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

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.

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