Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pedophilia, Ephebophilia, and Priests: My Points of Departure

Sometimes, I forget to explain myself completely on this blog, because I assume that others take for granted where I stand on a particular issue, based on where I stand on other connected issues.  As I noted in a recent posting, one of the experiences I’m reliving through the current discussion of the crisis in the Catholic church is the experience of finding that I thought I shared some fundamental presuppositions with others, when it turns out that my own viewpoint is worlds apart from that of some others writing about these issues.

As best as I can recall, I haven’t ever explicitly addressed here the question of priests who have “relationships” with adolescent boys—except in the comments section following various postings, where I’ve engaged in heated discussion with several respondents.  I did explicitly address these questions a few years ago on some threads at the SNAP website.  But at that time, like most other posters there, I was using a username and not my own name when I posted, and I hadn’t yet thought of creating my own blog to deal with these and other issues in my own territory, under my own name.

Since questions keep arising now about the connection of gay priests to the abuse crisis and the question of whether the abuse of children is different from the abuse of post-pubescent minors, I’d like to put a few thoughts down on paper here, for the sake of readers who may not understand my own points of departure as I address these issues.  What I hope to do in this posting is simply to make as plain as possible some starting points that I had assumed others had already understood as my own personal points of departure in addressing issues of clerical sexual abuse.

But the continuing discussion about these issues following a number of my postings makes me think that it would be useful if I simply made a few flat statements about where I stand on questions like the distinction between abuse of children as opposed to post-pubescent minors, and about the role of stunted psychological growth among some priests (including gay ones), as it plays into abuse.

1. As I’ve noted repeatedly in a number of threads where discussions of these issues have arisen, I don’t buy the children vs. post-pubescent minors distinction.  I don’t buy that distinction in the following sense: when adults abuse minors of whatever age—but minors—there is a power differential in the relationship between the abusing adult and the victimized minor that makes it impossible for the relationship to be reciprocal.

2. And non-reciprocal relationships based on inequality of power are in and of themselves harmful to the subordinated party.  They harm the person who does not have the freedom (and maturity) to enter into the relationship fully, of his or her own accord.

3. I seriously doubt that any minor, including post-pubescent ones, has the personal maturity to enter into the kind of free, mutual relationship that I hear some priests—of both sexual orientations—imagining they and other priests have, when they are involved with adolescents.

4. In short, I seriously doubt that the “relationships” that priests claim to have with adolescents of either gender are relationships at all.  There is not the capacity for relationship when one of the parties is not fully formed as a person, and when he or she is subordinated to the other party because of the difference in power held by the two parties.

5. It strikes me as grotesque—and has always done so—when I hear priests, adult men, claiming that they have been lured into an erotic relationship with a minor who knew perfectly well what she or he was doing, and who was the initiating party in the “relationship.”

6. In my view, adults ought to be involved in the kind of relationships entailed by erotic contact only with other adults.  I view the relationship a priest might have with another consenting adult of either gender differently than I view the “relationship” a priest might have with an adolescent for all the reasons I provide above.

7. When I was teaching theology in Catholic universities and had more interaction with Catholic clergy, I did become aware—gradually and probably more anecdotally than by way of serious empirical study—that there is a subculture of gay priests who sometimes defend and cover over inappropriate behavior by members of that subculture with adolescent males.  (And I also became aware of a significant number of priests involved in coercive and exploitative relationships with females.)

8. I resist the equation of the abuse crisis with that subculture and its activities because a) I also know first-hand about many cases of abuse that have involved priests and girls or adolescent females, b) and the primary issue to be addressed in the abuse is not the sexual orientation of the priests abusing minors, but the fact that they are adults abusing minors.

9. Though some folks who try to blame the abuse crisis on gay priests speak as if there is a flagrant open subculture of gay priests (and bishops) in many parts of the world, I personally have not seen that subculture in the places in which I have lived.  To the contrary, these subcultural groups of priests about which I am speaking—in which I have heard conversation about the acceptability of “relationships” between priests and adolescent boys—have been secretive, furtive, constantly frightened of reprisal.

10. And as a result they have been exceptionally unhealthy subcultural enclaves, which foster psychic immaturity and inappropriate acting out on the part of those within the enclave.

11. If I seem impatient when some priests now seek to argue that there’s a witch-hunt going on for pedophile priests which is demonizing those priests, it’s because I am reacting sharply and strongly to an underlying presupposition that I believe some of those priests are advancing: namely, that “relationships” between priests and adolescent boys are understandable and acceptable.

12. I react against that underlying presupposition both because it seems totally (and shockingly) to ignore the damage that I hear over and over that these relationships do to minors.  It’s the voice of those who have been abused we need to hear first and foremost—not the voices of clergy who have either abused minors or are trying to make that abuse understandable.

13. And I react because underlying this shocking deafness to the voices of those who have been abused is a toxic clericalism that seems to regard all non-clerics as somehow lesser humans than priests are. 

14. Clericalism is at the very heart of the abuse problem in the Catholic church.  It is a system that gives unmerited, dangerous, unchecked power to one group of Catholics and no power at all (no institutional power at all) to all lay Catholics. 

15. Systems that allocate power in this way always corrupt those who have the unchecked power, and always invite the abuse of the powerless.  The Catholic clerical system objectifies non-clerics, and in doing so lays the foundation for the heinous objectification represented by the abuse crisis, and for the hard-hearted callousness of the hierarchy’s response.

Some of the gay priests who appear to defend the abuse of male minors strike me as simply psychologically twisted by the clerical system, in a very tragic way.  I don’t even know how to engage their arguments or understand the points they’re trying to make as they call for understanding of pedophile priests, because the arguments seem, to my ear, tortured by the bizarre psychodynamics created by a combination of clericalism, institutional homophobia, and the lack of sound, mature psychological development that the clerical system fosters.