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Was the Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Scandal Caused by… Alcoholism?

Was the Sex Abuse Scandal Caused by Alcoholism Richard Roche

Richard Roche

William Van Ornum - published on 05/09/14

A psychologist explains why we might be trying to solve the wrong problem with the clergy.

Last weekend, a commission including sandal-clad Cardinal Sean O’Malley from Boston met to further systematize procedures and regulations that are meant to stop child abuse occurring in the Roman Catholic Church. Words emphasized included “accountability” and “denial.” Victims groups say that it has taken too long to get to this point and that more work is needed.

These latest accretions of rules now bring the Church to the point of the mental health professions and society in general in the early 1970s. At that time,  psychologists, social workers, and physicians were made mandatory reporters concerning child abuse–they had a legal responsibility to report any reasonable suspicion of abuse of a child. The penalty for not doing this was a misdemeanor.

In the decades since then, mandated reporting laws have grown to include even more professions. In New York State, for example, mandated reporters include workers as varied as teachers, cosmetologists, and even massage therapists.

In these 40 years have these legal rules concerning mandated reporters rid the nation of child abuse? Some experienced clinicians don’t see any difference. In a recent year, there were over 900,000 reports made to Child Protective Services concerning suspected child physical or sexual abuse, or emotional neglect. Over 60,000 of these reports involved sexual abuse.

It is clear that requiring mandated reports has not solved the abuse problem. Therefore, there must be other factors involved. Only when these other factors can be acknowledged and dealt with will the environment become a safer place for children. We keep trying, but despite efforts, we seem to be falling further behind. For society at large, stopping child abuse is more complicated than enacting legislation.

This same question can be asked in the Church: what efforts are needed beyond “mandated reporting” and other “safety programs” to further protect children?

In 1972, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted a large-scale enterprise that is relevant to the current situation in the Church. During one day in the 1972 school semester, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States was accompanied by John Cardinal Kroll of Philadelphia as well as other leading prelates to a meeting at Loyola University of Chicago. The aim was to put together a study that would look into the psychological health and well-being of priests within the Roman Catholic Church.

A large number of priests representative of the United States priesthood were studied via intensive clinical interviews as well as our objective and subjective personality tests. Clinical psychologist Dr. Eugene Kennedy was one of the main authors of this task force report, “A  Psychological Study of the American Priesthood.”

A glaring finding was a high number of priests identified by the psychologists as being psycho-socially immature. This was further described as their being unable to fully share in a range of human relationships, including intimate ones; loneliness was highlighted as a prominent feature of the priesthood (Kennedy stated that “rectories are sad places”); and the future was described ominously as a time frame in which psychological problems would increase and display themselves in as-yet indiscernible ways.

In retrospect, this report was spot-on. Eugene Kennedy has continually reminded us how the findings of this study were ignored, and has noted the inability of the Church to rid itself of sexual abuse in a book, “The Unhealed Wound” as well as in articles and speeches.

Frank J. Kobler took the priesthood study one step further and evaluated the psychological health of the bishops. About 75 of the nation’s 200 bishops were studied, again, by interviews and by various kinds of psychological tests. The bishops came out as being more psychologically healthy than the priests.
The New York Times (in an era before Maureen Dowd and her particular form of sarcasm directed at the Church) ran an article on page 1 in 1977 devoted to Dr. Kobler’s study and called it “The Happy Bishops.”

Right now, knowing the overall psychological health of both Catholic bishops and priests would seem to be a very relevant factor in making the Church and even safer place for children. This is one factor that could be studied and whose presence may have a complex, intriguing, and as yet acknowledged role in the cycle of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.

For over a decade the role of ”denial”  has been written of extensively. Denial can be defined in all of these ways: overlooking the abuse that occurs; minimizing incidents of abuse and their severity; ignoring the obvious effects of sexual abuse as well as the perpetrators involved. While many of these incidents of denial display the inept and bumbling quality of Sgt. Shultz (“I see nothing, nothing”) more serious occurrences point to repeated systematic institutional blindness to an evil that is occurring within.

Very rarely, if ever, are hypotheses or speculations made concerning why there is indeed so much denial. It is mentioned as a fact, and then a remedy, usually involving regulations similar to those of the mandated reporters in the mental health professions, is mentioned. There is not attempt to get at a root cause.

Perhaps no psychological condition is associated as much with denial as is alcohol abuse. In families where there is alcohol abuse, everyone learns to hide the problem, enable the alcoholic and keep him (or her) functioning, and prevent outsiders from learning the truth. Qualities evolve within the family system itself such as extreme loyalty to the system – an attempt to hold secrets within. This process describes exactly what has happened in the Church for decades.

Would it be a reasonable speculation that somehow alcohol has played a role in the sexual abuse crisis in the Church? There might even be multiple ways that alcohol has been a part of or has magnified this event. For example, priests or prelates with this problem may not have been directly confronted about it and this could have started or magnified a climate of denial in which the overlooking of sexual abuse would have occurred. It would be interesting indeed if the records of priest personnel from past decades could be reviewed to see how often this problem was dealt with.

Also helpful would be to look at the manner in which alcohol and substance abuse problems are now dealt with. Who does a priest go to for help with such a problem? Are there effective resources available? If the problem is severe, is there effective inpatient help available?

Where does a bishop or priest turn to for help with alcohol abuse? If one uses the lifetime prevalence rate of 13% of people becoming alcoholic in the overall United States population, one would expect about 31 bishops out of the approximately 240 in the United States to have displayed this condition. From there, it would be interesting to see if those bishops displaying alcoholism were among those most prominent in overlooking the abuse of priests in their care.

Sadly, one of the major treatment options for Catholic clergy in the United States will no longer be a resource as of some time this year. The Guesthouse of Rochester, Minnesota is closing and the services once available here will now be provided in Lake Orion, Michigan. By moving, this program will lose an informal affiliation with the Mayo Clinic where priests were able to receive care from the top mental health professionals in the world. This treasured resource is gone.

A statement from the Winona, Minnesota diocese said: “Bishop Quinn is disappointed that the Guest House Rochester will be closing but is very grateful for the years and years of service to the Catholic Church and our religious.”

In another denomination, within the past eight years or so, an infamous diocesan bishop acknowledged publicly his problem with alcoholism and the manner in which he sought out treatment. I don’t think this particular bishop’s name or his activities are particularly relevant – the main point is that he was brutally honest about himself having a problem. The church denomination, while not at all denying or glossing over the problem, gave him the support he needed to face this serious condition.

Somehow a public analysis and study of the presence of alcoholism within the priesthood and of the prelates in the hierarchy does not seem to me at first glance to be a step to take. The diagnosis of such a problem is extremely sensitive. Even making an effort to learn more about it could make those experiencing alcoholism much more sensitive to it being uncovered by someone else. They would hide the problem and go even further underground.

I don’t think shrill voices, blaming, or finger-pointing belong in such a process. The 1972 Loyola study may be impractical for 2014.

But the ideas I presented above would, I think, help better understand why there is “denial” and would improve “accountability”–two major words used by Cardinal O’Malley at the Vatican meeting, May 1-3, 2014.

Perhaps someone reading this now can think of even a small way to implement these ideas and quietly to help a Church leader who may have an alcoholic problem. In doing so, further progress would be made toward creating a long-term environment that is safer for children.

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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