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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

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.

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