What Copernicus and Kepler Can Teach Us About Clergy Abuse

Retrograde motion–the observation that Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn occasionally backtrack in their movement against the background stars–was an early problem for the theory (simply illustrated above where the Earth is the red dot in the middle) that the Earth was the center of the universe. The problem could be solved if each planet was on its own sub-track, an epicycle. The planet and its little circle would continue on its way around the Earth. But when it was tracking in the opposite direction from its usual motion, Ptolemy and other ancient astronomers claimed it was just because epicycle movement “backward” overcame its usual progress in the heavens. This web site illustrates it extremely well.

In the decades before and after 1600, Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, had a simpler explanation: no epicycles, and all the planets orbit the sun, and the various subtleties of their apparent motion can be explained–and predicted–mathematically. (Galileo, of course, found moons orbiting Jupiter just as the ancients correctly surmised that the moon orbits the Earth. That finding helped move along the eventual acceptance of his fellow scientists’ insights.

What do these guys have to do with clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up by the bishops? I liken the Jay Study and recent commentary on it to the situation of medieval astronomy, before Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Like the ancients we see the planets move through the sky. Also like the ancients we also misdiagnose what we see. The smart ones among us invent contrived explanations (loneliness, homosexuality, the 60’s) for what we witness among people who should be paragons of holiness and virtue.

At the recent dotCommonweal thread I commented on the Frawley-O’Dea assessment of the Jay study. It strikes me many Catholics aren’t completely satisfied with seeing epicycles explain clergy abuse and bishops covering up. There should be a simpler, yet more subtle explanation here. It’s more than the 60’s. It’s more than loneliness. It’s more than a loss of a sense of sin, or homosexuality, or seductive teens. Certainly, one priest (at least) lost his way in the 60’s, one gay priest happened to abuse children, some adolescent somewhere has seduced a priest, some lonely guy turned to child porn and a real kid, and maybe all of them sinned in spite of “knowing” the right and the wrong of it all.

But it doesn’t explain why twenty, thirty, fifty percent or more of bishops covered it up. It doesn’t explain why significantly large numbers of priests preyed on children.

My own sense–and you longtime readers here know this is my soapbox–is that sex abuse and its institutional cover-up has a strong whiff of addiction. Maybe you can explain abusive clergy as lonely guys pining away for self-satisfaction, but what about bishops? I wouldn’t be naive enough to think every instance of abuse and cover-up can be explained away by sexual addiction and codependency. But at the very least, persons expert in addiction should be consulted in any serious study.

We know that the demands of ministry–and I speak of both laity and clergy–are prime environments for many of us to gain weight (my hand is up), indulge in alcohol or drugs, have affairs or be tempted by sex, or act out emotionally through anger, controlling behaviors, intimidation, passive aggressiveness, etc..

Speaking for myself, I didn’t become forty pounds overweight because parishioners were too demanding, or the priest was unfair, or because I didn’t get the down time I wanted. Or that I was lonely. Or that the meanies in the culturewar were bugging me.

I have to concede I have a predilection to addictive behavior. I have to watch myself carefully. With God’s help, I will never be overweight again. But I can own up to the situation for what it is, and I don’t have to blame the fast food industry, promoters of HFCS, my family of origin, or the time demands of parish liturgy.

Getting back to the Church’s crisis, sexual abuse in many cases may be a result of an addictive inclination, immaturity, emotional upheaval, and a lack of support for a healthy lifestyle that combine in various ways to subvert vulnerable people. The assessment from Jay and other researchers that it is hard to predict who will be an abuser indicates multiple possible factors. That leads me to think this whole mess is something a lot closer to how and why people become addicts. One simple system. A host of subtleties we scarcely understand.

This tack should be more seriously examined. And until future studies include experts in addiction as part of the task force, I will read future work on this with a dollop of doubt–at least in terms of grasping the whole picture.

The Jay Study strikes me as akin to primitive science. Ptolemy’s epicycles explained planetary motion, but in a somewhat contorted way. It wasn’t until Copernicus forwarded the notion that the planets orbited the sun–not Earth, and Kepler refined laws of planetary orbits, that the intricacies of what we observed in the skies was largely and logically explained.

I think we’re in a similar situation today. We’re about as advanced in the understanding of sex abuse and cover-up as medieval astronomers were in their field. There are reasons why clergy abuse and their bishops cover up. We just don’t grasp the whole picture yet. My hope is that the Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler of psychopathology has been born already and somewhere is piecing together the strands of this. If not, I fear we’re going to continue to languish in the Dark Ages, to the detriment of the Gospel itself.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to What Copernicus and Kepler Can Teach Us About Clergy Abuse

  1. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    Thanks for this post. I wonder if the emphasis on addiction threatens to decontextualize the issue. Let me ask two questions:

    1. What, exactly, were those who participated in the “institutional cover-up” addicted to? If it was a certain fantasy about the church or the priesthood, we need to identify that fantasy with specificity and figure out what it could possibly mean to be “addicted” to it.

    2. If “addiction” comes – or simply gets worse – through the “demands of ministry,” why does this seem like a specifically Catholic scandal? If ministry attracts and further damages addictive personalities, should we be able to identify Anglican or Eastern Orthodox versions of Maciel?



    • Todd says:

      Good questions, Neil.

      The answer to your first question is easy enough, and I saw even more of it in my own family. Those close to addicts participate in addiction by covering up: the family members who act out in various non-sane way for the active addict in their midst: “covering” for a drunk spouse, buying into the lies, and especially being groomed in the notion that if only the spouse were more loving, the boss less demanding, the kids more well behaved, the addict wouldn’t have to drink, use drugs, etc..

      I was thinking about the recent Ratigan case in Kansas City. Why would a bishop and vicar general who had made pornography such a focus in their ministry to lay men miss it so obviously when it happened with one of their own? I suspect they were groomed. It’s why an addict can get away with crazy behavior. Allies are actively groomed and programmed to ignore the crazy.

      As for your second question, some apologists will suggest sex abuse is a bomb waiting to go off in other traditions. It gets Catholics attention because of the Church’s high profile central authority. Because the pope and bishops claim the authority, they also net the overall responsibility. Neither the Orthodox, nor Anglicans really, have the central authority as perceived in the Roman Church.

      I suspect abuse takes place at similar rates among faith traditions where the clergy are isolated, and the seeds of addiction can take root.

      I don’t want to give too much credence to the cliche of the drunk (Irish) priest, or the physically punishing sister, but I suspect there are social apparatuses in seminaries and houses of formation that reinforce the emotions like anger and guilt that allow addictions to germinate in young people.

      Let me say that I’m far less an expert in addiction than I am a survivor of the codependent system that grows around them. But there are people who are experts. I’d like to turn a few psychologists loose on the Jay data and on interviews with victims, perpetrators, and bishops, and see what those who have studied addiction would say about it all.

      • Neil says:

        Dear Todd,

        Thanks for your generous answer. I think that any diagnosis of the sex abuse case has to do with theological dysfunction.

        1. You suggest that the complicit bishops and vicars general were not themselves addicts but enablers, similar to the family members of an alcoholic. But the obvious response is to say that, well, they were not family members of abusive priests. Why, then, were they so vulnerable to being groomed – even after the risks of incaution were obvious or when the groomers were unimpressive priests (e.g., Geoghan)? We might even hope that a bishop – someone who does hear confessions, after all, and whose judgment was judged sound by the Vatican – would be less likely to be groomed.

        I think that the only sufficient reason has to do with a theological fantasy about the priesthood.

        2. I’m not aware of similar scandals about to happen in other churches or ecclesial communities (e.g., a Cloyne Report for the Church of Ireland). Furthermore, hypothetically, the centralization of the Roman Catholic Church could have led to the prevention of sex abuse, instead of the scandal.

        Also, you note that drunk priests and physically abusive sisters existed. What is notable is not that these figures existed, but that a seemingly strict system tolerated them.

        There is something specifically and disturbingly “Catholic” about the scandal, and I don’t think that I’ve seen that confronted.

        Thanks again.

  2. Molly Roach says:

    Or could it be that addiction itself is, among other things, a process of decontextualizing experience so that the addict has it his or her way?

  3. Todd says:

    Not sure where you’re heading with this comment, Molly, but I think you are right. Addicts do decontextualize their experiences–it allows otherwise highly moral people to function in a gravely sinful way, and maintain the illusion they are ok.

    I also want to emphasize I completely adhere to the sound principles of 12-Step recovery. It is essential for the recovering addict or codependent to admit her or his own failings. Being an addict is not a free pass to blame one’s parents, one’s own childhood abuser, or the 60’s, or whatever. Every authentically recovering addict–and I include codependents in this–must make that “searching and fearless moral inventory” and come to terms with it by sharing it with one other individual. Later in the Steps, one is challenged to adhere to an ongoing process of personal honesty, and taking personal responsibility for one’s failings.

    Despite what you may see in the press about celebrity X heading into rehab for the nth time, someone in authentic recovery will come clean, and continue to act publicly with the lessons they have learned from that inventory, confession, and continual examen that comes with defeating addiction, or an addictive system.

    Cardinal Rigali’s “condition” (If I have offended …) on this week’s apology is a classic tell of being in denial, of being part of an addictive system. It is a very honest dishonesty, if you will.

  4. Eb Hurley says:

    In America, anything to be wished away is conveniently termed an “addiction” . This discounts true biological addictions. Ask any alcoholic and I’m sure they will tell you they do not wish to be in a catagory with evil pedophiles. Pedophilia is a mental illness in a different catagory – all its own. Only in God’s eye are we all the same children.

  5. Pingback: BBC claim Cardinal Brady had details of Smyth's victims, did nothing to protect them - Page 505

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