Darkness in the Catholic confessional

August 22, 2003

Sexual scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic church but little attention has been given to the true nature of clergy abuse, writes Natasha Gilbert.

John J. Geoghan took up his last post as an active priest in 1984 at St Julia's parish in Greater Boston. Five years later, he was forced to go on sick leave after complaints that he had sexually molested his charges. He has since been accused in 86 cases of sexual abuse in a scandal that has rocked the foundations of the Roman Catholic church and could drain it of some $55 million (£35 million) - the amount offered by the Boston archdiocese last week to settle the many cases pending against it. The scandal has also brought demands for more research into an area that, as this week's cover-up allegations show, is still shrouded in secrecy.

A major factor in the Boston scandal is that Geoghan's archbishop knew that he had a long history of abuse when he was transferred to St Julia's.

Before starting there, he had been sent for psychiatric treatment and received a clean bill of health. For some academics, the case illustrates the dearth of hard evidence on what treatment works on such abusers and on whether they are any different from other sex offenders.

A group of US academics hopes to shed light on this under-researched area.

Earlier this year, they held a conference to scrutinise the mental-health profession's understanding of the problem. The result will be a book, Sin against the Innocents, to be published early next year. Its editor and the organiser of the conference, Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, says the resounding conclusion is that more academic, data-driven research is needed urgently.

Many predatory priests have passed through treatment centres, but follow-up studies are practically non-existent and there are still no robust preventive or screening techniques to stop abusers infiltrating the church.

Up to the mid-1980s, knowledge of paedophilia (which, as well as being a criminal offence, is defined as a psychiatric condition in the American Psychiatric Association's handbook) and other psychosexual disorders was limited. Until relatively recently, priestly sexual abuse was considered more of a moral problem to be dealt with through fasting and praying. Some specialists believed that paedophile tendencies could change over time and were more amenable to treatment than is generally thought today. Plante says this may have meant that bishops were given conflicting advice by mental-health experts.

One problem for researchers looking into clergy sex abuse has been the traditional mistrust between a secretive church and the predominately secular mental-health profession. This, they say, has led to restrictions on access to data and has hampered attempts to develop a more collaborative approach to abuses. The Catholic church in the UK, which has had its own sex-abuse scandals, denies this is a problem, but Nanette de Fuentes, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and a member of several church commissions and review boards, says: "The profession is just not that scientifically evolved yet."

But in the wake of a spate of abuse cases around the world, interest in clergy abuse is growing. One study, Time for Action, was published late last year by the ecumenical body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

It suggests that the celibacy required of Catholic priests can drive some to sexual abuse and that the church's culture of shame feeds this behaviour.

Doubts about the study's conclusion have been expressed by some experts, including John Allan Loftus, professor of psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Toronto and former executive director of the South Down Institute, Canada's largest treatment facility for the rehabilitation of clergy. "People offer a lot of theories as to why priests abuse, but they don't really know what they are talking about," he says.

Both he and Plante insist that only empirical evidence from peer-reviewed, data-driven research can confirm or dispel myths about abusive priests' behaviour.

They believe there are significant psychological differences between clergy and other incarcerated sex offenders that mean that the considerable body of data and literature on prison sex offenders is not directly relevant.

A study by Plante, who is also clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, found that the IQ scores of 80 priests accused of sexual abuse averaged 121. The average intelligence score of the general population is 100. "Higher IQs mean that clergy are more likely to be smart and crafty and more clever in how they get victims or cover their tracks," he says. "They are also more appropriate for verbal psychotherapies than the general population of sex offenders, who tend to have lower IQs, as they may be able to gain deeper insights into their own behaviour."

Another study conducted at St Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, a university hospital with in-patient facilities, looked at the psychological factors associated with the sexual behaviour of 30 Catholic clerics accused of child molestation, 39 lay child sex offenders and 38 normal control subjects with no reported sexually deviant behaviour. The research, published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, found that in contrast to lay offenders, clergy sex offenders were less psychologically disturbed and tended to target fewer victims, who were more likely to be older and male.

Such differences could have implications for the diagnosis, treatment and evaluation of sexually abusive clergy from all Christian domains, some experts argue. Most, however, doubt whether there is any real difference between different types of sex offenders. Donald Findlater, manager of the Wolvercote Centre for sex offenders in the UK, says that throughout his career he has seen nothing to convince him that clergy are different from any other perpetrator of sexual abuse. There is no need to conduct research on them as a separate population, he says.

He believes all sexual offenders display essentially the same pattern of behaviour and process of denial. And he doubts the suggestions that the church's requirement for celibacy or its culture of shame leads some to sexual abuse. The paedophile clergy he has worked with were, he says, sexually interested in children before they took their vows and used their collar to facilitate abuse.

Loftus accepts that Findlater might be right in his supposition that sexually abusive clergy are no different from any other sex offenders, and he stresses that the preliminary studies indicating disparities are incomplete. The point, he says, is this: "No one knows for sure yet. An assumption in either direction is just an assumption. Hence the need for additional research."

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