Part 1: The Real Issue Behind the Scandals in U.S.

According to Gladys Sweeney of Institute for the Psychological Sciences

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ARLINGTON, Virginia, JUNE 6, 2002 ( The key problem involving scandals with priests in the United States isn´t what the media generally lead us to believe, says a Catholic psychologist.

Dr. Gladys Sweeney, president and dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, gave her insights into what lies behind the scandals that have rocked the Church in America.

Sweeney formerly held a faculty appointment at the Division of Child Psychiatry and Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical School. The second part of this interview will be published next Thursday, June 13.

ZENIT: From a psychological standpoint, what is the nature of most of the sex abuse scandals involving priests in the United States? Is it pedophilia? or something else?

Sweeney: The major thrust in the reporting of the scandal has focused on cases of pedophilia, that is, attraction of adults to pre-pubescent children. However, upon careful study of the reports, it is clear that the major problem of the current scandal is homosexual ephebophilia — the attraction of adults to same-sex adolescents.

We are talking in this case about a great problem with homosexual behavior. There is some reluctance on the part of the media to emphasize this fact.

Tolerance for homosexual behavior across all levels of society is highly encouraged as a principle to be promoted and valued. It is easier to focus on the cases of pedophilia, which elicit strong emotional reaction, rather than on the problem of homosexual behavior. Homosexuality, however, is at the root of this problem.

Professor John Haldane, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Andrews who is holding the Royden Davis Chair for Humanities at Georgetown University, distinguishes between homosexual orientation, disposition, and habitual action. Haldane states: “If one has a certain orientation this need not lead to active sexual practice, and whether it does or not depends on the development of inhibition of dispositions.”

According to Father Richard John Neuhaus, there have been priests, later canonized as saints, who would meet today´s criteria as having a homosexual orientation. According to Neuhaus, the issue then is not the “nature of the temptations resisted, but the fidelity of the resistance.”

Psychologically speaking then, the issue is to help establish a barrier so as to inhibit the occurrence of the activity, a barrier that follows the orientation, because by the time the dispositions are developed, there is a high likelihood that the activity will be expressed.

An 18-year-old candidate for the seminary experiencing homosexual temptations and who is not sure how to handle them is quite different from a 25-year-old that has had homosexual experiences.

Even in the case of homosexual orientation in the absence of past experiences, it is important for a formation director to discern whether the individual in question can handle the environment. Prudence is of utmost importance. Let me explain.

If someone were struggling with heterosexual temptation, it would not be wise to place him in a situation where he would be in daily close contact with women, eating together, praying together, having recreation together, doing apostolate together, without carefully following the stress engendered by that situation. The same is true for someone with a homosexual orientation.

The implications are profound. They include seminaries dedicating great effort to cultivate sexual asceticism; taking an active role in guiding seminarians to discipline their dispositions, whether homosexual or heterosexual; and paying particular attention to the spiritual formation of the candidates with an emphasis on fidelity and on the sacramental life.

Q: What are the psychological factors at work behind the scandals? What would prompt a man to commit such acts?

Sweeney: In the cases of pedophilia, it is a sexual addiction problem — a disordered inclination and aberrant behavior that carries with it an addictive and obsessional quality.

The causes of pedophilia are not completely understood; however, early sexual trauma, aggravated by compulsive masturbatory behavior accompanied by fantasy later in life, have been associated with the disorder.

H.S. Kaplan noted in a 1996 work that early sexually arousing experiences have a tremendous influence in shaping subsequent sexual desires and fantasies. D.R. Laws and W.L. Marshall believe that the effect of early imprinting are then maintained and reinforced by fantasy arousal during masturbation.

Pedophilia has been associated with high rates of concomitant psychopathology, particularly mood, anxiety and substance-abuse disorders. M.P. Kafka and R.A. Prentky found that approximately two-thirds of pedophilic patients were diagnosed with mood disorders, about 50% with anxiety disorders, and about 50% with alcohol or substance-abuse problems.

The recidivism for this disorder is high. Father Thomas Nelson, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life and professor of philosophy at the Norbertine seminary in Orange, California, states that fewer than 2% of priests have been involved in pedophilia, as compared to 4% of married people and 7% of the general lay population. The statistics show that the problem of pedophilia is no greater among priests than among the general population.

At the root of the present scandal is not pedophilia, but homosexuality.

Homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis has been removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and is now considered as an alternative lifestyle.

The genetic nature of homosexuality has been emphasized by the media as an immutable and deterministic fact of nature, which people have no control over. However, a review of the research literature on homosexuality indicates that the genetic etiology of homosexuality has not been confirmed.

Many of the earlier studies — Billings and Beckwith, 1993; Bailey and Pillard, 1995; LeVay, 1991 — after being evaluated, revealed problematic methodologies. There were confounding factors in the research and clear bias even before the data was collected.

For the sake of argument, let´s assume that there is a genetic component — it does not need to be deterministic. One cannot deny that there is some degree of genetic influence in nearly all human behavior. Alcoholism is known to have genetic basis, yet some people with this predisposition can learn to cope with their weakness by avoiding alcohol dependence.

On the other hand, there is a robust body of literature that shows that environmental factors have a great influence over homosexual behavior. D.M. Fergusson, L.J. Horwood and A.L. Beautrais noted in their 1999 study on mental health and sexual orientation, that youth classified as gay, lesbian or bisexual differed from other youth in having had more frequent parental changes, such as divorce, parental death, separation, remarriage, etc.

W.C. Holmes and G.P. Slap noted in 1998 that the sexually abused man, when compared with the non-abused man, experiences more gender-role confusion and fear about intimate relationships with both men and women. All of this seems to support the role of psychosocial factors in the development of homosexuality.

Research in the last past years has shown that there seems to be a strong relationship between homosexuality and other major psychiatric disorders, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, indicating increased risk factors associated specifically with homosexual behavior.

Some researchers have come to believe that the “homophobic” explanation alone is not sufficient to explain the relationship between homosexual behavior and major dysfunctions. If anything, the media and the culture have exerted a great influence on increasing people´s tolerance toward homosexual behavior, with no seeming effect in its connection t
o risk factors.

Summarizing, I believe that at the core of the Church´s scandal today is a problem of homosexuality, which although not any longer considered a psychiatric diagnosis by the American Psychiatric and Psychological Association has been linked to other major diagnoses. It may be the end product of influential psychosocial events, in some cases interacting with genetic predispositions.

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