Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Are Not My Father, You Are My Brother

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


  1. Fascinating and predictable. Feminists always reference "power" language. It's all about "power." They even desire ordination so that they can use "power" to get changes they want enacted. Most priests don't see the term "Father" in that way at all. They are Fathers in a real sense. They do nurture and protect. Some are bad Fathers, but that doesn't make the concept of Fatherhood bad. I have seen many absurd ideas about abuse, but blaming the calling of priests Father is a new one. In fact it is most often those with same sex attraction who commit these crimes and they have no desire to be Father at all. The pink elephant in the living room is that homosexuality is the predominate cause. But I guess that ideological agenda's trump common sense when one is seeking "power."

  2. Hi, Cestusdei. It seems to many Catholics that it's the "ideological agenda" of the church's clerical caste that is attempting to trump common sense in this matter.

    Also, I'm not sure how you can make the case for homosexuality being the "predominate cause" of the clergy sex abuse crisis when the study commissioned by the U.S. bishops refutes that rather tired old argument. (See here and here.)

  3. Actually the study bolsters the truth of the argument. The "tired old argument" is the one that uses the scandals as a way to push for the kind of change that made the scandals possible in the first place. It is time for Trent II. If you don't like the Catholic faith then the Episcopal church is desperate for new members. They do everything Sheila asks for, but people are leaving in droves. They have their own scandals to boot.

  4. How exactly does the John Jay Study "bolster" the supposed "truth" of your argument. It's simply not good enough to make such a statement (totally false, in my view) and not back it up with facts.

  5. Sorry, Cestusdei, but the "facts" you're imploring folks to face do not support your claim that homosexuality is the cause of the Roman Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse crisis. Also, you're yet to show how the John Jay Study supports this particular claim.

    Also, I think it needs to be noted that if the John Jay Study had not limited itself to studying abuse cases under (I believe) the age of 18, then we'd be seeing a lot more evidence of abuse by straight male clergy of women. Indeed, I've heard some say that if these cases were included then the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis would be understood as a "heterosexual" problem.

    The bottom line for me, however, is that it's a sex abuse crisis, and both gay and straight people are equally capable of choosing to abuse sexually. Being gay doesn't make one more prone to being an abuser. That's an erroneous assumption and has no place in any credible discussion on this particular crisis in the church.

    To be honest, Cestusdei, you come across as a cheerleader for Bill Donahue and his discredited "blame the gays" tactic. No one's buying it, my friend. It's a simplistic, erroneous, and ideologically-driven argument.

    For those interested in a more honest and balanced treatment of the issue, I offer the various posts that can be found here.



  6. Following is an insightful quote from Richard Sipe, a leading expert in the study of the Roman Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse crisis. Note that while Sipe acknowledges the large percentage of gay men in the clerical structure of the church, he does not place blame on homosexuality for the clergy sex abuse crisis. Instead, he identifies the psychosexual immaturity of many within the priesthood, regardless of sexual orientation, as the root of the crisis as it relates to children and minors.

    "The [Roman Catholic] clerical system is significantly homosexual in orientation. This fact should neither be surprising nor derogatory. The structure and culture of the Roman Catholic Church makes room and positive use of the great reservoir of talent represented in the gay community. But just as gay priests can be exemplary pastors some, too, can remain underdeveloped. Because such a large proportion of the clerical community – bishops and priests – is homosexual a greater proportion of the sexual abusers of minors are gay and their victims, male. . .

    "Psychosexually immature men are prone to select sexually immature partners. A substantial proportion of priests (fall in love) or become sexually involved with children or minors under the guise and self-delusion that they are being kind. . . . A significant number of Roman Catholic clergy are psychosexually immature. This has been studied and well documented. The church prefers men and women on this level of development for church service because they are easier to control – they tend to be idealistic, dependent, obedient to authority, in need of causes and devoted to people they feel are strong; underdeveloped people are responsive to well defined boundaries that make them feel special (superior) and secure."

  7. Methinks you doth protest too much. Not fun being on the receiving end is it? Yet you post articles that blame everything except the most obvious cause. If you read the article I referred you too you would be challenged to say the least. Sipe is an ex-priest with an agenda. He is also a psychologist. I wonder when psychologists will come clean on their releasing abusers back to work and telling bishops they were "cured." They are very very quiet about that I notice. Actually most homosexuals are by definition psychosexually immature. Same sex attraction is a disorder. It should be returned to the DSM and research on treatment should resume.

  8. Oh, boy! You're really showing your true colors now! And what ghastly colors they are. I thank God that your way of viewing homosexuality is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and that humanity and, yes, that includes the Christian church, is moving way beyond where you're at.

    I "protest too much" you say? Friend, I'll never stop speaking out to counter and refute the kind of ignorant anti-gay rhetoric that your spouting here. For even though what you're saying is, to many people, utterly lacking in reason and compassion, it nevertheless appeals to a certain fanatical, intolerant, and fundamentalist mindset that, sadly, remains capable of causing great harm to people, families, and communities. This mindset, and the attitudes, words, and actions that both express and further fuel it, must always be challenged.



  9. Ah Michael, truth hurts doesn't it? Why did major homosexual groups in Holland lobby to decrease the age of consent to 12? And you have read "gay" literature that abounds in stories of adult men and teens. The original Queer as Folk had a 15 year old in a relationship with an adult and there was not a peep of protest from homosexuals. In California after prop 8 we saw how homosexuals assaulted people in the streets and tried to burn down churches. Every state where it has come on the ballot has voted against gay "marriage." Once people realize the full agenda you lose.

    Your hatred for the Church must be challenged. Your use of the abuse cases to bash the Church and lobby for your agenda is despicable. You could care less about the children. In groups like Courage the Church offers you hope and you spurn it. If you don't like what the Church teaches then join one that you agree with or start your own. Catholicism will NEVER accept your heretical views. There is no room in the Church for such things. As a repentant sinner you are welcome, but not to undermine the faith. You are intolerant, fanatical, and fundamentalist. It is wrong to attempt to foist your view on the rest of the Church. Slowly but surely the tide has turned against your agenda. Real reform is happening. Time for you to either join in or follow your conscience out the door. Choose now whom you will serve, but me and my house will serve the Lord.


  10. Just today. You will enjoy this since morose delectation seems to appeal to you. Please apply the same logic to this that you do elsewhere.

    One of Italy’s most outspokenly dissenting Catholic priests, Domenico Pezzini, has been arrested for abuse of a male teenaged victim. Pezzini, a 73 year-old priest of the diocese of Lodi, was arrested Monday in Milan. Police also revealed that a large quantity of child pornography had been found after a search of Pezzini’s residence.

    In keeping with mainstream media coverage of clerical sex abuse, the Italian media is presenting the abuse as a case of “pedophilia,” or the abuse of a child. Nevertheless, police have made it public that the victim was not a child, but a minor adolescent, between 13 and 16, at the time of the alleged abuse, over three years ago.

    Pezzini, a professor of English linguistics at the University of Verona, is a celebrity for homosexualist activists in the Catholic Church in Italy. In the 1980s, he helped to found a group, called The Source, similar to that of New Ways Ministry in the U.S., that attempted to pressure the Catholic Church to accept homosexual activity. He has authored several books defending homosexual behavior.

    In 1999, Pezzini wrote an article attacking then-Cardinal Ratzinger after the latter had disciplined Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, the founders of New Ways Ministry, who had refused to assent to Catholic teaching on sexuality.