Question: How may we explain the current rash of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and religious?
Most entered the seminary or convent as adolescents and remained so. As I recall my own experience in the Society of Jesus, I accept with gratitude that we had the finest intellectual training available. We also learned well the discipline required for a productive and moral life: the will, and will power, figured uppermost. We paid passing attention to the body through sports and physical labor, but these were primarily to keep unruly urges in check. Add to that poor food, not enough sleep, and ascetical practices bent on shaping the body into the will’s compliant instrument: it shall obey, like a faithful slave. As part of that regime, the imagination–that non-intellectual gateway to mysticism–received short shrift because it could lead one to idle thoughts, even dirty ones; that is, images of sensual and sexual life. The repression of emotion, indeed, became the ultimate key to obedience. We were taught not to live with our emotions as essential aspects of human life; we were enculturated into their suppression. Do not express them. Sublimate them through physical workouts and through the spiritual love of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Keep this mantra: love Jesus, not humans. As a result we remained sexual adolecents wanting sex but afraid of it, wanting love but fearing rejection, wanting certitude but holding back on commitment, yearning for relationships but shunning anything that smacked of dependency.
A sick joke in our Province concerned a fellow Jesuit known as a perpetual worry-wart. We had a common refrain, “Poor Harry, he spends his whole life making every muscle tense so that one won’t be!” Honesty would have expanded that into feeling sorry for every Tom, Dick, and Harry whom superiors sacrificed on the altar of obedience by keeping them emotionally dependent adolescents.
The problem lies in this undoubted truth: emotions repressed will have their say some day. They will either be expressed normally in nurturing and loving relationships, or they will be expressed abnormally through mental illness or abusive exercises of power in distorted human relationships.
The official line proclaims that celibacy frees priests and religious to love others as Jesus loved them. What would that mean? It means helping others to be as we desire them to be, and to do that objectively, dispassionately, and without attachment. We were exhorted to “Be in the world but not of the world.”
A personal example may illustrate.
A nun, the sister of a brother Jesuit leaving the Order, turned to me for understanding and support. Whenever I had the opportunity, I visited her at her convent. We both were teaching in the Portland, Oregon, area. I was 28, she ten years older.
When I began my theological studies in California, she occasionally wrote, keeping me informed how she was fairing. In one such letter she emotionally shared that she had breast cancer, severe enough to require a mastectomy. Scared and upset, she begged my prayers and support. In reply, I did what I could by letter. I included my appreciation for the relationship we had developed over the past three years.
Two months later I was summoned to the Rector’s office. He had my letter in his hands. After reading it–a common act of in-house censorship–he had made copies, sent them to my provincial as well as the one in California. He had not told me, nor had he sent the letter along to sister. Since I was in the ordinandi class–those next to be ordined to the priesthood–he conceded that I would be ordained but only under protest. His judgment, seconded by the provincials, warned that I obviously did not know how to relate to women as a celibate religious.
I was stunned. I also had a tough time understanding just what the problem was. I finally asked him the following: “If you, Father, were the Good Samaritan, and you came upon a man lying injured in a ditch, what would you do?” “I would stop, help him up, dust him off, and bind up his wounds. If he needed money, I would give him some.” “Then what?” I inquired. He replied, “I would continue on my way.” “Now I understand,” I said to him. “I get the difference between us. You think that it is a big deal to pick him up and get him back to where he was before. I would consider that as being just the necessary preliminary for me to take him to a bar where we could have a drink and enjoy life together as it may be.” He gazed at me as if I were a creature from some outlandish other world. I guess I was, at least from his.
I know some few men who stayed in our Order and grew into emotionally mature and stable men. Many of them developed wholesome relationships with women, usually religious sisters or married. I know others who also stayed; they, however, entered cyclically into relationships of power, ruining lives and marriages. What they did had the exterior trappings of love, but this was love without equality, without commitment, and without mutual growth. The former–the healthy men–somehow overcame the distorted religious system; the latter–the unhealthy and destructive ones–lived out the sad but expectable fruits of systemic sickness.