Archive for November 12th, 2013



The rolling wave of outrage has recently been hitting the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, my home of 30 years, over charges that pedophile priests were for decades constantly moved (and not taken out of circulation) by their higher-ups in the Catholic Church.

nienstedt blessing a crowd in september 2013Calls are being made for the resignation of archbishop John Nienstedt, as a sacrificial lamb for the archdiocese’s history of obfuscation and evasion. But he has just announced that he will release instead a list of some living priests who still reside in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and who have been determined by the archdiocese to be guilty of abuse.

Nienstedt did not say how many names would be released, and it’s unclear if the list would include any priests not already known to the public through lawsuits and media reports. It has been reported that all priests on the list have been relieved of their priestly duties. Less than a day after he made this commitment, Neinstedt has begun backing off from this promise… so the list may not be released at all.

jeff andersonChances are, the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will remain embroiled in this issue, not because this particular archdiocese is any worse than any other with respect to clergy abuse, but because the Twin Cities is the home of attorney Jeff Anderson, who has built his national practice around clergy abuse. Jeff Anderson & Associates pioneered the use of civil litigation to seek justice for survivors of child sexual abuse and is recognized as the nation’s premier law firm in that specialty.

Anderson is widely recognized as the most prolific and successful litigator in the country of clergy sexual abuse cases against churches and other institutions. You can bet that Anderson will make sure that the waters are still churning despite anything that Nienstedt does to still them.

I think it is unfortunate that the public sees this as a church issue, and not in its wider context. Pedophilia is so widespread in our society, it seems to me that we should be looking to the experience of the church to learn in a systematic way just what damage child sexual abuse, in any setting, inflicts on its victims.

Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, Ph.D.I found a speech given by psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, Ph.D.  to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in June of 2002. It is an old speech, but it still reflects our current state of knowledge regarding the effects of abuse. The Catholic bishops cannot claim they are unaware of the lifelong damage sexual abuse inflicts, and the age of the speech is an indictment of their shameful inaction and self-protection.

But more to the point, the speech does an excellent job of presenting an overview of the subject of child sexual abuse, and I invite all readers to read it in its entirety. Yet for those of you who do not have the time to read the entire speech (and my apologies to Ms. Frawley-O’Dea), I will summarize here what I believe to be its most salient points.

Contextualize the characteristics of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse

• Claude Levi-Strauss declared that, “the prohibition of Incest stands at the dawn of culture.” Priest abuse is incest.

• Violation of sexual boundaries between adults and children is universal. Data collected over the past two decades says about one third of all females and one fourth of all males are sexually abused in some way prior to the age of 18.

• “Sexual abuse,” is the relational betrayal of a minor by an adult who is in a position of authority with the child and who exploits his own and victim’s sexuality to subjective empower himself by utterly dominating the physical, psychological, and spiritual experiences of the victim.

• Sexual abuse victims often are young people for whom something or someone is missing. They yearn for an adult who sees them, hears them, understands them, makes time for them, and enjoys their company.

• Sexual predators are exquisitely attuned to the emotional and relational needs of the potential victims. They ingratiate themselves into the lives of their victims, evoking respect trust and dependency long before the first touch takes place.

• Secrecy is the acknowledged cornerstone of sexual abuse. Children and teenagers do not disclose the sexual abuse secret because they care for the perpetrator. A central cruelty of sexual abuse, in fact, is the perpetrator’s trampling of the young person’s generously and freely bestowed affection or respect.

Present the experience of early sexual trauma through the lens of the victim

• When a young person is being abused, the psychological shock is so great that the normal self cannot absorb or make sense of what is happening to it. In an attempt to cope with the overwhelming overstimulation and sense of betrayal embodied in sexual trauma, the self splits using the psychic mechanism of dissociation.

• By entering into an entirely different state of consciousness while being abused, the victim preserves a functional and safe self who is removed from the trauma and is therefore able learn, grow, play, and work. Many a patient has reported for instance, that she—the self recognized as “I”—floated above the bed on which that “other kid”—the alienated victim self—was being abused.

• But the curse of dissociation condemns the state of self who experienced the abuse to a trapped existence in the inner world of the survivor, a place dominated by terror, impotent but seething rage, and grief for which there are no words.

• Often the adult survivor’s life is wracked by unexpected regressions to his victimized self that are triggered by seemingly neutral stimuli.

• Coexisting with the violated, terrorized, grief stricken victim self, the adult survivor preserves an attachment to the abuser by becoming like him in some ways. Not surprisingly, survivors are sickened by the thought that they resemble their perpetrators in any way. Victims of sexual abuse do not necessarily become abusers themselves.

Highlight the most common after-effects of childhood sexual abuse

• The sexual abuse survivor sometimes may enact an aspect of self that is greedy, grandiose, and insatiably entitled, an element of self that remains out of awareness for a long time.

• There comes a day in every survivor’s recovery upon which he fully comprehends what was so cruelly taken from him. Further personal growth and healing requires that the survivor then mourn the childhood or adolescence that never was, the defensively idealized caretakers who never existed, and perhaps most poignantly, the self that could have been had trust, hope, and possibility not been so brutally shattered.

• A survivor’s relationships with other people are hued and shaded by expectations and anxieties forged during their traumatic experiences. Approaching others from within the psychological confines of post-traumatic stress disorder, the trauma survivor exhibits rapidly shifting relational stances, painfully lurching from periods of extremely dependent clinging, to those marked by vicious rage aimed at the same person. Stark terror and tears can switch in an instant to cold aloofness, while warmth and vivacity may turn kaleidoscopically to paranoid suspicion. All this, of course, leads to many chaotically unstable relationships, often alternating with stretches of the loneliest isolation.

• Normal sexual functioning is almost impossible for most survivors until well into their recovery. Too often, sex, even with a trusted other, triggers terrifyingly disorganizing flashbacks during which survivors experience dreadful relivings of their sexual traumas. In addition, survivors frequently are disgusted by and ashamed of their own bodies and sexual strivings. Heterosexual boys abused by men additionally are tormented, wondering what it was about them that attracted the perpetrator. Sexual abuse survivors of all genders and sexual orientations are deprived of the right to grow gradually into a mature sexuality. As adults, these men and women often spin between periods of promiscuous and self-destructive sexual acting out and times of complete sexual shutdown.

• If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one so that whenever a minor is sexually violated, someone’s eyes are closed. Adult survivors of sexual abuse frequently are even angrier with adults who failed to protect them than they are with the perpetrator himself. Because the survivor’s internal relationship with his abuser often is organized around competing feelings of attachment and hate, he often feels freer to turn the full blast of his long pent-up rage and bitterness on those who did not protect him.

• Because of the damage done by sexual abuse to affective brain functioning, adult survivors often need psychotropic medications for periods of time during recovery. For some, their impairments are sufficiently intractable to require lifelong medication.

• Sexual abuse survivors often display a truly spectacular array of self-destructive behaviors. They slice their arms, thighs, and genitalia with knives, razors, or shards of broken glass. They burn themselves with cigarettes, pull hair from their heads and pubic areas, walk through dark parks alone at night, play chicken with trains at railroad crossings, pick up strangers in bars to have unprotected and anonymous sex, drive recklessly at high speeds, gamble compulsively, and/or further destroy their minds and bodies with alcohol and the whole range of street drugs. Both male and female prostitutes tend to have backgrounds of early sexual abuse. Survivors also are two to three times more likely than adults without abuse histories to make at least one suicide attempt in their lives.

Suggest a few vital components of the healing process

• A survivor’s recovery is a long, complicated, sometimes treacherous process.

• Psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold entitled his book on the effects of childhood sexual abuse Soul Murder.  That this ravaging of souls has been administered by priests entrusted with a sacred covenant to protect and enliven souls is despicable; it is evil itself.

• Like the recovering victim of sexual abuse, you can choose to defend, deny, retrench, and rigidify. When a survivor takes that familiar and well-worn road, further fragmentation and diminished integrity of mind and soul ensues. But, as is the case for so many sexual abuse survivors, another road can be chosen. You can decide to lead the American Church on a path of recovery, growth, and restored faith. This conference could become a new epicenter from which ripples the revitalization and restoration of souls.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Patty Loveless performing “Soul of Constant Sorrow”