I want to continue exploring some of the concepts Fr. Tom Doyle brings to the table in his address to the VOTF conference this July. From my own personal perspective one of the most insightful parts of his paper is his discussion of the mythology of the priesthood and it's effects on abuse victims. I want to reiterate that although Tom is talking about sexual abuse victims, these same dynamics will play out in any interaction between a lay person and a priest, and can be enormously influential in any situation:
"Possibly the most toxic beliefs are those about the identity of the abuser. Sexual abuse perpetrated by a Catholic priest on a believing Catholic can be more devastating precisely because of the spiritual component. Priest abuse differs from incest or abuse by anyone else including religious ministers of other denominations precisely because of the beliefs about the nature of the priesthood.
In short, the priest is viewed not only as a representative of God, but as God by many victims. This belief is not based on free-floating Catholic mythology but is solidly grounded in Church teaching. Priests believe they are ontologically different because of their ordination. The language used by the official Church can easily lead a person to the belief that the priest is the closest thing to God on this earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this teaching when it says:
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his body…This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts "in persona Christi capitis" [in the person of Christ as head].
Pope Pius XII enunciated the traditional teaching even more directly in his encyclical Mediator Dei which was published in 1947:
Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest [Jesus Christ] and possesses the authority to act in the power and person of Christ himself.
Lest one think that such presumptuous theology was replaced by more enlightened teaching after the Second Vatican Council, one need only look to the idea of the priesthood propagated by Pope John Paul II. The priest, from the moment of ordination, is configured to Christ and thereby ontologically different from other men and women. Thus the pope continues the highly mystical notion that a priest's soul is different from that of other persons. One does not need much reflection to see how such a strange theological doctrine, propagated by a popular pope, could lead to highly toxic beliefs by victims of the clergy.
No amount of theological distinction or subtle nuancing of the official texts can change the traditional impression of priests that is absorbed by Catholics from childhood. They see priests as unique beings, different from ordinary men, deserving of their respect, obedience and even awe. In Catholic culture the priest is in a far superior position to lay persons because of his vast, mysterious powers. The power a priest holds over lay people plus the erroneous mystique that he actually stands in the place of god sets a clergy victim up for severe emotional and spiritual trauma. (It sets anyone up for emotional and spiritual trauma, but worse, it set's immature priests up for the ultimate power trip.)
The concept of God, the nature of the Church and the identity of the priest mesh together to form a devastating source of trauma for abuse victims. They believe in a theistic God, that is, a God that is a "super person" with human emotions and reactions. This God actually does things in the lives of people. The Church is God's special enclave on earth and its clergy are his personal representatives complete with some of his powers. He shows himself through the priests and bishops. If a cleric is kind it is often seen as God's kindness manifested through him. If a priest is angry or somehow destructive to a person this is seen as a divine act, possibly to punish something the person did wrong. Far too many clergy abuse victims see their abuse as retribution or far worse, as a sexual assault by God. Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the oldest and largest victim support organization, SNAP24 said in a 2002 interview, "Many of us feel as if we had been raped by God."
The power a priest has over his victims as well as the erroneous beliefs about the nature of the priesthood contribute to the creation of a toxic bond between victim and perpetrator, commonly known as a trauma bond. The existence of this bond explains why victims tolerate repeated acts of abuse, why victims appear to be involved in an actual relationship with abusers, why they are fearful of disclosing their sexual abuse and why they experience persistent fear, shame and isolation. (I hate to admit this but it also explains why many laity can't leave the church or are stuck in neutral.)
The trauma bond is especially strong when fortified by religion-based beliefs and fears. During the grooming process whereby the clergy-perpetrator develops the "relationship" with his victim, the victim often experiences feelings of "specialness" at receiving the coveted attentions of a priest. Once the actual sexual contact is initiated by the cleric a whole new set of feelings develop including confusion, fear, shame and guilt. In spite of these conflicting feelings many clergy victims remain trapped because the trauma bond only grows stronger with the passage of time.
In a very real sense this is incest. In her address to the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 2002, Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea explained it clearly:
The sexual violation of a child or adolescent by a priest is incest. It is a sexual and relational transgression perpetrated by THE father of the child's extended family; a man in whom the child is taught from birth to trust above everyone else in his life, to trust second only to God. Priest abuse IS incest.
The pain and fear related to any form of sexual abuse is magnified when the perpetrator is a clergyman and even more so if he is a priest. Many victims report that their abusers threatened them with dire consequences if they disclosed. Some were told that the priest's abusive attentions were God's will and others that to disclose would harm the priest and the Church. Still others were led to believe that this secret was meant to be kept between them and disclosure would bring God's wrath to family or friends.
Perhaps one of the more bizarre twists with clergy victims is the reversal of guilt. Believing the priest takes God's place many victims were convinced that priests can do no wrong and because of their celibacy, could not experience any sexual feeling much less sexual contact. The sexual assault by the cleric caused some victims to believe that they had led the priest to commit a sexual act and they assumed the guilt and responsibility for their own sexual transgression and that of the priest as well. (This can be especially true for teen age girls and adult women.)
Children are especially prone to the paralyzing fear that follows sexual abuse because of their pre-existing beliefs about priests, the Church and God. The fear is compounded by deep confusion over the morality of the sexual actions and their feelings for the abuser. Catholic children are taught that any sexual thought, desire or action is mortally sinful if it occurs outside of marriage. Furthermore they are taught that spiritual relief and reconciliation with God comes through the intervention of the priest to whom one confesses and receives absolution from the sin. If the priest is, in the mind of the victim, the cause of the sin, then the sole avenue for relief is cut off and the victim's sense of guilt and fear of divine punishment is compounded."
I kind of suspect a very large segment of the US laity is experiencing the effects of the Trauma Bond. It's been almost impossible to believe the extent of the abuse and it's cover up. None of us wanted to believe that our leadership, a leadership we really were trained to be in awe of, was capable of this extensive a cover up. It would have been much easier to take if it had been 10-15% of our dioceses, but it was 2/3 's or more. It was systemic. It wasn't one or two perverted isolated people, it was the system. It was our Church.
This knowledge really does cause all kinds of cognitive dissonance. In my own case I have wonderful memories of great priests, and hideous memories of priests who belonged in an entirely different institution. The frustration for me came in the official treatment of both kinds of priests. As far as the local bishops were concerned they were treated both the same. I understood the catachetical teaching about the priesthood almost mandated this official position and that just added to the dissonance. In order to solve the dissonance I threw out the catechetical teaching. Obviously there was no spiritual magic bestowed on priests at ordination. They either brought in with them, developed it, or they never got it.
The whole Catholic institutional system needs to be reinvented. We don't need a 'magical' sacrament of Holy Orders. We need to find the magical people and hope they want to serve. These kinds of people won't be prone to mindlessly obey the hierarchical order and in most cases probably won't easily tolerate such a system. Our great mystics never have easily tolerated the system. But I'm not actually talking about finding great mystics, I'm talking about finding people who actually live the Christian life. They are all over the place and some of them are even in the clergy. These are the people the Church needs to be seeking out and they can be married, single, male, female, gay or straight. True Jesus people come in all flavors and colors--not just in black with white collars. They don't need special clothes to single them out, the fruits of their lives single them out.
It's way past time to dump the clerical priesthood and return to the priesthood of believers who dare to live the beliefs. As it was, so it must it be.