By Sheila Fabricant Linn, M.Div.
Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published in the April 30, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.
As the current crisis regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests unfolds, I have been reading articles by representatives of the [Roman] Catholic Church attempting to explain the causes of this behavior. I’ve read that it is because candidates were not screened carefully years ago, sexual abuse was not adequately understood, canon law made it difficult to remove priests from ministry, and so forth. To the authors’ credit, I have also read admissions that bishops have often been more concerned about protecting priests and the institution of the Church than about the victims.
I work as part of a ministry team with my husband, a former Jesuit, and my brother-in-law, a current Jesuit priest. We give retreats and conferences, largely in Catholic settings, and we write books on healing and spiritual growth. Many of our readers and retreatants have experienced sexual abuse. So, I am familiar with this issue and I am also familiar with clerical culture. The explanations by Catholic clergy of sexual abuse that I have seen overlook fundamental institutional weaknesses that have contributed to this tragic situation.
I want to begin with what is closest to my heart: I am the mother of a twelve-year-old boy. I would do anything to protect my son. (So would my husband.) Since I became a mother, I am far more attuned to the needs of all children and more likely to protest their mistreatment. I observe the same thing in the thousands of other parents who attend our programs. Their first and deepest concern is the welfare of their children and, by extension, the welfare of all children. Yet, the people responsible for the current sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church are men who (presumably) have no children.
It is certainly true that parents, usually fathers, sometimes sexually abuse their offspring, and that their spouses may be psychologically disordered and/or co-dependent enough to tolerate it. Significantly, step-fathers are more likely to sexually abuse children than are fathers. This may be in part because the experience of watching one’s child be born, of holding and caring for a baby and then a young child (experiences often missed by step-fathers), activate hormonal changes in men. For example, testosterone levels diminish when a man becomes a father, and his level of prolactin (the hormone associated with lactation) rises.* Such hormonal changes in a father are the biochemical basis of bonding and they translate into the psychological predisposition to nurture and care for his child. In other words, although some fathers do abuse their children, it appears that the closer one is to the actual experience of parenthood and the more involved in the day-to-day care of one’s child, the more likely that one’s first instinct will be to protect children.
People who are not parents themselves can and often do form strong bonds of devotion with children (nieces and nephews, god-children, students, etc.) and may become committed advocates for the welfare of children. However, for reasons ranging from the biochemistry of parenthood to all the everyday ways in which children evoke love and care, it seems that parents of healthy, functional families are more likely to develop an acute sensitivity to the needs of children – a sensitivity usually powerful enough to over-ride inappropriate sexual urges. In my opinion, the current crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy would never have reached such epic proportions nor gone on so long if mothers (and securely attached fathers) participated in all forms of ministry and shared equal decision-making power at the highest levels of the Church.
Related to this, perhaps the most telling word in the efforts of Catholic clergy to explain the current crisis is not in their explanations at all. Rather, it is in the way they introduce themselves: as “Father.”
Sexual abuse is a misuse of power and takes place in a context of unequal power relations. The title “Father” connotes power and authority and, especially in a religious context, it connotes spiritual power and authority. “Father” is a relational term, implying that others are in the role of children. Fathers are regarded as knowing more than the children, knowing what is best for the children, and (in a religious context) knowing what the mystery we call God wants from and for the children.
Incest in families happens in part because children instinctively trust their fathers (and by extension other father figures) and because they are in awe of or intimidated by the authority of the father. The priest who presents himself as “Father” evokes this same mixture of trust, awe and intimidation. He is asking for the deference accorded a father without paying the dues of getting up in the middle of the night with a crying baby and without the concomitant release of the hormones that might predispose him to restrain inappropriate impulses and instead care for and protect that baby at all costs. Moreover, this deference is amplified by the belief that this father is a stand-in for Jesus and/or God. I believe the title “Father” as used for priests replicates the dynamics of incest and is a set-up for sexual abuse.
When a priest presents himself as “Father.” he encourages everyone else to take the role of a child, including parents and other adults. If there is anything that will at least temporarily dull, diminish and even paralyze the protective instincts of parents for their children, it is blind faith in the authority of “Father,” who supposedly knows the will of God better than they do. It is difficult enough for parents to face the possibility that their child may have been sexually abused by a stranger and take action on the child’s behalf. How much more difficult and even unthinkable this is if the perpetrator claims to be a spiritual “Father.”
A priest is not my father, nor (I presume) anyone else’s. He is my brother. I want to suggest a simple step that priests might take in the direction of healing the root causes of sexual abuse by clergy. I suggest they stop claiming the spiritual authority of Father by dropping that title and instead introduce themselves simply by their first names . . . just like the rest of us. This would say to me that they are serious about doing their part to atone for the abuse of children by priests and to change the fundamental dynamics of clerical culture that have allowed it to happen.
But it’s not all up to them. In any adult relationship of unequal power that causes harm, both sides share the responsibility for change. If we who are not officially priests continue to relinquish our own power and authority by elevating those who claim that role, symbolized by using the title “Father,” we are complicit in perpetuating those aspects of clerical culture that can lead to the abuse of children. I suggest we all do our part by treating ourselves as equals, as brothers and sisters, and by addressing priests in terms that reflect that equality.
* See Jeremy Adam Smith, The Daddy Shift (Beacon Press, 2009), for research on the effects of fatherhood on men.
Sheila Fabricant Linn, M.Div. is the co-author (with Dennis Linn and Matt Linn, S.J.) of sixteen books on the integration of spirituality with psychology, medicine and science. These books have been translated into more than twenty foreign languages. She is an international speaker and retreat leader. Sheila can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.