Awareness of the harms inflicted on a minor by a priest’s sexual abuse has increased markedly over the past 10 years. Among the most common of these harms is substance abuse. Extreme anxiety and severe depression, sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts or to suicide itself, are also frequent. So are obsessive thoughts and behaviors (obsessive/compulsive disorder) especially having to do with sex and religion. The victim’s suppressed anger and resentment may manifest itself in these and other ways such as self-blame, low self-esteem and shame. The damage can and often does last a lifetime, although some victims may alleviate it by reporting the abuse, talking about it to those close to them, taking prescribed medications, and seeing a psychotherapist.
Relationships can also be affected by having been sexually abused as a minor. Victims can become distrustful of others, antisocial, and experience unusual levels of strain in their marriages that may lead to divorce. Post-abuse youngsters may develop eating disorders or become delinquent, promiscuous and confused about their sexual identities.
As a result of priest abuse, victims may grow distrustful of Catholicism itself or give up on their Church altogether. The sacrament of confession may become problematic for them, especially when the abusing priest used the confessional as part of the process of grooming them. Victims can be robbed of the consolations of their faith at the very times when they most need spiritual comfort.
Imagine that you are a Church authority (pastor, bishop or cardinal, for example) positioned to manage the crisis of sexual abuse by fellow priests. Would you mimic what we have seen in my previous post to be the self-justifications of those offenders by looking for blame outside the Church, supposedly a servant of society’s most vulnerable? Would you blame an excessively permissive culture, anti-Catholic media, or overzealous state attorneys general? Or, over focused on the abuse of male minors, would you recommend weeding out homosexuals entering seminaries and eventually the priesthood? Or would you keep singing true but evasive songs like these: most Catholic priests are non-abusers and for the most part faithful to their vow of celibacy, other professions and religious denominations have a like number of abusers, or many priests have been falsely accused? Or would you argue that increased transparency about the problem of sexual abuse by priests will only spread more scandal or risk more financial harm to the institutional Church? Or finally, and most hurtfully, would you accuse Catholics who call for less defensiveness and more transparency of being disloyal to, or taking no pride in, their own religion?
Rather, unlike so many abusing priests, why not look more toward the institutional culture of the Church for at least some of the sources of ongoing priestly abuse: minimizing the existence of the problem, for example, ignoring past patterns of covering it up, and denying any moral responsibility for it.