These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pains and have damaged the church’s witness. Victims should receive compassion and care and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice.
-- Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Sydney, Australia, on sexual abuse by priests.
“Where is forgiveness in all of this?”
I hesitated, not being quite sure at all how to answer that question.
The woman standing in front of me was an independent and successful professional. She hardly seemed a likely person to excuse male sexual misbehavior. Yet, there she was, arguing that her pastor, convicted in ecclesiastical proceedings of sexual misconduct with several female congregants, should be “forgiven” and allowed to continue in his pulpit.
“Perhaps he should be forgiven,” I replied, trying to avoid an overtly confrontational tone of voice. “But he has abused his authority and, until he can demonstrate that he has learned how to control his urges, he should not be allowed back into professional ministry.”
That was not the answer this woman apparently was hoping to hear. The conversation ended rather quickly at that point.
That exchange took place several years ago. In the intervening time, I have observed the effects of sexual misconduct on a number of different congregations. The only change I might make in my answer today would be to drop the possibility that any proven sexual predator could ever be allowed to return to parish ministry.
A DEVASTATING BREACH OF TRUST
When a pastor breaches the very necessary boundaries between clergy and congregation, the effects can be catastrophic. The suffering of the direct victims is immediate and palpable. But the suffering of the congregation, the flock entrusted to that wayward pastor’s care, may endure subtly for decades.
A sexual misconduct scandal can stop a thriving congregation in its tracks. It is not unusual for a scandal to initiate a period of steep decline in membership and attendance. The sense of the breach of trust will seem to permeate everything that happens thereafter.
In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent condemnation of priestly sexual abuse, there has been a monumental hue and cry of “too little, too late.” And there is much truth in that position. The stirring call for justice for the perpetrators failed to include any sort of recognition of the evil inherent in a system in which predatory conduct could flourish for so many years.
But in all of the debate about sexual misconduct by clergy, there is one bit of reality I have observed that is getting little or no attention. The sins of the ecclesiastical hierarchy have been pretty fully explored, but there is another “system” involved that also plays a role in perpetuating misconduct and that is the local congregation itself.
THE CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
My personal experience with sexual abuse scandals extends only to a handful of congregations with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and so I cannot presume to make observations about the Roman Catholic Church or any Protestant congregation from another denomination. But, it would not surprise me to find that the phenomenon I am about to describe cuts across all denominational lines.
In a startlingly high percentage of cases involving abuse perpetrated over long periods of time, many congregants, including prominent lay leaders, have been aware of it, or have had very good reason to suspect that it was happening. And they have chosen to take no action.
I am not talking about morally deficient libertines going nudge-nudge wink-wink at the sound of juicy rumors. I’m talking about men and women who are themselves committed to living clean and upright lives. I’m talking about intelligent and perceptive people who make invaluable contributions to their congregations in all kinds of ways.
And yet, when the reality of pastoral abuse is right out in front of them, they do their best to avert their moral gaze and try desperately to pretend that they are not seeing what they are seeing.
I once had the very unpleasant assignment of heading up an official investigation into the accusation by a woman that her pastor had taken advantage of his position of leadership to coerce her into a long-running sexual affair.
I approached the Session of this church (the elected governing body of a local church in our denominational polity), along with another member of my investigating committee, and asked that anyone who might have any evidence relevant to the investigation, whether incriminating or exculpatory, contact me.
I got back only one telephone call. It was from an elderly woman on the church’s Session who opined that Pastor X would never do such a thing and that if a woman were to throw herself at him, he surely would have the strength to resist.
This call was a fascinating example of the sort of communal denial that can grip a congregation in the wake of an accusation. As far as this church member was concerned, her pastor was above that sort of awful behavior and temptation could only come through the wiles of a determined female seduction artist.
It even happens sometimes that congregants are very much aware of their pastor’s misconduct and still choose to say nothing. Naively hoping to avoid the damage that comes from public revelation, they knowingly permit the situation to continue and, quite often, deteriorate.
THE CROOKED HALO
The tendency of congregations to deny the possibility of sexual abuse by their pastors is a by-product of a larger tendency to put church leaders on pedestals. We are assumed to be perfect and any suggestion that we are not is quite threatening.
Pastoral abuse of the inherent halo effect extends beyond the relatively narrow confines of sexual misconduct. Pastors may also abuse their congregations financially or even emotionally, all with a sense of impunity conferred upon them by the systemic sense of deference.
(Parenthetically, I should acknowledge that in some congregations quite the opposite can occur and a pastor may find him or herself villified for no apparent good reason by a system seemingly determined to undermine them. This is the phenomenon of the “clergy killers,” a subject beyond the scope of today’s blog.)
When the hierarchy of any denomination works to protect perpetrators rather than stop them, they are sharing in the denial that perhaps originates at the local congregational level. A lot of people seem to have a lot at stake, institutionally and emotionally, at preserving the fiction of pastoral perfection. I suppose the really remarkable aspect of the Roman Catholic abuse scandals is that anything ever surfaced at all.
THE SYSTEM, THE SYSTEM, THE SYSTEM
Am I “blaming the victim”? Absolutely not. I am describing a systemic way of thinking that is very, very difficult to penetrate. A lot of people at many different levels have to choose to look the other way for any religious leader to escape the consequences of misconduct for an extended period of time.
We pastors represent a lot of things to a lot of people. We stand for morality, wisdom, and justice. Rightly or wrongly, we are seen as God’s proxies here on Earth. And many in our ranks will continue to get away with horrible abuses of power and authority so long as people confuse us, the individuals, with the things we represent.
When a pastor or priest stumbles, it need not signify the corruption of all that is good about faith. It simply means that this particular individual, for whatever reason, was not up to the burden he or she was trying to carry. The ideals remain intact.
The real corruption comes from the conspiracy of silence that follows.
Speaking against pastoral abuse, in all of its many forms, does not undermine the authority of the pastoral office. Quite to the contrary, a refusal to tolerate inappropriate conduct shows the highest degree of respect for the office itself, a strong statement that this is too important a function to leave in the hands of those who have demonstrated their unfitness.
IS IT AT LEAST A START?
Did Pope Benedict XVI go far enough? Will his statement have any real impact upon the proliferation of pastoral abuse and misconduct? By itself, perhaps not. But, hopefully, by labeling the conduct as evil, the Pope has given permission to many in the system to take the issue more seriously and to break up the conspiracy of silence that extends even to the pews.
And, sadly, until that conspiracy is broken, the damage will continue.
This is a very powerful theology meets psychology blog, which I hope will be widely read. You touch upon one of the basic contributions of The Lucifer Effect, that of appreciating the extent to which "evil" -- however defined-- is often as much the product of Systems as it is that of the behavior of individual perpetrators. Because they are often big, amorphous, and not narrowly focused-- like the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, or the Public School System, or the Department of corrections-- we prefer to identify persons as the agents of evil and rarely include their "stage managers."
The vital point you raise about the conspiracy of silence is both a denial and pluralistic ignorance of others who may share one's views or values on this issue and thus no one is willing to step up to the plate to make the accusation public. This effect happens not only in religious congregations, but in schools where bullying goes on in full view and everyone looks away, glad it is not me being bullied, hoping it will stop magically on its own, and not wanting to get involved. It also happens in families where sexual abuse continues for years with awareness by the other spouse, children or relatives, yet silence rules the roost. And it happens in most prisons where guards know about rampant coerced sexual abuse and rape, and look the other way.
We must stand up against immorality and injustice in any form it takes, we must unite with others to make our voices heard to stop evil. Silence in the presence of evil is a stimulus for its continuation,and thus we are guilty of the evil of inaction.
By Phil Zimbardo | Posted on August 9, 2008, 11:30 am
I have read that the sexual coercion of young people in the Catholic, and I presume other churches, is explained as a portal for the induction of child sex slaves into the US and foreign government.
There is of course much on the Internet that is false. Much seems true, having been confirmed independently by many. In today's sensationalist climate, and in view of the deliberate obfuscation by the many powerful groups attempting world domination, it is necessary to be wary of such claims, while at the same time being aware of them in case subtle confirming evidence arises. There is much evidence of the underlying evil agenda within the Catholic Church at the Vatican level, lending credence to what I have read.
Regarding your statement 'When a pastor or priest stumbles, it need not signify the corruption of all that is good about faith.', there is nothing good about faith in the connotation of 'religious faith'. The admonishment 'to have faith' is a sop thrown to those whom the clergy wish to control with their lies. The world's religions cannot even agree upon how many gods there are, so obviously no gods have ever revealed themselves in a consistent fashion.
Your followers have immersed themselves in the lie for so long that they are afraid of the truth that it's all a sham and that the clergy are ordinary people with ordinary vices (my Methodist minister father-in-law was a prime example as was my Episcopal priest who used his position to have affairs with gay boys who came to him for comfort).
You'd be much more effective if you'd get out from behind the religious facade and practise a decent form of morality as an ordinary human. You'd be a lot less conflicted and could come to grips with your ordinariness without the impossible dream of religious piety getting in your way.
And where you say that 'We stand for morality, wisdom, and justice.' you are simply confusing yourselves. Morality has no place in religion. Religion is defined as one's relationship with and conduct toward a perceived superhuman entity. As soon as clergy hand followers a set of rules of conduct to be exercised toward one another they tip their hand revealing a desire for control of the followers rather than a desire to guide people toward a self-inflicted belief (faith) in their particular brand of sky fairy. It is entirely possible, and admirable, to live a moral life without believing in a god. It is also possible, and extremely common, to live an immoral life while professing guidance from a god.
I'm afraid that with the advent of the Internet, the jig is up for the world's religions. There is simply too much hard evidence that, rather than bringing morality, wisdom and justice to people, religion has corrupted, perpetuated ignorance and spread hatred, all on a lie---"What profit has not that fable of Christ brought us!" Pope Leo X.
Please think upon these things.
By Michael Sargeant | Posted on September 7, 2008, 4:24 pm
As A young child to my teen years I was infact myself molested by both my 'step-father' and his son, passed down like some family heirloom, theres to be had and possessed. When I came to 11yrs of age my grandfather said to me 'love isn't love when it hurts, it is control'. So I thought that it must be wrong event though I was taught to respect my elders as most children are today. I asked some friends what they thought (using the age old 'I have a friend' techneque) all of whom cliamed to be going through the same thing. So I thought it was normal. I held on to the saying that life is hard and continued to put up and shut up.
I became disruptive at school and so they sent me into councilling during which I very nonchalantly mensioned what was going on. to my absolute horror the next week I was called into the deputy heads office where there were police asking me if I want to press charges! Some how this betrayal of my trust was worse than theirs. The conformation for me that I was in the wrong was when he (the son) was allowed to keep his front door key even when my mum was told.
To speak to both you and Dr Zimbardo, I now do not allow anybody to suffer in silence. I make no distinction between weather the 'evil' in question is a smoker inflicting his habit on others, or a man beating his wife in the street. If my childrens school loses funding I write to the government, if a mother shouts a her child in a manner that I know (from experience) will leave them emotionally beaten I will talk to her and/or the child to offer support. I couldn't testify however that had I not gone through what others may see as 'wrong doings' I would do anything to help others. The betrayal in my life still goes on as my little brother was allowed to see his brother unsupervised until the last few years (I saw the grooming pattern and so reacted by shaping him into my own little model citizen! He is brilliant, he would have rocked in the 70's) and the subject has never been raised.
However, The pent up guilt made me self destruct until the creature came into my work place one day and I thought, I can't do this any more. I will not let him 10 yrs on still make me physically sick at the sight of him. So I react by learning. The more I learn the less I remember about him because he becomes irrelivant. In this process though, I wonder, why did I feel like a victim? My biology dictates that I should've been able to concieve at 11 yrs when I began menstruating, in many cultures it is socially acceptable to marry a girl of 12. If biology says it is ok, when did society deem this abuse? I felt abused because of the way in which it was all handled, I was called a tart, he wasn't repremanded.. The sheer fuss that was built up and the amount of focus on me and anaysis of my role in the deed made me focus on my actions too, as was pointed out at the time, I did, at 6, have a crush on him. Did I promote this behaviour? After all, it is a simple case of biology right...? Wrong! It is my opinion that people look the other way in fear of infliction upon themselves. The trouble is that they aren't rehabilitated, they are given the opportunity to mix with other offenders who can all say how they got caught and come up with a better plan to get away with it next time! But do they deserve and is it ethical to rehabilitate them? If they can truely be rehabilitated aren't they then condemmed to a life of guilt and suffering? Do we care? Isn't then rehabilitation the way to truely make them suffer for what they have done?
As far as the churches abuse goes, I think there is no difference between a sexual preditor who joins the church to seek venerability and the local 'babysitter' who preys on children. When we turn a blind eye even to possibility we provide a gateway for opportunity.
By Me X | Posted on January 9, 2009, 6:34 pm
Curtis and I are in agreement on the terrible communal silence that allows sexual predators to continue in parish ministry. I want to take up an issue Michael raises in his comment. Michael says that people of faith "are afraid of the truth that it's all a sham and that the clergy are ordinary people with ordinary vices."
Clergy are ordinary people with ordinary vices. And ordinary virtues. We carry into ministry all the baggage that any adult human being has at his or her particular age; some more than others. Although some spiritual leaders are said to be infallible, in most denominations today there is widespread recognition that all of us, especially clergy, have "growing edges." Parishioners are likely to be emphatically vocal in addressing many of the shortcomings their pastors display (plus a few that are nonexistent!). The problem isn't that people are afraid to admit clergy have vices, it's that they are unsure of how to deal with the volatile issue of sexual misconduct.
The poignant comment by Me X illustrates the difficulty of dealing openly with sexual misconduct by trusted authority figures. When the misconduct comes to light, the reactions range from horrified condemnation to blaming the victim. Chances are that many of the people who remain silent experience a mixture of feelings within themselves. That hideous social fact combines with the reluctance to "rock the boat," and other social discomforts that, because they are so widespread, become the norm. Wrong, but true. The Lucifer Effect.
Like Me X, I have become proactive in support of the abused. Sometimes the results are good. Sometimes the effort results in significant setbacks, as others rise to defend the predator, who is portrayed unfailingly as the victim. I have not found a better way to be in the world than to continue my unflagging support of those who are persecuted. I am hoping, though, that with experience my strategies are improving. My bottom line: no turning a blind eye.
I could say so much as to never stop typing. I simply say the psychological research is in. I've been in psychotherapy for two years after I weakend upon learning what I'd lived in secret addiction of since 5th grade. Masochistic sexual feelings for spanking. I've come to observe our culture still tightly clings to the notion that spanking is a parents God given right and God teaches parents they should spank. I start having post tramatic stress disorder flashbacks once my mind found the abuse I had buried. The sadistic poorly hidden smile of my mother as she removed my lower clothing exposing me to her for a spanking was devestating to me emotionally in shame, sexual shame. Today many prospanking parents I've learn secretly indulge their own truama induced spanking fetish under the guise of good parent punishment in ritual spanking of their children. All the psychology reveals this and yet even the veteran psychotherapists including my own say the world in not listening, churches are not listening. The addiction I have I dont' and didn't want. I didnt' choose it, my parents ignorance did. The taboo about looking at the inappropriateness of parents holding absolute right to remove clothing and force gential exposure of their children to them for spanking, and for adults with the spanking fetish to derive pleasure from that as inconsequential while acting as a "good" parent is fully alive and well in the U.S. today. Pulic school teachers can still paddle students. Who knows who is being sadistically motivated in a culture where it's considered normal to do this to children? I've lost my faith in Catholicism since the church has now condemded it's own clergy for sexual abuse but continues consent of sexual abuse of innocent children under guise of corporal punishment being divinely sanctioned. Please read Dr. Timmothy Dorpat's book Crimes of Punishment: Violence in America! A 50 year psychotherapy veteran citing decades of clinical experience as testimony to the psychological trauma corporal punishment is causeing in children and the tragic consequences of that creating the viloent culture we live in! There are days I'm barely able to hang on for the denial and attack's my story recieve's living with a sexual addiction to being hit in that childhood manner and having the world refuse it's cause and effect. Recenty met a woman whom in earlier relationship not yet uncovering my abuse trauama enjoy discussing the masochistic feelings of sapnking. Now with treatment I told her my awakening journey and she denied psychologists have credibility and stated her own satisfaction when spanking her kids asking me I couldn't relate to the good feelings of meting out justice to children who did something wrong. I told her that was sadism and she quickly said goodbye. Our spiritual community is in denial of the mounting empirical evidence and our legislators refuse to look at the professional truths afraid of the unpopularity of even a civil ban on school spanking federally. They will never grant the most helpless child victim children who are spanked by their parents any protection. Laws today define good spanking as that which doesn't leave marks. The marks in the childs mind are NEVER seen but are etch by trauam forever. Once fear and shock take over the innocent child's mine unconsciously sexualizes that trauma to save the mind from the psychological pain it's experiencing! The few who understand this cycle of unspoken and ignored sexual abuse need to speak out in unison with the psychotherapy community to the government leadership, medical community, and U.S. churchs! Thank you for the site about the evil of sadism and it's profound impact on human behavior and culture!
By John Wilwerding | Posted on January 22, 2009, 10:21 pm
This is the first time I visit you homepage, and I have yet not read your book. But in this spontanous moment I wonder how you look upon psychotherapeutic treatment for those who have "crossed the line" and who afterwards need help to cope with the guilt, the fear of having become "evil" for a life-time, etc. You might have information about this in your material, which I haven´t found yet. I am about to write an essay and my main interest is my conviction that every man and woman is capable of committing horrible crimes. And from my psychotherapeutic point of view, would like to study how this is worked with clinically (with war-veterans, criminals, etc).
By Anna Printz | Posted on September 7, 2010, 7:36 am
1. "Forgiveness" doesn't spell "Stupdity".
2. These people are predators, they do not get well,
they get better at their deception and betrayal.
They get better at their predator techniques.
3. They should be removed from their roles in the
church but they should also be in prison until
the day they die. No exceptions.
4. Victim's face a lifetime of spiritual & mental
-guilt torment and mental anguish. It renders
many of sexually cripple.
5. I feel that the "Lucifer Effect" can be used as an
excuse, however, the predators still have a
By Predator Survivor | Posted on October 26, 2010, 8:38 pm
People are born innocent and we learn about evil as we grow. People become evil - it isn't a natural state of being that we are born into.
By Predators Victim | Posted on October 26, 2010, 8:40 pm