts, whereas 40% of the nonforced group had this complaint.
Last, an interesting correlation existed between the severity of substance abuse later in life and being given alcohol or drugs by the priest during the abusive incidents. Those given drugs or alcohol by the priest during the abuse (n = 10) presented with a substance abuse rating of 2.40, whereas the group who were not given substances during the abuse (n = 16) presented with a rating of 1.80.
The following vignettes describe the themes that emerged in individual psychotherapy with two of the men. In these cases, “I” refers to the first author.
Case 1: Garth-Unwanted Fantasies
Rage is one of the feelings experienced by men and boys who have been sexually abused by priests. This is illustrated by the following conversation taken from the therapy of 18-year-old Garth.1 After reading me a written report outlining how he was sexually abused and sodomized by a priest on three occasions when he was 13, he told me his story. He had it memorized.
Garth: “I keep thinking of him [molesting] bunches of little kids. It’s so scary.”
Dr. “What’s the scariest part for you?”
Garth: “I guess that I want to kill this guy, feeling like that all the time. He makes me feel like a killer. I hate him so much. I keep thinking, how do these fuckers get away with it?”
Dr. “Well, he was a big guy and he lay on top of you, for one thing. It would have been hard to get away from him with all those sleeping boys around you.”
Garth “Yeah, I know, but I still wonder why I didn’t scream, why I didn’t do anything. I was completely frozen.”
Dr. “You were terrified, Garth.” I tried to speak clearly, supporting his recognition of this.
Garth “I know that, but I still expected, still expect, more from myself.”
Dr. “What would you like to have done?”
He laughed. It was a shrill laugh, painful to hear.
Garth: “That’s the thing, Dr. Ponton, there you asked the right question. I would have liked to have raped the bastard. Now I’ve said it. I’m not much better than him.”
Dr. “But you didn’t do that, Garth.”
Garth: “Yeah, not yet, anyway,” he said wryly, and shook his head again.
When Garth left my office that day, I sat quietly by myself. I could see that he had a collection of feelings about this priest-paralysis combined with fear and a desire to kill or rape him-that had been raging inside him for years. He was finally starting to talk about them.
As our work developed, the area that Garth avoided was that of his sexual fantasies. I waited, but I knew that at some point we would need to talk about them. From my experience with other molested boys and men, I understood that it was a very sensitive area. I remembered my first case of unreported male sexual abuse, a young set designer in his early 20s who came to see me because he had difficulties completing his designs on the computer screen. At first, he reported nothing. What finally emerged were daydreams, constant visions of men and boys engaged in violent fights that then dissolved into erotic scenes. Similar to the abused men that followed in my practice, initially he could not tell me this, nor did he connect it with being abused.
The marks left on these men’s sexuality can be devastating. Many live in fear that they, too, will abuse, although only two of the 26 men in our study did. Some came to see me at the time that their wives were pregnant, worried that they might abuse their own children or that others would accuse them of it. All struggled with their sexual fantasies, which were marked by looming figures holding them down, prying apart their legs or forcing open their mouths, evoking strong feelings-hateful and erotic fantasies that they did not want to have and would pretend didn’t exist.
Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst and former teacher at the University of California in Los Angeles, devoted much of his life to studying the darker side of sexual behavior and fantasies associated with reenactments of childhood sexual abuse. In a chapter entitled “Sex as Sin” (Stoller, 1975), he writes about abusers’ compressing powerful memories of their own mistreatment into sexual scenarios that they then forcibly live out with others. Their scripts are delivered with force, infused by trauma, and packaged in a dangerous but exciting way. The abused often feel that strong energy. Most of the victims I have worked with recognize that they are being pulled into a priest’s own dark struggle. Working with them, I have been able to help them recognize that their own stories are horribly painful, but at the same time, the fantasies that result can often be powerfully exciting and construct a niche in their sexual lives.
For example, Garth described a sexual fantasy sequence that he experienced repeatedly. It would begin with Garth thinking about an attractive girl, either one he had seen in a magazine or encountered in his daily activities. He would initially fantasize about looking at the girl, would feel stimulated, and would begin to have an erection. At the point of imagined physical contact with her, Garth described having intrusive thoughts about the priest who had abused him. He would fantasize about the hands of the priest and sometimes a dark shadow-representing the priest’s body-touching his own.
Gradually, with my assistance, Garth admitted that he believed that he needed the sexual fantasies of the molestation to heighten his own sexual excitement. He believed that at first, the fantasies had been unwelcome intruders into his developing sexual life, but that now he could not get along without them. Over several months, we tried to focus on the part of the fantasy that was so necessary, and two things emerged. First, Garth felt conflicted about his own sexually aggressive feelings. He did not want to hurt others in the way that the priest had hurt him, yet he needed a feeling of sexual power or force to feel aroused. In a manner of speaking, he borrowed this power from his memories of the sexual encounter with the priest, the same encounters that had robbed him of his ability to be sexually aggressive. For months we focused on helping Garth become more comfortable with being assertive-first at work, and then, finally, with dating. Once Garth was able to feel better about his own sexual aggression, it lessened both his need for the fantasy and his frustration about having to use it.
A second subject that we discussed at length was how young he had been when these fantasies became part of his sexual life. They were not something that he chose or had control over. He recognized that his memories of these unfortunate sexual experiences were now integrated into his early sexual development and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to completely eradicate. Our frank discussion of this provided some comfort for Garth, and he came to accept that at least some part of these fantasies would always be part of his sexual life. Changing how he viewed them was key, however. He started looking for ways that he could claim them and make them actively his own. An example of this was our work together on the symbolism of hands. Although Garth frequently associated the fantasy of hands with the punitive, confining hands of the abusing priest, he also saw them as powerful tools, useful in masturbating. The second fantasy was more acceptable to him, and we worked to pair the two so that he could experience a fantasy that was stimulating and not unacceptably humiliating. This type of work lessened the anger and shame that he had formerly connected with these fantasies.
It is important to understand that psychological work on sexual fantasies surrounding abuse takes a long time and requires a patient’s willingness to look at his or her feelings and make changes, tasks that require tremendous courage on the part of the patient. Garth had that, but many victims of sexual abuse are not able to commit themselves to this type of effort. Our study also found that boys abused before age 13, as Garth was, have more psychological symptoms. His case and that of others raise the question of whether or not early abuse has a more significant impact on sexual fantasies.
Case 2: Joseph-Decades of Silence
Joseph was in his mid-50s when he decided to come forward and talk about the sexual abuse that occurred during his early adolescence. Several factors played a role in his decision to finally tell his story. During the preceding five years, the political climate had changed, as more men and boys came forward with their experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members. Both public and private legal actions had been taken, and the victims participating in these efforts had been encouraged to seek treatment. Joseph, too, had participated in a legal action.
In addition, to these factors, Joseph had also witnessed his younger brother coming forward to tell his story of priest abuse. This younger brother had been abused by the same priest who had abused Joseph, which affected Joseph in several ways. He, unlike some of his other family members, was supportive of his brother, but he greatly feared that his own delay in coming forward with his story had contributed to his brother’s abuse. He believed that he should have spoken up 43 years earlier, when he was 13 or 14 years old. A part of our therapeutic work together consisted of frank discussions that Joe and I had about how much that would have helped. I told him about men I had worked with who had been sexually abused as boys and had told immediately. Their telling, however, did not stop the abuse, because often the priest was transferred to another parish where the abuse continued. This could be repeated multiple times.
Joseph blamed his younger self. He should have been feistier; if he had been, that would have saved his brother. In our earlier sessions, Joe spent so much time blaming himself that he forgot to discuss others who were directly involved with the problem-another priest in the parish who had been a silent witness to evidence of abuse, the monsignor and bishop who knew about the priest’s history of sexually abusing boys but were protecting him, and the abusing priest himself. Finally, I acknowledged to Joe that if he had spoken out, he would probably have prevented his younger brother’s abuse by this priest. We guessed that his parents would have believed him and, at the very least, would have removed their other children from any contact with the abusing priest. However, he had to recognize that other boys would have fallen victim in his brother’s place. My expression of this opinion was a turning point.
Following this, Joseph’s focus shifted from blaming himself. This was also sparked by his viewing a late-night news program that showed his former abuser, the priest (now quite old), smiling and embracing children in a parish in Central America. Joe said to me, “Watching this program changed me. I have spent my entire life both thinking and not thinking about these events. I did not cause this abuse, and I also know that revenge is not the answer-although I spend much of my time both feeling the desire for revenge and trying to avoid feeling it.”
After he admitted this to me, Joe stopped obsessing about his brother’s situation and focussed on what he himself could do-a 40-year survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He decided that the Church leaders should be honest and admit that they were wrong to orchestrate the cover-up. Also, they should apologize to the abused men and their families, stop protecting perpetrators, and reimburse individuals for necessary therapy related to the molestations. Joe then started an organization of a group of individuals who were working to make this happen. He recognized that the 43 years of silence had been damaging, and that during those years he had been shelving feelings and repeatedly recycling the blame onto himself. But he had also experienced 43 years of introspection and acquired perspective.
SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION
Both physical and sexual abuse are underreported by adolescent boys. Our culture does not look kindly upon victims, whether male or female, but boys who have been victimized may be even more prone to feelings of intense shame and to retreat into silence. This silence is intensified when the abuser is a religious leader such as a priest. Catholic priests are not the only perpetrators. Boys are also abused by ministers, rabbis, and other trusted religious leaders charged with their care and education. However, children abused by Catholic priests have received much attention from the media, and this topic deserves full discussion.
Boys’ silence is only part of this story. Many people, even parents, fail to believe their sons when they do tell. Also critical is the silence of the priests and the Roman Catholic Church, which for many years denied that this sexual abuse was taking place. When episodes with priests were discovered, the perpetrators were shifted to other parishes. Compounding the problem are the inadequate treatment efforts that have been recommended both for the perpetrators and the abused boys.
The comorbid high levels of depression and substance abuse are important to emphasize. In abused men, these sequelae have often been combined in previous studies. With our study group, these symptoms may have been exacerbated by both the prolonged silence and the betrayal by a trusted figure. Although most of the subjects rated high on the depression and substance abuse scales, certain factors appear to increase the risk and intensity of both issues.
The age of the victim at the initial abuse episode appears to have a strong negative correlation with depression, suicidality, and substance abuse. Younger victims of sexual abuse have been found to present with greater comorbidity and more severe pathology (Ackerman et al., 1998). We found that when molestation occurred before age 13, all of the psychological symptoms were more profound.
In cases in which the priest gave the boy alcohol or drugs prior to the sexual abuse, the victim was significantly more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. It is possible that this initial use of a mindaltering substance to numb the pain and confusion of the experience set a precedent for later behavior, and the boy learned to use substances to alleviate his distress. The boy’s imitation of the priest’s behavior, which involved extensive drinking before and during the molestations, is also a probable factor.
Surprisingly, the number of incidents of abuse did not correlate significantly with depression, suicidality, or substance abuse. This could be explained by the idea that a single abusive episode crosses a psychological threshold, and that later incidents simply repeat the same traumatic experience without measurably deepening its scope or psychological damage. Alternatively, this lack of correlation could be due to our sample size.
In our study, sodomy and force were linked. Every incident of sodomy also contained an element of physical force, although there were several incidents (n = 5) of force that did not include sodomy. The correlation of force and sodomy were equal in relation to later development of suicidal thoughts and feelings. The cases in which force was used without sodomy resulted in less severe depression and substance abuse than the cases that included sodomy. This suggests that sodomy, even more than other forms of sexual abuse, profoundly affects the developing male psyche. One theoretical concept suggests that masculinity is demonstrated by power over another, and, when viewed in this light, sodomy is a uniquely disempowering experience (Grubman-Black, 1990). In addition, there is the perception that to be the object of sexual penetration is to be effeminized. This can be particularly damaging to the developing construct of masculinity during childhood and adolescence. Last, the physical pain involved with being the recipient of forced anal intercourse, rather than forced oral intercourse or manual fondling, could potentially increase the sense of confusion, betrayal, anger, and emotional suffering. Anecdotal reports from our patients suggest the validity of these theories; to be physically forced into sexual activity is more threatening to the developing psyche of boys than to be coerced or cajoled.
Unexpected Findings-Debunking the Myths
None of the men interviewed disclosed any sexual abuse prior to the incident or incidents with the priest, and only one described a subsequent episode of sexual abuse, which was also perpetrated by a clergy member. This finding is somewhat unexpected, because other studies have shown a high incidence of repeat molestations of sexual abuse victims by different perpetrators. It is unclear whether this is due to insufficient sample size or, for some reason, characteristic of sexual abuse by clergy.
Debunking another myth-that abused boys will abuse others-is the finding that only two of the men in our study disclosed becoming perpetrators of sexual abuse after they were abused. In both cases, this occurred within five years of the abuse and was inflicted on younger siblings. The small number of subsequent abusers in our study contradicts the stereotype of the victim/abuser and indicates that, in the majority of cases, being a male victim of sexual abuse of boys does not lead to becoming a perpetrator of sexual abuse. Only two boys in our study reported intrafamilial physical abuse (unrelated to the sexual abuse), and of those two, one subsequently sexually abused a younger sibling. This finding is consistent with research indicating that sexually abused males who later become abusers are more likely to also suffer from exposure to a climate of intrafamilial violence (Skuse et al., 1998; Salter et al., 2003).
Another surprising finding was the high level of familial cohesion and support reported by almost half of the men in our study, who described their families as “warm and close.” This directly contradicts the stereotype that priests seek out troubled boys from broken homes, or that absent fathers are the reason for the initial intimate relationship between the victim and the priest.
In addition, although almost one-third of the men reported present or past confusion about their sexual orientation, only one of the men was self-identified as homosexual. This contradicts the idea that sexual abuse of boys causes homosexuality. It also addresses the men’s concerns about the meaning of and reason for their sexual abuse. Of the one-third that reported confusion about their sexual orientation, many concluded that the priest must have chosen them because the priest either thought or knew that they were gay. Most pondered this question for years before they finally concluded that the priest had no special knowledge in this area and their being chosen by a priest for sexual activity was either largely random or a matter of convenience. Many wondered about their own response. Why had they not resisted more strongly? Did it mean that they were latent homosexuals? Ignoring their young age, lack of physical development, the use of force and drugs or alcohol, and the fact that for all but one it was their first sexual experience, they spent years berating themselves for not acting differently. Almost all held themselves to higher standards than those to which they held the abusing priests, as revealed by our case discussion of Joseph. One-quarter were afraid that they would abuse children, even though, as previously mentioned, only two disclosed doing so and both cases occurred with siblings close in age, near the time of the original attack.
We chose to focus on the impact of the abuse on sexual fantasies as highlighted by our discussion of Garth because so many of the men spoke about this particular phenomenon. An even larger number talked about a loss of a vital aspect of their sexual lives, usually manifested as fears of either dating, kissing, French kissing, initiation of intercourse, intercourse, or masturbation. Several required that sexual activity be conducted in a highly ritualized and repetitive way. These behaviors included forcing their women partners to carry out physical violence on their bodies, insistence on aggressive sex without facial contact or talking, affairs outside the current relationship required to trigger sexual excitement, and a range of difficulties with maintaining erections and ejaculation.
All of the men in our study described anger regarding the impact of the abuse on their sexual lives. They felt robbed and also felt unable to talk about it with anyone. Even the men who were married and admitted to their wives that they had been abused by priests found themselves unable to discuss the impact on their sexual lives, even when their wives addressed obvious sequelae in a supportive manner. The legacy of silence was profound in this key area.
Only four of the men reported the abuse soon after it occurred, and one additional man came forward within five years. As mentioned earlier, most of the men waited to speak of their experiences. The average number of years of silence was 18, and this ranged up to 46 years. This prolonged silence is important for a number of reasons. First, it points to a major issue regarding the intense shame and selfblame that most male victims of sexual abuse experience. This is compounded by the fact that, in cases of clergy abuse, the abuser is a trusted and powerful adult who is highly respected by the victim, the family, and the larger social group.
More than half of the men spoke directly about a loss of spiritual life. For most, it took the form of disconnection from Catholicismrefusing to attend mass or participate in any church activities. Others spoke about losing their belief in God, saying, “If the right hand of God can do what he did to me, then there is no God,” or “What kind of God would allow this to happen to children, in His name?” Others chose to stay within the boundaries of another organized religion but spoke about their mistrust of Catholic priests. Many of these men believed that the celibacy imposed on the priests produced covert and abusive sexual behavior and that they should not have been required to make these vows. Many had lost their trust, not only in priests, but in all authority figures.
A small group of men in their 40s and 50s spoke about their current search to reconnect with their spiritual lives. For these men, the process of telling and speaking out about abuse was part of this development. Several had gone back to speak with priests other than their abusers with whom they had maintained connections. The abused men reported that these conversations with nonabusing priests-many who admitted culpability because they had known or felt that something was happening but hadn’t spoken out-were healing. It was clear from our interviews with these men that this type of conversation offers tremendous benefit to healing the abused and the clergy who remained silent.
It is important to remember that this study is based on a clinical sample of boys and men willing to talk about the abuse and to seek psychological assessment and, in many cases, treatment. Thus, the study is not a cross section of boys abused by Catholic priests. These participants do not necessarily represent all men who were abused as boys by Catholic priests. Other limitations of this study include the small sample size (although large for this unique population) and the limited measures of assessment. We recognize that many studies designed today would include more sophisticated measures of depression, substance abuse, and even sexuality and spirituality. Nonetheless, there are important lessons to be learned from this clinical study. The results do not suggest that the victims are exaggerating or dramatizing their traumatization and suffering, or that they were in any way willing accomplices of the priests.
Joseph and the other silent ones have spent decades pondering this painful legacy. His recommendations are well thought out and suggest a course of action. In his words, “I have spent my life both thinking and not thinking about this. I know that revenge is not the solution. However, the Church itself could do a number of things. First, it should admit that it was wrong. second, it needs to stop protecting perpetrators and be honest about those who knew, and then apologize to the victims, the families, and the Catholic community. Finally, the Church needs to reimburse us for the therapy that we (its victims) need, related to these molestations.”
The last recommendation regarding psychological treatment is the one in which mental health professionals will play a vital role. Loss of sexuality and spirituality are key areas to address with these victims. Recognizing that boys who are abused before age 13 are more highly symptomatic is important. Addressing substance abuse and concerns about the sexual abuse of others and having frank discussions of questions related to sexuality and spirituality are also important.
Copyright Analytic Press 2004
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