Sex Abuse: The Witness of Codependency

In some circles, the language of the Twelve Steps is approaching a certain level of fatigue. Despite this, I think the terminology applies to any sex abuse situation, including the scandals within the Catholic Church. I also think the codependent experience gives us important insights as to the nature of sexual abuse, and what we can reasonably expect from individuals, communities, and institutions.

Codependency is not without its doubters or critics. However, the curiosities of the priest sex abuse phenomenon and the cover-up scandals that followed it are well-explained by the term. In the realm of sex abuse, I would define codependency as a psychological and spiritual flaw that permits others to excuse, explain, or enable sex addicts to persist in their behavior. I believe it is set in place by the grooming behaviors perpetrators perform on their circle of friends and in the circles of their victims.

Fr Michael listed his findings in Neil’s fine post yesterday. Some of these findings are accurate in that they describe individuals and particular experiences. I wonder if some of the others are colored by the codependent experience which touches pretty much all Catholics because of our social associations and other attachments to the Church.

His criticism of bishops, of the brother priests of offenders, and of lay ministers and loyal parishioners who defend perpetrators would seem to be aimed at those who have been groomed by the sex addict. These grooming behaviors are well-documented, and I posted a brief essay summarizing the action from a Virtus Online piece I read last month.

That said, many priests and lay people are deeply scandalized by the behavior of bishops, who do not benefit from an active grooming process for the laity. In a way, they were victims of seduction by their own clergy. Abusers manipulated the institutional failures to a tee. And that included their own bishops.

Fr Michael characterizes the problem in part as one of morality. He quotes opposition to zero tolerance as evidence of “moral relativism.” I think this is a stretch. Addicts soon begin to lose control over a path that links logic with morality. Logic becomes a malleable tool to justify behaviors which under ordinary circumstances would be clearly wrong.

That’s not to deny the culpability of the addict. Sex abuse remains the fault of the perpetrator. Scandal is the fault of the bishops covering up. But people caught up in addiction don’t have a clear premeditated sense of immorality. The reinforcement of shame and personal compulsion overpower the conscious moral decision. Saint Paul seems to have grasped the nature of it in his famous lament on the things he wishes to do, but doesn’t and the things he would not do, but does.

These sorts of blaming attitudes are part of the addiction/codependent locus:

That the Lavender Mafia is able to keep a lid on things, preventing this scandal from spreading to an even more widespread phenomena, that of actively gay priests.

That things will not begin to change fundamentally until the Baby Boomer bishops and priests retire and/or die.

It seems to me that painting gay clergy as an organization of power and corruption is a bit extreme. It also skips over the heterosexual clergy who have broken their vows of celibacy. There is also the fallacy that a particular generation is responsible for these sins and crimes. It is very much like the behavior of the groomed to make excuses for those involved: blame a mafia, blame a generation, blame liberals, blame homosexuals, blame celibacy, blame the groups not getting caught, blame a council that didn’t go far enough, blame a reform gone too far, blame a previous generation of abusers. Any experienced Twelve Stepper will tell us that taking responsibility for one’s own actions is an important step toward healing and recovery.

Putting distance between offenders and oneself is a tempting strategy. The fact is that both straight and gay priests abused children of the same or opposite sex. Addiction strikes without regard to ideology or personal morality. By painting the sex abuse and cover-up scandal as an aspect of moral relativism, I worry that Fr Michael has fallen into the trap of the groomed. The net must be cast even wider as we look to the Catholic community, searchingly and fearlessly, to assess where our state of spiritual health has failed.

Fr Michael’s last comment:

That the laity has a short attention span and does not have the fortitude to demand reform of their priests and bishops. Once the worst of the miscreant priests were removed, we’re all back to playing pretend that the priesthood in the US is a model of Christian discipleship and blessing to the Church.

I wonder if those who feel this way have bothered to join VOTF or SNAP? Or begun their own action group?

That said, I do believe there is a way out. If Church institutions were serious, they might attempt to apply the Twelve Steps to themselves. The path of spiritual recovery cannot be imposed on another person or group. Addicts, bishops, clergy, or others must desire a way out. And as we often see in our endemic Culture of Complaint, some people are satisfied where they are.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Sex Abuse: The Witness of Codependency

  1. Tony says:

    One thing that I have always noticed from the beginning of the crisis is that the Church and state approached this from two separate directions.

    The Church appears to have been treating this as a sin and redemption thing (after all, all sins can be forgiven). The state approaches this as a crime and punishment thing.

    An interesting question that I have never heard asked and I’m interested in knowing the answer to is: “if you know a crime has been committed, is it a sin not to turn the perpetrator over to the authorities?”

    And I’m not talking just via the confessional (which has an inviolate seal). Do you risk the pain of damnation by not squealing on a criminal?

    Objective standards of treating those with mental illness (a propensity to certain sin?) has changed over the years.

    I understand the concept of temporal punishment after sins are forgiven, the obligation to make a person whole again, but how does one do that in the case of one abused? Can it be done? Does the “eye for an eye” of imprisoning the perpetrator do anything to make the victim whole? How about millions of dollars gathered from the pockets of little old ladies on a pension who had nothing at all to do with the abuse?

    This is the main problem I have with groups like VOTF and SNAP. Like most other groups of fallen humans, they appear more intent on increasing their authority in the Church on the backs of these victims, using them like so many stepladders to recruit more righteously indignant Catholics to their cause.

    Why in the world would they, as Catholics, argue to remove the legal statutes of limitations (and only against their own Church)?

    Does this help the victims? Will it make them whole? If it doesn’t, it becomes an exercise in retribution rather than an exercise in healing.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Todd, I have to say I was interested by your reference to the 12 steps. I had never thought of the sexual abuse crisis in that light and it has given me something to reflect upon.

    Nonetheless, I’m not prepared to change my opinion on the points you objected to above.

    1) “Moral relativism” I understand that one could make a logically rigorous argument against a zero tolerance policy. Unfortunately, my brothers weren’t making arguments along that line. Rather, it was “he’s a good guy, we’ve known each other 25 years” and the like. Their subjective feelings of the abusers trumped over right judgment. Groomed or not, priests need to have the strength of character to do the right thing.

    2) The Lavender Mafia. Even though the large majority of clerical abuse was same-sex, I don’t blame the LM for the Scandal. It took coverups by bishops, straight and gay, to turn this into the catastrophe it is. If the perverts had been dealt with severely early on, I’m guessing most would have left the priesthood rather than face public disgrace.

    No my comment about them was their ability to squelch any discussion in priestly circles (and the larger Church) about why so much of the abuse was homosexual in nature in the first place. Furthermore, some of the condemned priests threatened to “out” their non-youth-abusing but actively-gay comrades, yet nothing came of that. The ability to suppress damaging information is what I was addressing in my list.

    3) In my experience, the divide between Baby Boomer on one hand and Gen X and Millenials on the other on this issue is immense. The younger cohort is all for zero tolerance and the bright light of transperency exposing evil, whereas the large majority of the older priests oppose these steps.

    4) I was tempted to join VOTF but my inquiries with the local chapter quickly showed that the long arm of progressive dissent was within, so I chose not to be a “priest of integrity.” Ha! So I spend my time in priest meetings scolding my brothers everytime they think of some boneheaded way to get around zero tolerance. By my intransigence I’ve done more to ensure the implementation of Dallas in my diocese than the local VOTF ever did.

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting FrMichael. I think I misread you on one or two points, and certainly, your experience of discussion (or lack thereof) in the inner sanctum of the presbyterate is something I lack.

    Actually, in my experience, some clergy have not taken founded and admitted accusations seriously enough.

    I still disagree that same sex child abuse is homosexual by design. I would say that man-teen relationships have a certain pathology about them–not unlike heterosexuals who choose partners or even spouses they can dominate. There is a whole realm of deviant sex built up around dominance, and I’d have to be more of a student of psychology to understand it.

    On your point 3, I’ve also known new priests to have been as closed-minded to their own and others’ faults, including some who have themselves been caught in scandal.

    “So I spend my time in priest meetings scolding my brothers everytime they think of some boneheaded way to get around zero tolerance. By my intransigence I’ve done more to ensure the implementation of Dallas in my diocese than the local VOTF ever did.”

    If there’s a better way to do it in clergy circles, and you’ve found it, my hat’s off to you for it. I’ve never joined VOTF either, but I monitor their mailings and information and also attempt to keep informed and watchful on potential child abuse in my surroundings.

    Again, thanks for posting.

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