Monday 16 April 2012

Book Review: Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Catholicism: How Priests and Nuns Become Perpetrators

Author: Myra L. Hidalgo
Publication details: NY: The Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press: 2007

I'll begin by saying that the book is a good place to start for anyone  trying to come to grips with the issue of sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic church, with some caveats.

The Positive

Chapter 5: "Systemic Sexual Shame and Catholicism" This is probably the best reason to read this book. Years ago, I made an off the cuff statement that Roman Catholicism causes an obsession with sex right from a child's earliest awareness. When questioned [after all, it wasn't a popular statement to make :-)], my explanation was - all you have to do is look at the "Virgin" Mary.

The problem is of course that so much of the analysis is based on limited data. One can never make definitive statements based on such small populations. Since 2007, there have been more and more research done around priest offenders. I will discuss some of it in later blogs. However, the chapter is the first that I have read that actually looks at "passive sexual abuse trauma" in the context of the Roman Catholic church. Bravo for that!

The Caveats

One, one must be careful of her prevalence statistics. I'm not sure that they will be found to be all that wrong in the long run - but the information that she basis her prevalence stats on is limited - something that she does acknowledge. One of the things that this book adds to the discussion is the attempt to look at prevalence comparatively, using limited data. This is not easy since there are few surveys and studies out there that does this. She compares Roman Catholic clergy to Protestant clergy, educators (psychology professors), and therapists. As always, it should be noted that these numbers only reflect those who have been "caught". Her numbers are startling - for the population in general, RC clergy are almost 4 times more likely than the general population in the US to abuse children - there are no stats for RC sexual abuse of adults. However, the group that she doesn't include are elementary and high school statistics - they do exist and are relevant to the issue since the commonality - access to children - between the groups is clear. The comparison between Protestant clergy and Roman Catholic clergy is also interesting - in the statistics that she depends, there are no sexual of children by Protestant clergy, although there is plenty of inappropriate peer related sexual contact. But Protestant clergy do sexually abuse children and adolescents - but most of it is anecdotal , in the sense that little data collection has been done in this area to date. But there is some (see some early info in my dissertation).

Just to say, I actually think that her numbers are probably closer to the truth (and probably even low) than, say for example, the John Jay report - but we don't have the data to support it. Then again, they said I would find nothing when I began my dissertation; my 1993 article on Catholic institutional response made a number of predictions: today, I can only say I TOLD YOU SO!!!  A little schadenfreude is good for the soul at times.

Two, there are problems with her historical section. However, this is more because of the lack of depth and analyses in her sources that anything else. She is clearly not a historian and focuses on attitudes towards sexuality as the primary lever for the child sexual abuse scandal. It's that little things that bother me - for example, she thinks that Aristotle would have been a better basis on which to structure Roman Catholic theology - however, it was Aquinas who brought Aristotle and his methods into his scholastic structures around sexuality - viz. women are deformed males, get their souls later than male fetuses, all basic tenets of Aristotle's basing "his explanations of natural phenomena on empirical investigations rather than abstract reasoning alone." (p. 74) etc..

FYI: see my dissertation for a short discussion of priest/father/incest secenario in the introduction - I do agree that it works in explaining the impact on victims - I just don't think that the rest of the analysis really works.

Three: Chapter 4, I don't like family systems theory - it tends to lend itself to an "everyone is the victim here" scenarios. I belong to the school that says adults are supposed to be adults and hence, bear greater responsibility for any abuse that occurs within the family structure.  It can work as an explanatory model, but offers little in the long run for societal change.  [Look for the next blog, which will be my take of FST] Her explanation of systems theory and its use in understanding family dynamics is readable. However, when she tries to apply it to the Roman Catholic church, it gets very confusing.

Some of the confusion:
a) Vatican II versus Pope Paul VI - compares this to marital discord & emotional estrangement between parents - so who is mother and who is father - if PP6 is father and V2 is mother, then is V2 removed from the family, distant, allowing PP6 to abuse the laity (the children)?

a2) Her theory depends on accepting that what happened in the 60s & 70s is a new phenomenon. Thus she is implicitly blaming V2 for the problem, even though she mentions that this has been an historical problem  What she is implying is that although there has been sexual abuse within the ranks of the Catholic church from early days, it is much worse now, and that is caused by the dissension in the ranks. But, if her argument is correct, wouldn't "sexual shaming" (& its impact) always have been the case, minimally since the time of Augustine and, then Aquinas? So it would seem to me that the only reason that this is now a major issue is that society is finally willing to take seriously the victims' stories, and thus, we have people willing to come forward. As I and many others can attest, this was a major problem long before V2 was a glint in JP23rd's eye.

b) She blames the general attitude towards women - their powerlessness, lack of integration into the spiritual structures of the church - as a reason why male Catholic child molesters prefer male targets. "It is no wonder that, even among male Catholic child molesters, male victims are the preferred targets for erotic expression." (p. 76) So female Catholic child molesters prefer male victims? How do the female victims of male priests fit into this? I would agree that misogyny is a hallmark of Roman Catholicism, however, as more and more data and information is becoming available about priest perpetrators attitudes towards women is hardly a major indicator of CSA - availability of/access to male children, past abuse, parental trust and adoration of the "father" priest are far greater indicators of victim choice than anything else. [She starts to discuss these in the next chapter - it is my contention that these are probably more important that the FST structure for understanding why priests and nuns offend.]

c) Then there is the case study of the Boston scandal. So the "father" is the institution and the "mother" is the priest? The priests are disillusioned with the Church hierarchy & therefore, just allow their fellow molesting priests to get away with it? What I can't figure out is who the "grandparents" are. She then suggest that the "abused children of the Church finally reached a critical point in their own psycho-spiritual development" (p. 77) and then disclosed. A cursory reading of David France's Our Fathers, for example, would suggest that this is not only simplistic but far from the truth.

Comments on the Final Chapter: There is some good points here, but all I can say is "Good luck with that!" Twice she has  mentioned returning the Church to the people - as the first Apostles (cap. in text). All I can say echoes Richard Sipe's comment: "Welcome to Wittenberg!" (see previous blog). And Wittenberg implies protestantism - & protestants have problems too - hence, my position that there is something fundamentally flawed at the core of Christianity - but that's a story for another day! or read my dissertation!

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