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Vol 38 No 2


Jim Quillinan

Michael Trainor

Trish Madigan OP

Michael Fallon MSN

Phil Riordan

Mark Raper SJ

Bob Irwin MSC



Clergy sexual abuse: New Paradigms For Healing


OUR GROWING AWARENESS of the extent of the sexual abuse of children and adults in the Church and the crisis that this has precipitated has prompted various responses from its institutions. They have ranged from the earlier corrupt and unjust treatment of victims and their families to more recent high profile meetings in Rome, the establishment of procedures for dealing with complaints of abuse and, finally, various theological responses. This crisis has underlined to all of us the contradictions that still exist within the Church and its continuing capacity for evil, which has its origins in the corruptibility of human nature and psychic unconsciousness. Past responses to the problem of clergy sexual abuse have been worsened by the complexities of Church organisation, hindering the development of just and consistent responses to complaints of clergy sexual abuse. The Towards Healing document (Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference and the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes: 2000) and the Professional Standards Resource Group established to implement its principles and procedures for dealing with complaints of clergy sexual abuse has been an effective but, ultimately, inadequate attempt to rectify this situation. This essay is an attempt to provide a theological response to the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

In this article I have tried to analyse the issue from the perspective of the adult and child victims of clergy sexual abuse, rather than from the perspective of the Church or the priest perpetrator. In the course of this analysis I have explored the value of some concepts from Korean Minjung theology, ideas from the Christian Realist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, the liberative philosophical writings of Paolo Freire, the work of Judith Herman with torture and trauma survivors, psychoanalytic theory and the analytical ideas of C. G. Jung. I have relied on this approach in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of the issue rather than confining myself to a particular theoretical model, but I am aware of the methodological problems that this kind of approach can create. To address these problems here would take the essay well beyond its main purpose. But I do believe that an understanding of the dynamics of the individual human psyche and observations of group psychic phenomena may help us to develop a greater theological understanding of the whole clergy sexual abuse tragedy. I have also discussed how this analysis may help us rethink the whole issue with hope rather than despair. I then explore how the clergy sexual abuse issue may inform traditional understandings about the crucifixion and resurrection as the central mystery and defining experience of Christian history. Overall, it is an attempt to explore further possibilities for healing for victims and the Church that may emerge out of this crisis. But first I would like to address some issues of terminology.

The Church can be understood on three levels: its theological or transcendental meaning, its psychological function and its organisational structure. Theologically the Church is the People of God. Psychologically the Church is a unifying idea that draws the People of God together into a collective and unitive whole. And organisationally the Church is a broad network of autonomous and semi-autonomous organisations which, together with the diocesan clergy, fall either within diocesan pastoral boundaries under the canonical jurisdiction of the local bishop or directly under the canonical and teaching authority of Rome. As the People of God, we derive our sense of meaning and belonging from our psychological identification with the idea of the Church, from the positive effects of our socialisation into Church teaching and culture, from our participation in communal worship and Church organisation, from our personal relationship with God and by our public profession of faith in the Creed. In this essay I use the word Church in each of these three ways. The dimension I am emphasing should be clear from the context in which I am using it.

I use the term psyche instead of mind as C.G. Jung used the term. It reflects the dual aspects of the self: what is conscious and what is unconscious. (Fordham: 1991, 15) What is conscious in the psyche refers to those things in our world and about our motivations, our behaviour, our desires and our wishes that we are aware of. What is unconscious in the psyche refers to those motivations, desires, wishes, behaviours and psychic contents that are present in the psyche and that motivate our actions but which we are not aware of. There is some debate about whether what is unconscious refers simply to psychic contents that lie outside the realm of self awareness or whether what is unconscious is an identifiable structure located in the psyche that we can call the unconscious. For the purposes of this essay it is enough to understand that there are motivations, desires and wishes in the human psyche that lie outside of conscious awareness, that are active in our psychic lives despite being unconscious, that influence our behaviour and that are given expression through the psychic life of the individual and the group.

Psychic unconsciousness refers to a lack of conscious awareness of what is unconscious in one’s psyche and behaviour and of its underlying meaning. It is a lack of conscious awareness in the individual or the group of what is unconscious in one’s own psyche and behaviour, of its meaning and of what exists outside one’s psyche in the world. It is a limited level of self awareness that is the product of the individual’s or the group’s avoidance of the awareness of things within themselves or in the world that they would rather not know about. Psychic unconsciousness, as I have used the phrase in the first paragraph and as I use it in this essay, is an undifferentiated individual and collective state of mind. It is the result of socialisation and of what psychoanalytic theory calls the psychological defence mechanisms, ‘which the human mind employs to avoid self awareness.’ (Hinshelwood: 1987, 65) Psychic unconsciousness is also the product of what the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm called the ‘pseudo self’. But far from being pathological, this state of mind is the normal psychological state of the majority of society and the majority in the Church and may provide a psychological explanation for the modern social indifference to human suffering. Ideas about the dual nature of the human psyche, the pseudo self, individual and collective psychic unconsciousness and collective psychic phenomena are based on empirically verifiable observations by psychoanalytic and analytic practitioners covering a period of 150 years. Lastly, I use the terms victim and survivor when speaking about adults and children who have been sexually abused by members of the clergy. A victim is the adult or child who is suffering the clergy sexual abuse or who is trapped in the traumatic aftermath of the event/s. A survivor is someone who seeks to relinquish the stigma of victimisation and has chosen to embark upon the road to freedom, liberation and recovery. I have found all these ideas to be useful in understanding the clergy sexual abuse problem and the previously unjust responses of Church leaders to complaints of sexual abuse.

The Unconscious Church

The more an alienated culture is uncovered, the more the oppressive reality in which it originates is uncovered. (Freire: 1972, 15)

The manner in which Church organisations and Church leaders conduct their affairs should rightly give expression to the values of the gospel as lived and preached by Jesus and the apostles. And yet the presence of abusive environments within Church organisations, a reputation amongst some Church leaders for having protected perpetrators and demonised victims and, until more recently, the complete absence of any standard and just procedures for dealing with complaints of abuse are inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel. The behaviour of Church leaders who have been complicit in the protection of perpetrators, in the concealment of this problem and in the unjust treatment of victims has born uncanny similarities to the behaviour and the psychology of the perpetrators of clergy sexual abuse. By denying to themselves and to the People of God the true nature of what they were really doing many Church leaders have often perpetrated a form of institutional abuse, retraumatising people already wounded by their experiences of clergy sexual abuse. The empirical observations of analytic psychologists have shown that when aspects of the self remain unconscious they tend to live a life of their own, to operate outside the control of conscious decision-making processes and to become destructive. Past responses by many Church leaders to complaints about clergy sexual abuse have displayed a lack of psychic, spiritual and moral consciousness. Victims have been abused by their perpetrators and have then been reabused by Church leaders and their lawyers.

The more recent controversy surrounding the former Governor-General illustrates how attitudes and behaviours towards victims which, in the past, were more often than not taken for granted as normal by the clergy will simply not be tolerated by the wider community and by many within the Church. We now have a greater understanding of the damaging effects of sexual abuse on victims. We also understand the importance of accountability as a mechanism that places checks on the indiscriminate and arbitrary misuse of power. It was the role of the Old Testament prophet to bring into conscious awareness the contradictions in Israel’s religious life. Similarly, the Church in the modern world, in its admirable pursuit of the gospel ideal, has been forced by victims and by the issue itself to confront its own contradictions and to face the fact that the human condition is something in which we all share, the clergy no less than the laity that it serves.

Church leaders and Church organisations that have treated victims of clergy sexual abuse unjustly have sought to hide the truth of what they have done both from themselves and from the wider community. Victims have been denied both natural justice and the right to be heard in the spirit of the gospel. Public truth-telling by victims has served the purpose of uncovering alienated environments within Church organisations and culture and the oppressive conditions that have created them by bringing into the light what has been done in the dark and by bringing into public awareness things of which the wider Church community has not been aware. It was Sigmund Freud who first recognised that only those things that become conscious become treatable, even if not curable. So, if it is at all possible to discern the presence of God in atrocity, then this process of bringing into the light what has been done in the dark can be seen as part of an ongoing process of healing for victims, for the Church and for the wider community.

The circumstances that have created the sexual abuse problem and the manner in which it has often been handled by Church leaders shows that the People of God are also in need of healing from their unconscious participation in dehumanising aspects of Church culture. Oppression in the Church expresses itself through the negative effects of our socialisation into Church culture and teaching. Socialisation into Church culture and teaching produces a psychological identification with our collective Christian ideal. One negative effect of socialisation into any ideology is the unconscious suppression of aspects of the self that are inconsistent with the ideology. Another consequence is our repression of our conscious awareness of our personal sufferings in order to identify ourselves with the ideal. The emancipatory language of the prophetic tradition continued by Jesus in His teachings can be subverted by the legitimate socialising role played by Church faith and moral teaching. In such circumstances ‘meaning is saved, but the self is sacrificed.’ (Tillich: 1962, 56) Oppression also expresses itself through teachings and structures that are alienated from what is conscious and humanising in Church culture. Oppressive teachings and structures have created the conditions in which abuse has been able to occur.

Healing for the People of God has involved a painful confrontation with the limitations of the clergy, with their capacity for self-deception and with their misplaced belief in their immunity from corruption merely by virtue of the office that they hold. Lasting healing for the Church will require further theological, psychological and organisational transformation, changes which have the potential to lead it towards a more enlightened understanding of how the limitations of the human condition impinge upon the clergy’s capacity to discharge its pastoral responsibilities. But to what extent it will willingly participate in this process of transformation remains to be seen. Can Church leaders willingly integrate into the contemporary history of the Church both the hidden knowledge of some people’s wrongful actions and the testimony of victims or will they develop their own versions of the problem, minimising the culpability of the guilty and pitying perpetrators as has happened in the past? And are they prepared to examine the oppressive conditions created by Church teachings and organisation or will the current problem of sexual abuse lead them to adopt a more literalist and dogmatic position? Certainly, attempts by some in the Church to blame gay clergy as the sole source of the problem of clergy sexual abuse may be a response more in keeping with Church moral teaching than with reality.

Survivors of clergy sexual abuse have played a role in confronting the People of God with the existence of these oppressive conditions. But this has come at a cost for some. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have not encountered hostile responses from Church leaders and their lawyers for having been abused but for having made complaints and for having demanded justice. So it has been appropriate in the present circumstances to raise questions about those aspects of Church practice, teaching and organisation that have dehumanised victims and which, by their very existence, have also dehumanised the entire People of God. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse continue to play a role in trying to free the People of God from their unconscious participation in a culture that has allowed sex offenders to thrive. Jung’s contention was that the survival of civilization depends upon the individual’s awareness of both the conscious and unconscious aspects of the human psyche. Similarly, the future wellbeing of the Church and its future direction may depend more upon the consciousness and humanity of its leaders than on any public profession of faith based upon moral or doctrinal certainties.

‘Han’ : The Theology of Sexual Abuse

The effect of sexual abuse on the mind of a child is like a modern city being flattened by a tidal wave. (Therapeutic discourse)

Clergy sexual abuse is emptiness and meaninglessness, for it destroys the divine life in the psychic life of its victims. A theological understanding of clergy sexual abuse finds some of its antecedents in liberation theology, which originally grew out of victims’ experiences of oppression, violence and terror. Feminist theology has already informed our understanding of this issue through its engagement in social and theological discourses on victimisation and liberation. A theology that has spoken from and of women’s experiences of disempowerment, subjugation and humiliation has contributed to our understanding of clergy sexual abuse. But, in my view, it is Korean Minjung theology that has the potential to shed most light on the full impact of clergy sexual abuse on the psychological and emotional lives of its victims and its continuing effects throughout their lives. For at the heart of any pastoral theology of clergy sexual abuse is, I believe, the theology of the inner life of its victims.

Minjung theology (½ÅÇйÎÁß) is a theology of the oppressed that grew out of the political circumstances of Korean economic development in the 1970’s and the dehumanising social conditions that it created. Some Minjung theologians have turned to the indigenous Korean shamanic religion of ‘Han’ in an attempt to understand the inner experience of intense personal suffering of the oppressed and its potential for actuating profound inner spiritual and psychic transformation. The victims’ ‘han’ is their entire inner accumulation of layer upon layer of unresolved bitterness, resentment and anger at repeated injustices and unjustifiable suffering. (Suh: 1981, 27) For ‘han’ is the ‘primal religious experience of total persons who are forced to suffer severely in history.’ (Hyun: 1985, 357) The concept of ‘han’, therefore, may provide a meaningful conceptual framework within which to express the complex psychological, social and spiritual impact of clergy sexual abuse on victims and the long and often arduous pathways out of abusive conditions towards freedom, liberation and recovery.

‘Han’ is the victim’s inner suffering, which can be so intense that it can become ‘crystallized in the guts and bowels.’ (Hyun: 1985, 357) The traumatic effects of abuse can be so severe that they manifest themselves in the oppressed as physical and psychological symptoms. ‘Han’ also plays a role in the collective social biography of the Korean people. ‘Han’ is not only experienced as solitary suffering. Adult and child victims of clergy sexual abuse suffer individually, but they also share in a form of collective suffering. By bearing witness to their common experience those victims of clergy sexual abuse who engage in public truth-telling have brought into conscious awareness the presence of their own suffering and the vicarious collective unconscious suffering of the People of God. This collective unconscious suffering of the Church is something that the socialising effects of Church faith and moral teaching, Church culture and the socialising effects of our wider society do not normally allow us to be aware of. For the average person ‘usually is not aware of non-being and anxiety in the depth of his personality.’ (Tillich: 1962, 73) The ‘han’ of victims of clergy sexual abuse is the inner suffering that is caused by the cumulative effects on the psyche of this process of socialisation and the internalisation of the perpetrator’s cruelty. Therefore, we might speak legitimately of the ‘han’ of victims of clergy sexual abuse, notwithstanding its uniquely Korean origins and contemporary expressions.

In certain respects every act of human evil is a spiritual atrocity. But the sexual abuse of adults and children by members of the clergy is uniquely a spiritual atrocity. It destroys the victim’s sense of their own goodness and of God’s benevolence, while the indifference of the bystander destroys the victim’s faith in the goodness of his or her fellow human beings. The victim’s sense of emotional connection with themselves, with God and with others is destroyed. In the abusive environment the victim’s personality is ‘shaped by the death-affirming climate of oppression.’ (Freire: 1970, 55) But therapeutic work with victims has shown that recovery from clergy sexual abuse is possible. Through the therapeutic process the victim eventually comes to reject the perpetrator’s lie. The lie is the story made up of the perpetrator’s deceptions about himself, about his motivations for abusing and about his victims. It also includes the self-justifications of those who have colluded with the abuser. Together with a trained, compassionate and empathic listener victims slowly but gradually gain the courage to articulate their own truths. By descending into the hellish psychic world of traumatic memory the survivor ultimately emerges with their own story, one that integrates their inner experiences of humiliation, violation, existential terror and loss of physiological control with the strength, courage and defiance that enabled them to survive in the face of overwhelming evil. (Herman: 2001, 176)

This ‘survivor narrative’ is never complete, but it recognises the horror and meaninglessness in the abuse for what they were, as inevitable consequences of the perpetrator’s actions rather than as some kind of proof of the victim’s alleged moral and psychological inadequacies, as many Church leaders have been inclined to believe. The horror, the meaningless inner suffering, the psychic annihilation of the self and the loss of one’s former life are redeemed through a process of remembrance and mourning. (Herman: 2001, 175) Through this process of grieving the stigmatised traumatic self is relinquished and a new self is created. The victim’s ‘han’ and rage is thus liberated ‘from its masochistic exercise to be a great and fervent clamour for God’s justice.’ (Suh: 1981) By engaging in this process of personal liberation survivors honour their losses and bear witness to every victim’s truth. These tasks form part of their personal struggle towards ‘life-affirming humanisation’. (Freire: 1970, 55) But recovery from the devastating psychological consequences of clergy sexual abuse cannot be achieved alone, nor is it something bestowed upon victims from above. Central to this struggle is a process of psychic integration, which eventually leads the survivor to reengagement with the world. Loss is redeemed and the masochistic exercise of an internalised evil, cruel and suffering self is transmuted into a new self with a restored capacity for love, joy, warmth, creativity and greater inner freedom.

The Crucifixion and the Annihilation of the Self: Towards A New Hermeneutic of the Cross

I was bruised and battered and I couldn’t tell what I felt, I was unrecognisable to myself. (Springsteen: 1993)

The narrative quality of the therapeutic process suggests that meaning is something that arises out of history rather than something imposed upon it. This raises questions about how this knowledge can be reconciled with Church claims to an absolute and immutable meaning to certain historical events. Through a painful process of psychic transformation, survivors of clergy sexual abuse begin to discover their own meaning to surviving and overcoming adversity. The meaning survivors find in overcoming their own personal tragedies can include spiritual meanings. Attempts by Paul and the early Church to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus were, in this sense, the first Christian survivor narratives. Paul’s hermeneutic of the cross is perhaps the best example of these. A coherent narrative of the cross gradually emerged out of living and preaching the gospel while remembering and mourning the events of the past. A profound transcendental meaning emerged for Paul and the early Church out of the atrocity of the crucifixion through the resurrection narratives.

However, when traditional hermeneutics of the cross are analysed from the perspective of the victims’ inner experience of psychological annihilation—the devastating psychological impact of violence upon the psyche—which is a timeless experience and one not confined to any particular historical period, we can see that they failed to fully integrate Jesus’ inner existential experience of psychological devastation into the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Violence damages the mind and oppressive conditions influence the otherwise normal development of the psyche. This knowledge is now available to us with the benefit of 150 years of study into the effects of violence on the mind. The absence of any real understanding of the existential reality of Jesus’ inner experience of psychic annihilation in traditional interpretations of the cross has left our historical and theological understanding of the inner dimension of Jesus’ death and resurrection incomplete. Consequently, the inner existential experience of psychological annihilation of all victims of violence has remained largely unconscious throughout the history of Christian civilisation. This has formed the historical and theological background to what has become the modern history of the Church’s invalidation of the personal experience of its own victims. Hence, victims of clergy sexual abuse are also the victims of history.

Church teaching is that Jesus was like us in all things except sin and He suffered as we do. But traditional hermeneutics of the cross as we find them in Paul’s writings and throughout later history have failed to fully integrate this truth. Prayerful reflection upon the life and death of Jesus without this psychological perspective inevitably led to the development of an idealised view of the cross, which tended to romanticise Jesus’ sufferings and stress their transcendental meaning at the expense of insights into Jesus’ existential experience of psychic devastation. By looking upon the crucifixion in this way, Jesus’ inner existential experience of psychological annihilation has not been integrated into traditional hermeneutics of the cross. Furthermore, traditional hermeneutics of the cross have unconsciously preserved earlier Deuteronomic themes found in the Old Testament that violence is purposeful and that God’s will is imposed upon history.
Implicit in many traditional hermeneutics of the cross are unconscious ideas that the violence perpetrated against Jesus in the crucifixion was somehow ordained by God, that this violence was perpetrated by men consciously and that it was directed by God and men each to their own meaningful and purposeful ends. Church leaders have tended to approach the victims and perpetrators of clergy sexual abuse with the same mentality. By spiritualising the problem they wrongly legitimised the perpetrator’s sexual violence as ‘human weakness’. By denying or minimising the devastating psychological impact of sexual violence on the victims they have often left them marginalised and isolated in the community, in prisons or in the public mental health system without the pastoral or financial support necessary for recovery.

The clergy sexual abuse crisis and the willingness of survivors to tell their stories has given us a greater understanding of the human suffering that is caused when atrocities of any kind are perpetrated against innocent people and most especially against children. Greater insight into the inner sufferings of all victims of violence and of clergy sexual abuse, in particular, makes us more fully human when it leads to a greater capacity to respond compassionately to people who are genuinely suffering. Understanding the devastating psychological impact of clergy sexual abuse on the victim’s psyche also informs critical reflections on traditional hermeneutics of the cross. Such reflections reveal the unconscious tendency in Church teaching to idealise violence, although in ways that are different from that tendency found in human civilisation generally. This insight creates the possibility for the development of a new hermeneutic of the cross that integrates our understanding of Jesus’ intense inner existential psychic sufferings into traditionally transcendental interpretations of the crucifixion and resurrection. A more integrated hermeneutic of the cross would reflect a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection, one that is ‘not contrary to human experience.’ (Niebuhr in Brown: 1986, 85)

This new understanding creates the possibility for a deeper meaning to emerge out of reflection upon the crucifixion and the resurrection narratives. A new hermeneutic of the cross would rightly focus less upon unconsciously held beliefs about men’s violence as purposeful and divinely ordained and more upon the courage and strength that victims can show by asserting their faith and their dignity in the face of personal evil and institutional betrayal. It would also focus less upon the idea that God’s will is imposed upon history and more upon the recognition that discerning God’s will and the evolution of meaning in the aftermath of tragedy is part of a complex process that arises out of liberating engagement with the present while grieving and mourning the past. By doing so we recognise that all victims who recover transmute their pain so that it ‘ceases to become a natural fate and becomes a spiritual triumph.’ (Niebuhr in Rasmussen: 1991, 90) The story of the resurrection then emerges not simply as a transcendental story of the final triumph of good over evil and of life over death, but as a more integrated story that also recognises the human existential capacity for faith and self-transendence in the aftermath of tragedy. The resurrection narratives then stand as a testimony both to the memory and pain of an atrocity and irrevocable loss and to the joy of a new self created and of a life redeemed. Victims of clergy sexual abuse who transcend their personal tragedy in this way bear witness to the overwhelming psychological and social forces that can drive some victims to despair and testify to the presence and resilience of the divine life in the human psyche.

Phil Riordan has worked in religious education, youth ministry and pastoral care of students. Of recent times he has been a survivor-facilitator with support groups for adult male victims of child sexual assault.

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Phil Riordan is a survivor. He has a Bachelor of Arts in the Studies of Religion from the University of Sydney and a Graduate Diploma of Education in Religious Education from McAuley College in Queensland. He spent 15 years in Religious Life working as an R.E. teacher and Youth Minister involved in the Pastoral Care of Catholic students attending Catholic and Government high schools in Sydney’s western and north western suburbs. He then worked as a Secondary Schools Consultant at Polding House advising the Archdiocesan CCD on approaches to attracting marginalised and unchurched Catholic youth to parish life. More recently he has worked as a survivor-facilitator with support groups for adult male victims of child sexual assault at the Sexual Assault Centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and as a teacher preparing overseas students from Korea to sit for the IELTS test. He is currently employed as a TESOL Coordinator in the Adult Migrant Education Program and is enrolled as a student in the Legal Practitioners Admission Board Diploma in Law course.