A Question of Character


Church leaders have been looking to psychologists for insights, at precisely the time when psychology needed the insights of the Catholic Church.

Dr. Richard Cross, an active Catholic layman, is a trained psychologist with a specialty in testing. After receiving his PhD in the field from Indiana University, where he also studied the history of science, he taught an practiced psychology for 13 years. He is currently working as a researcher and educational consultant.

CWR asked Richard Cross to explain the implications of the pedophilia crisis in the American clergy, and to assess the prospects for an effective response to that crisis.

Why has the problem of pedophilia had such an enormous impact on the Catholic Church in the US?

Dr. Richard Cross: There are probably five or six reasons. When you get a problem of this magnitude in any institution, it's probably because a number of things have gone wrong.

One key point is that the selection process for priest may have broken down, so that people are allowed into the seminary who were problematic all along. The clinical literature suggests that people with pedophile tendencies tend to have experienced pedophilia — that is, as victims — when they were young. Psychologists might consider the possibility that this is an impediment for admitting young men into training for the priesthood.

But other factors, perhaps, are the spiritual formation of priests, the breakdown in seminaries, and the esprit de corps among priests.

My impression, when I talk to men who are recently ordained, or interested in going into the priesthood, is that their sense of being called involves a call to perform service. That's a very laudable thing, but I don't know if that type of mind-set is the kind of thing that would make someone resistant to temptation in today's society.

Some of the doctors of the Church made metaphors depicting priests as soldiers, as leaders of battalions standing up against the powers of the netherworld. You don't get that sense from people who are entering the priesthood today.

If the question is one of service, airline flight attendants provide service.

Cross: That's right. Social workers do service. In fact, I think that apart from the fact that the man is a Catholic, it would be hard to decipher the attitude of a priest who wants to "give service" from that of a zealous social worker — in terms of helping people who are in need, giving them counseling, and so forth.

But then there's another problem here. These problems aren't just with the priests themselves, but also with an administrative structure that allowed these things to fester for a long time. This suggests that there has been some a failure of courage, or some very bad decision making on the part of the hierarchy, in this country and perhaps in other countries where this is a problem.

I would have thought that the captains of the ship should be very much attuned to brewing problems, and ready to act decisively to mitigate the development of these problems. In fact that doesn't seem to have happened.

When you say that there may have been a breakdown in the formation of priests, or the entry standards for seminaries, we come up against a curious aspect of this problem: Most of the cases that have become public involve men who are middle-aged or older. Does that suggest that a breakdown occurred some time ago, and that the festering has been going on for a long time?

Cross: Yes, the festering has been going on for a long time. In fact it may be that the newer recruits, the younger priests, have learned (through a sort of underground samizdat arrangement) that this has been a problem, and they work to correct it in themselves and their fellow priests and seminarians.

You know, there was a lot of overt confusion within the priesthood during the late 1950s and 1960s, giving rise to the massive bailout of the late 1960s, when we lost so many active priests. That may have been the point at which the pedophile caldron was set to a boil.

Could you give us some background about what psychologists have learned about people with a tendency toward pedophilia?

Cross: Rather than recount the differing schools of thought on why these people do what they do — where there is a lot of interesting conjecture about personality, and so forth — it is probably most useful to get a sense of who does it.

People who molest children fall into two basic types. There are pedophiles who are, strictly speaking, heterosexual (although they might not be exclusively so). These would be men who molest girls, or women who molest boys. Then there is the pederast, who is homosexual.

The standard diagnostic reference for psychiatrists and psychologists, profiles the pedophile as someone who has various fantasies, that occur continuously over several months, and that encourage them to act sexually toward young children.

Perhaps the best data on the matter, outlined in the National Opinion Research Center's 1994 digest, shows that the most common form of pedophilia involves men molesting girls. The second most common form involves an older girl or a woman molesting a boy. Then you have the third form, which is what we are seeing in the press lately: the pederasts; the adult male molesting the younger male. (This could be either a pre-pubescent male or an early adolescent male.)

Of those three types, the one that has been most difficult to treat is the last: the pederast, the man who is homosexual by orientation, who molests boys. The treatment for them has not been very successful.

You mention that the third type of disorder — the most intractable type — is associated with homosexuality. Is it more likely to arise, then, in a culture that accepts homosexuality?

Cross: There are some interesting statistics on that question. The most recent data that I have seen suggests that there is more abuse of men against girls than men against boys, as I've mentioned. That is, abuse by homosexuals is more common than abuse by homosexuals, or pederasty. However, there is a much smaller percentage of heterosexuals who are molesters than homosexuals who molest. up to one-third of all homosexuals have pederastic tendencies.

So if (and I emphasize the word "if") there are relatively large numbers of active homosexuals in the priesthood, then one would expect abnormally high levels of pederastic behavior from priests as a group.

What do you make of the fact that we have not heard many reports about priests abusing young girls?

Cross: This is consistent with the surmise that there is a disproportionately large numbers of homosexuals currently in the priesthood.

There is an old distinction about immoral behavior that Aristotle made in his Ethics, and it is one that we should study in psychology. The intemperate man is one who derives pleasure from a bad habit without guilt. The incontinent man may be impulsive, or even have explosive outbursts of bad behavior, but he recognizes the immorality of the deeds and takes steps — albeit often ineptly — to remedy things. The intemperate man may not be so impulsive, and even carefully devises schemes to ensure that he can continue to exploit others for his own pleasures. But there is no interior recognition of the sinfulness of the act, and therefore there is no guilt, nor does he try to make amends without the urging of others. The intemperate man may show guilt, when he is caught, but it is in virtue of being caught that he feels it. He may show confusion after being caught, but it is partly due to his being deprived of this pleasures

The data suggests that pederasty is a kind of intemperance. Intemperance, as the Church fathers taught us, is much more difficult to deal with, and is at the heart of some character disorders as well the addictions.

Given the successes and failures that you have seen, what would you say is a prudent approach to a priest who has this problem?

Cross: That's a hard question, because there are two different things going on here. There is the one basic problem, which is to address a disorder that may be subject to psychological manipulation. But there's also the larger issue, which is the spiritual dimension. No amount of psychological or physiological intervention will address that spiritual issue. Psychological treatment is fundamentally different from penitence: working hard for the remission of one's own sins.

Let me contrast pederasty with a more typical psychological problem. Let's say a person has suffers from bipolar disorder, major depression, or an anxiety disorder. There are reasonably well established treatment regimens for these sorts of problems. Although there have been different schools of thought on exactly how to go about treating them, professionals now more or less agree that certain approaches are more effective than other approaches. One of the benefits of modern psychology has been the recognition that these problems are can be distinctively psychological, and that there are available psychological or psychiatric interventions that are reasonably successful. Perhaps some common disturbances have a moral component in some people, but they respond well to psychological intervention.

However, there's another whole branch of problems in psychology, which are referred to as character disorders. These are people who have very bad habits.

Behavioral problems that revolve around disordered appetites — that is, disordered desires — are not readily treated with psychological intervention. These are habits which concern not so much a disorder in their thinking, or a disorder in their emotions (inordinate fear, panic, or such) as the fundamental issue, but rather inordinate desires. The problem with these people is that their appetites are fundamentally distorted. They find pleasure in the wrong kinds of things, to the point that their character is distorted.

Successful treatment of these problems, such as it is, directly reduces the desire itself through drug therapy. For example, in the last 15 years or so, there has been the development of a treatment routine that has been colloquially called "chemical castration," in which sex offenders are given the drug. Depo-Provera. It has been found that this dramatically reduces the sexual urges that these men feel, and so it makes them more compliant with other types of treatment.

Before this approach was developed, psychologists tended to do one of two things with the pederast. One was to use what is known as insight therapy, which judged that sexual problems are due to an arrested sexual development — that they involve a man who is acting more like an adolescent or a child than an adult. This approach, which was widely touted in the 1960s and 1970s, was not therapeutically effective. Some of these priests who have been in the headlines recently no doubt were treated by clinicians who used this kind of approach.

There was another treatment approach, the behavioral intervention approach, which looked at this type of problem more or less as an unacceptable habit — although not one with moral implications. They would engage in what is called counter-conditioning. This approach was somewhat more successful in dealing with pederastic behavior, but the recidivism rate was still unacceptably high. This encouraged the psychiatric community to look toward some form of chemical intervention, and Depo-Provera seems to be one that is moderately successful, at least in the short run.

Has there been a change, over the years, in the way that pedophilia and pederasty — or the more general questions of character disorder — are approached by psychologists in general, or Catholic psychologists in particular?

Cross: Catholic psychologists as such do not constitute an interest group, with positions staked out on various issues. There is no Catholic position, per se, on this problem of pederasty. There is no formal group of Catholic psychologists with any prominent standing in the United States today.

There was such a group, once. And it makes an interesting story. It was called the American Catholic Psychological Association (ACPA), which was under the American Psychological Association. The ACPA was founded in the 1940s, and saw a dramatic increase in membership in the 1950s, during the time that Father Thomas Verner Moore became widely known as a research psychologist. But in the 1960s the membership fell off dramatically, and by the 1970s the group formally disbanded.

The reason why the ACPA disbanded sheds some light on the problem that we're dealing with today. They disbanded because they didn't see that their Catholicism provided any unique contribution to professional or academic psychology. Indeed, if you look at some of the papers that came out in the late 1960s, in the wake of Humanae Vitae, you realize that the membership of the ACPA recognized and resented the fact that the formal teaching authority of the Church was now an impediment to their advance within professional psychology. The membership was openly embarrassed by the Church's teaching on human sexuality, as expressed in Humanae Vitae. Their impetus was to bring the wisdom of psychology to inform the Church, rather than the reverse.

Today there is only one distinctly Catholic institute for training psychologists in this country: the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, in Arlington, Virginia (and it's only a few years old). although there are a number of Catholic schools that have training programs in the field. The mainstream Catholic university programs look pretty much like their secular counterparts. This has happened because there are so few positions staked out by Catholic thinkers in psychology. There is no credential that says you're qualified to treat Catholics, or priests — such as there is for treating children or homosexuals.

Given that background, what should a bishop do when he realizes that a priest has this problem? Could he find a reliable psychologist to help him sort through the problem? And if so, what would that psychologist advise him to do?

Cross: Since there is not a "Catholic position" in the psychological community, he could only turn to people whom he happens to trust as wise counselors. But I wouldn't advise him to trust them simply because of the psychological or psychiatric expertise. It's not that they wouldn't have some practical recommendations to make, which might be very useful in the short term. But modern psychology in general has completely mis-defined the nature of the character disorder.

Modern psychology is not based on a valid anthropology, or philosophy of the person, which gives a proper account of man's rational, moral, and spiritual existence. Our training is dominantly materialistic or sensualistic. By "sensualistic" I don't necessarily mean it is erotic or sexual (although it is with Freud) I just mean that psychologist don't tend to look at that portion of human existence that transcends the sensory world.

Is it possible, then, that one reason we have this problem today is that Church leaders have looked to psychologists for help, when psychologists tend to look at the problem from a perspective that is in tension with the teaching and ministry of the Church?

Cross: The answer to that question is a qualified Yes, because the dominant models are inherently secular, and cannot account for a spiritual dimension.

Some of these problems have to be considered spiritual in the traditional meaning of the term, in addition to being psychological — in the contemporary use of that term.

I think that bishops were relying too much on psychologists. It's not that they shouldn't have relied on them at all. But they shouldn't have turned to psychologists as if they had some unique insight into the human soul on these types of problems.

Again, psychologists have a fair amount of understanding regarding what goes on in certain types of disturbances, and have been rather successful in treating some of them. But they have been very ineffective on the problem of character disorder. And it's on the question of character disorder that the Church has a better understanding, in her tradition. Character disorders are fundamentally moral disorders, with adjunct psychological problems.

From what I know of what has happened with these pederasty cases, some of the teams that were treating or diagnosing problem priests were thoroughly imbued with the sensualistic view of the human person. The advice that they would give to a bishop, I think, would have been singularly bad.

For example, some clinicians for the Paracletes, who have been treating priests with these problems for many years, had received training from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, in San Francisco. That is a place that in effect advocates pagan sexuality. If your clinicians are influenced by that kind of thinking, and they in turn are influencing men whose lives are supposed to be directed toward the spiritual order, I think there is bound to be a clash of cultures.

When a bishop is confronted with evidence that a priest is abusing children, should he be more worried about the psychological dimensions or the pastoral dimensions? Or is that a false distinction?

Cross: The distinction is a perhaps valid in general, but it isn't relevant.

If a priest embezzles money from the parish — or better yet, breaks into a parishioner's home and steals money — is insight therapy, or a sabbatical leave to a school of accounting, the way to address the problem? Of course not. You remove him from the situation, and have him repay the loss — and then some. And since this is also a betrayal of trust, I would have the priest put into an extended and rigorous retreat for several years. Further, if there were indications of sociopathy in this man — and that would be a call to be made by the psychologist — he'd have to be removed from ministry altogether.

What needs to be done now? Do the leaders of the Church need to concentrate on controlling the problem, or do they need to root it out?

Cross: We have to get rid of it; there's no question.

Look, if this were a case of ecclesiastical Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I'd say we could look at a containment policy. But it's not; it's a kind of cancer, because it has the capacity to destroy the institution — locally at least.

There are only a few good ways to deal with cancer. If it's a severe form, if it's aggressive — and this seems to be, if not actually in that stage, at least perilously close to becoming that — then you have to cut it out. You have to have surgery. And then you might have to have protracted chemotherapy. To take the analogy forward: We're talking about a long recovery process here. Just cutting it out isn't enough.

There has to be a heightened sense of vigilance on this issue, with the bishops and with the priests, particularly in their training.

Even more — and this is going to be a hard pill to swallow — I think that the Church now, given the extent of the problem in some dioceses, as it seems to be developing, has an obligation to follow up on these priest-perpetrators indefinitely. They must keep them under strict supervision indefinitely. It's a moral obligation! They were passive participants through negligence, I think: maybe not morally culpable negligence in all these cases, but negligence nonetheless. That contributed to letting this problem get to where it is. So they are now responsible for protecting the laity.

What about the process of formation?

Cross: As a married layman, I have no particular expertise on the spiritual formation in priestly celibacy..

However, my reading of the history and philosophy of psychology suggests that a major problem developed about a century ago in the education of the clergy. Philosophers — particularly students of natural philosophy, such as Desire Mecier and William Brennan — vigorously warned the Catholic academy for many years about the problems in the philosophy of psychology. Each of these men was well studied in the early versions of modern psychology, as well, but their unique positioning was their training in Thomistic philosophy — which has a well-developed tradition in moral philosophy — as well as their understanding of the interface between philosophy and the sciences — known variously as natural philosophy or the philosophy of science. Mercier (later Cardinal Mercier) led with a critique of the mechanistic or sensualists philosophers and psychologists who were spearheading the introduction of psychology out of moral philosophy and into social and clinical sciences. Later Father Robert E. Brennan, a Dominican, continued this critique, which was also joined for a time by Mortimer Adler and Rudolf Allers, a psychoanalyst. These warnings were largely ignored. More recently, Paul Vitz has taken up the critique, largely focusing on the humanist mistakes; his work has had a major impact within conservative Protestant circles, but has been largely ignored by the Catholic schools.

Catholics at large, and seminarians, have been educated in the new sensualistic psychologies, without a clear understanding of the philosophical substratum that runs against the grain of Church doctrine, and against the moral philosophy of the Church. If there were better training in college or in the seminary in natural philosophy and the sciences, Church leaders might have had better discernment on these matters.

Father Stephen J. Rossetti has been extremely influential in forming the opinion of Catholic leaders regarding the issue of priestly pedophile. His September 1995 article in America magazine, "The Mark of Cain," urged a compassionate approach to offenders. Is his work influenced by what you call the sensualististic approach?

Cross: His allusions to arrested development, subconscious forces, and the like, suggest that his philosophic orientation is influenced by Freud, who was a sensualist, and who saw sexuality as the principal motive of all behavior. The problem with this line of thinking is to discount the role of the will.

For example, in that 1995 piece in America, Rossetti makes a moral claim on the conscience of the Catholic laity, to allow priests who are former pedophiles to come back and serve in some kind of ministry in the Church. He makes a moral claim on the laity; he argues that the laity have a big problem in this area, and that they should suck it up and admit that they have an obligation to these men — that it's their Christian duty.

On the other hand, he doesn't mention the moral dimensions of the pedophile behavior on the part of the priests! He uses a classic disease model in explaining this behavior. My question is: Where is the moral and spiritual dimension?

If the lay people have some sort of moral obligation, doesn't this priest have a greater obligation, for atonement and restitution?

Cross: It's the duty of the sinner to atone for sins, and to make it clear to the community that this has been done, if the sin was against the community. Various communities have diverse obligations.

It is the duty of the community of professionals to live or at least work with the afflicted. However, it is the paramount duty of a parent to safeguard the morals of their kids. Naturally it is disquieting for parents to have their kids confront certain issues, because they know their kids are impressionable and often look beyond the family to evaluate the truth of what their parents tell them. The priest above all is supposed to reinforce the valid teachings of the parent, not subvert them, either by word, deed, or — and here's the rub — personal history

It will take an extraordinary act of priestly atonement to make the message credible after the fall of a priest. The public fall of a priest is a catastrophe, and it's not clear whether the repair and atonement can ever be complete in relation to the community. A priest fallen in this manner can never prudently be reintegrated into the community, and must always be closely supervised and never permitted to work with youth.

But the second problem with Rossetti's article — and I think that this is more serious — is that it completely ignores the spiritual dimension of this problem, and so it leaves aside the idea of repentance as a form of spiritual therapy. What about learning from the classics of the Church Fathers, and looking at their understanding of the spiritual life — how one gets into these bad habits, and how one gets out of them? It is disquieting that Rossetti's article is silent about the classical understanding of sexual immorality. It seems to me that it's a complete miss on a fundamental dimension of this problem.

Today we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly paganized in its sexuality. And the Church has tremendous experience in dealing with pagan sexuality! The Church was born in an era of pagan sexuality.

From the perspective of a layman there seems to be one other crucial ingredient missing from this scandal, and that's a sense of outrage — any normal, healthy, red-blooded reaction to behavior that is repugnant. Isn't it both normal and healthy to feel that repugnance, and abnormal and unhealthy to look upon this behavior as equivalent to someone's suffering from an disease?

Cross: I agree, and the challenge for us all is to feel the repugnance without losing either our charity, or our prudence, or both.

Father Rossetti uses the metaphor of leprosy in his article, and points to Father Damien's great charity. But as an analogy, that is more than a stretch. To say that these men are social lepers, in need of our spiritual help, would be fine. But these priest-perpetrators were not victims of blind circumstance, like the lepers of Molokai. They made some choices and acted on them. It is — maybe not exclusively, but principally — an act of their will that makes them repugnant, not simply their condition. Nor did Father Damien insist that the leper be reintegrated into society. Even if the priest was himself a victim — which is very common — this does not exonerate them from the consequences of their actions, which is some level of social ostracism. But there's another feature of this problem, where the lack of outrage is disconcerting. When was the last time you heard a high Churchman in this country — a bishop or a "major player," someone who is well known nationally — give a strong and vigorous sermon asking people to repent for their sins of sexual behavior. You don't hear it!

Now you hear sermons about helping the poor, and how we should repent for our sins of exploiting the poor and the weak. And this is good. We hear sermons against abortion — perhaps not as often as we should, but we do hear them. But we don't hear any sermons about what I think is the dominant media culture of today, and its principal good, which is pagan sexuality.

That sends a message — both to the laity, implying that matters of morality are not fundamental in sex; and to the priests, implying that a blind eye will be turned when they make mistakes. That has now been demonstrated, apparently.

There's a failure to preach along the right lines; there's a blindness or timidity there. That's really unfortunate, because I think, unless one's conscience is completely gone, we know from Scripture that even people who are terribly evil, like Herod, still found something attractive in the words of St. John the Baptist on matters of sexual morality.

You seem to be driving toward the same conclusion, from a couple of different directions. The conclusion, it seems, is that we're witnessing the results of a lack of confidence in the Church's teachings regarding sexuality. You point out that the Catholic Church is the world's great authority on conquering pagan sexuality.

Cross: Right; absolutely, I believe there is an historical record to that effect.

Yet here we are in the midst of pagan sexuality, acting as though we don't know what to do about it. Instead of preaching about it, Church leaders are talking to their lawyers and psychologists.

Cross: That's right. Now I want to emphasize this: There's nothing wrong with talking to lawyers and psychologists. They can give some very good advice. But they can't give you the ultimate advice.

It's the difference between the general who is the theater commander, and someone who is a lieutenant or a captain at a particular field of engagement. Clearly the perspectives have to be different. You can't be taking advice from the little guys down there in the same way that you would from the people who have the whole, broad view of things.

Now I'm deliberately moving away from medical metaphors, and using military metaphors. The Church in this country, has, I believe — with the exception of a few pockets here and there — completely lost any sense of that tradition in the Church that emphasizes how the spiritual life at a certain level is a battle. If you begin to see your priests as field commanders, who are going to be shot at right and left, you are going to deal with them very differently from the way you will deal with them if you think of them as men who are gathering the flock. On the issue of pagan sexuality, the battlefield metaphor is much more apt than the pastoral metaphor.

One of the long-term benefits of this scandal — if you can call it that — is that no doubt priests will become acutely aware of the wisdom behind the battlefield metaphor.

Cross: Yes. But let's hope, too, that the spiritual leaders of the Church in this country will insist that when we talk about the battlefield, we're not talking about courts of law. That's what the temptation is likely to be: to think that this is purely a matter pitting the state against the Church.

Also, it's clear that certain people in the press are piling on, and that they would love to see the Church bleed, particularly in this area. I don't want to give them any benefit of the doubt, because many want to harm the Church.

We all must understand that there is a much higher battle going on here. All our attention must be given to that battle.



Philip F. Lawler "A Question of Character." Catholic World Report (April, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly. Catholic World Report also publishes Catholic World News.


Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World Report.

Copyright © 2002 Catholic World Report

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