Priests, Sexual Abuse and Illusions of Innocence

This past week, defrocked priest John Geoghan of Boston was sentenced to ten years hard labor for fondling a 10-year-old boy. Though the verdict ended this chapter, the unraveling mystery of sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church promises to yield more headlines in the months and years to come.

Media coverage of cases like Geoghan's has made Americans increasingly aware of the frequency of sexual abuse, both in church and in society, and the terrible emotional trauma that such abuse -- and its denial -- inflicts on innocent children. Reports of pedophilic priests like Geoghan have become common precisely because their victims have grown up, broken through their denial and fear, and acquired the courage to report their abuse. As a psychotherapist, I frequently bear witness to this process in my clinical practice, a process in which a patient will reconstruct shameful sexual experiences from childhood and struggle to realize that he or she was innocent and unfairly victimized.

As a culture, we have become increasingly preoccupied with the innocence of childhood and, in particular, its sexual innocence. And so we are often more outraged when children suffer sexual abuse than any other type of pain, neglect, or hardships, despite the fact that, in my clinical practice, I have often seen parental absence, addiction, depression, or illness damage children more than some forms of inappropriate sexual contact. Moreover, frightening stories of abductions by a sex-crazed stranger, although statistically rare, inflame us from the side of a milk carton, while stories about millions of children without health care or housing elicit mild concern.

We shouldn't have to choose between or rank evils. Sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and social hardship are all potentially deadly threats to the psyches of children. Why is it, then, that sexual threats to childhood innocence are more intolerable to us than others?

For example, the judge who heard the case of accused child molester Jerome Wilhoit told his courtroom during Mr. Wilhoit's arraignment that if someone had molested his own daughter, his attitude would be, "you touch her, you die." The fact that Mr. Wilhoit was found both not guilty of all charges and later deemed "factually innocent" doesn't mean that the judge's reaction isn't understandable. Most parents probably feel the same way. It does suggest, however, that when it comes to sex and children we have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. The question, again, is: why?  

Historians would certainly note that the image of children as innocent is only a recent phenomenon. In the past, children were routinely used, abused, and seen as containers for anti-social impulses that had to be curbed or even stamped out. My experience as a therapist, however, leads me to believe that our passionate defense of childhood innocence expresses not only our altruism but our vicarious wish to feel innocent and protected ourselves -- a wish that our psyches and our culture make difficult.  

My clinical work shows me every day that most of us have a difficult time feeling innocent. We grow up secretly feeling responsible and guilty for the emotional ills that befall us. We unconsciously take the blame for our parents' unhappiness, their narcissistic self-preoccupation, their temper tantrums, or even their direct abuse. It's said that we'd all rather be "sinners in heaven than saints in hell," underlining the fact that human beings have a hard time accepting the psychic reality of their own victimization.  

On a broader level, most people in our society buy into its basic meritocratic illusion, namely, that our social lot reflects our intrinsic worth as human beings. We privately feel like social failures if we can't achieve the "good life" of material wealth that our culture holds out as an ideal.

One of the reasons why there is little public outcry about the crass way that the Bush administration panders to the wealthy is that people feel powerless to affect the system and resigned to the cynicism and greed of their political leaders. But while we may consciously blame "the system," knowing that the game is rigged, we unconsciously internalize the problem and numb ourselves against feelings of injury or outrage. We're actually victims but we don't believe it enough to blame our victimizers. Instead, we feel that we shouldn't feel like innocent victims, that such feelings are weak, and that we're secretly responsible for what ails us. But this kind of responsibility is terribly misplaced, because it denies the very real ways that our political and economic systems are run to serve the interests of elites.  We may avert our gaze from the suffering -- our own and that of others -- that these systems generate, but most of aren't the ones calling the shots.

Unable to feel much compassion for ourselves, we experience an intense identification with the innocence and victimization of children. We take up arms in defense of a vision of childhood that contains all of the feelings of innocence, vulnerability, and entitlement that we can't directly claim for ourselves. It's the children being molested by predators, kidnapped by pedophiles, or stalked by unregistered sex offenders that are entitled to our protection -- not our own injured and vulnerable selves. We're outraged at the priest or teacher for harming children, but not the authorities in our own childhoods who hurt us or those in our current social lives who continue to do so.  

And perhaps the reason that sexual abuse is the form of damage that we deem most heinous -- despite other childhood experiences that might contend for this distinction -- is that such abuse is easiest to identify and involves impulses that are the most forbidden. No rational person doubts the validity of incest taboos, which all forms of pedophilia break. Pedophilia represents a violation that even the harshest advocates of an ethic of personal responsibility cannot blame on the victim. There is no such taboo on parents being emotionally absent, neglectful, or narcissistic, even though such traits can damage children as much as inappropriate sexual contact. Furthermore, sexual abuse is a highly personal and direct form of trauma -- the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold called it "soul murder" -- while the corrosive effects of rejection, neglect, or guilt, as well as such traumas as malnutrition and homelessness, seem to be more general and abstract.  

The damage wreaked by both sexual abuse and emotional neglect and exploitation is incalculable. So is the damage done by growing up in conditions of physical and social hardship. Children deserve to be protected from all of these threats. So did we when we were children. And so do we now. We shouldn't mute our outrage over the innocence lost to sexual abuse one bit, but we should also broaden its scope to include the loss of innocence in all of us.

Dr. Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice and author of the new book, "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies."


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