Catholic Psychology and Sexual Abuse by Clergy (Part 2)

Interview With Gerard van den Aardweg

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By Genevieve Pollock

HAARLEM, Netherlands, APRIL 28, 2010 ( If we want to address the problem of sexual abuse by clergy, we need to go back to the teachings of «Humanae Vitae,» says a Dutch Catholic psychotherapist.

Gerard van den Aardweg has worked as a therapist for almost 50 years, specializing in cases of homosexuality and marital problems. He has taught worldwide and written extensively on homosexuality and pedophilia, as well as the relation of these issues to other topics: same-sex attraction in the priesthood, «Humane Vitae,» and the effects of gay parenting.

The psychologist’s published books include: «Battle for Normality: Self-Therapy of Homosexuality» and «On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality.»

Van den Aardweg has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality since the organization was founded in 1992. He is also the European editor of the «Empirical Journal of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior.» 

In this interview with ZENIT, he speaks about the role of psychology in cases of sexual abuse by clergy, and the origin and resolution of these problems.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.

ZENIT: Going back to the problems in the clergy, would you say that the abuse arose more because men with pre-existing tendencies were admitted to the priesthood, or were there factors that contributed to this type of behavior over time?

Van den Aardweg: A young man who is psychologically and emotionally mature when he is admitted to the seminary will never become homosexually or pedo-sexually interested. If he feels sexually aroused and gives way to his feelings, he will seek a woman.

The «orientation» toward boys or adolescents in priests who have molested youngsters has never originated during their seminary or priesthood years. 

In some cases it may initially have been more or less latent, weak; but then, there was always this obvious gap in his feelings, the absence of normal heterosexual feelings. 

In certain circumstances, confronted with some youth, or during a period of disillusionment or loneliness, the slumbering homosexual longing may be inflamed.

Another priest may always have been aware of his attraction to males, but managed to live with it without acting out. However, when he increasingly feels unable to cope with the demands or disillusionments of his profession, in a bad moment he may start either looking into pornographic magazines — in our day, into a porn site on the Internet — or start drinking, to comfort himself; and indulging in sexual fantasies, he goes from bad to worse.

Homosexuality is more than a sexual problem. 

It is part of a rather specific variant of personality immaturity, and among its most frequent symptoms are a lack of character strength, inner loneliness, difficulties in forming mature bonds of friendship, anxiety and depression. Thus stress, in all its forms, can weaken the man’s resistance to surrendering to his desires.

Other important factors that lower the threshold of resistance are the absence of much needed personal support and regular spiritual guidance; laxity in interior, spiritual life; neglect of regular confession; the bad example of other priests in the environment who lead a double life; and being exposed to permissive moral theories on sexuality in general and on the normality of homosexuality.

In this regard, the critical attitude of many theologians and prominent priests toward celibacy and above all toward «Humanae Vitae» has been an efficient factor in undermining the resistance of many priests to sexual acting out, assuredly in the case of many with homosexual desires.

As Pope Paul VI himself expected in this encyclical, dissociating sexuality from propagation in the relationship between man and woman would entail the approval of other sterile forms of sex such as homosexuality. 

Many sex scandals that finally ignited the publicity wave in the United States, which is presently being continued in Europe, and which provides such abundant material for anti-Catholic propaganda, are a logical consequence of decades of openly rejecting and tacitly ignoring «Humanae Vitae» and the Christian view of sexuality behind it by prominent priests, moral theologians and bishops.

You cannot expect that many priests and religious with weaknesses such as homosexual — and occasional pedophile — desires will persevere in their inner battle for chastity when they constantly hear and notice that almost everything is OK in heterosexual life, married or not: «Why should I be the only one who is not allowed to only occasionally give in to an innocent sexual pleasure if I don’t hurt anyone?»

ZENIT: The media seldom focus on the role of psychology in these sexual abuse cases, but haven’t therapists generally been involved in either the treatment of offending priests or in the advising of Church authorities on how to deal with these problems? What would you say about the role of psychology in these cases?

Van den Aardweg: In spite of all present criticism, there is no evidence that the majority of the cases of sexual misbehavior by priests in the more remote past, and even many during 1960-1980 were handled badly and irresponsibly. 

Often a prudent compromise was sought between the need to protect minors, the «resocialization» of the offender, and damage control for the parish, diocese, institute and order or congregation.

Therapy — or, at any rate, a series of conversations with professionals — was one of the standard measures. This approach was not different from the one used in similar cases in secular institutes, save that punishment was ecclesiastical, and more sporadic.

Looking back, this handling may have been adequate in many cases, but often it was not. One of the reasons of the inadequacy of such procedures was the naïveté of Church authorities with respect to sexual deviations. 

The tendency was to underestimate the seriousness of offenses, and to believe that a well-intentioned offender who, moreover, had gone to confession and promised to correct himself, deserved charity and confidence more than anything else, and had to be given a second chance.

On top of that, Church authorities — no less than secular judicial authorities — shared an over-optimistic trust in the upcoming psychological and psychiatric sciences. Relegating a case of sexual abuse to a psychiatrist or psychologist was seen as a rather solid guarantee against recidivism.

Which it decidedly was not, and still is not. The long-term effect of psychotherapy or medication in many cases of sexual offenders is minimal, also because the motivation of a person to fight the hard battle with himself can be rather artificial and dependent on the pressure of the circumstances.

On the other hand it seems that, roughly since the end of the ’60s, the response to these offenses became in many sections of the Church — not in all — ever more inadequate, weak, negligent. 

The secular psychological trend was to emphasize the mental sickness aspect of delinquents in general — their being patients, victims of upbringing etc. — rather than their responsibility for immoral behavior. 

The element of discipline and punishment — in the case of priests and religious: penance — was not popular, and this went along with an often glaring lack of consideration of the sufferings and needs of the victims of crimes.

Psychology bears much responsibility for this distorted, in fact, ideological view, and it has no doubt deeply affected the way Church authorities reacted to sexual abuses or accusations that came to their attention, their conduct in regard to sex offenders in the clergy, and the attitude of many prominent Church people and theologians toward homosexuals in general and homosexual priests i
n particular.

A powerful factor in this was also fear of the media, of public opinion; not demonstrating «liberal» views on this issue and being «intolerant» could prompt hostile reactions within the media and within sections of the Church itself. 

Anyhow, not seldomly, authorities looked away when «pedophile» or other homosexual behaviors of priests were brought to their attention, and if measures were taken, it was often too much with «the cloak of charity:» no punishment, perhaps placement in a center for therapy, and then without checking the effect.

ZENIT: Some criticize the Church because in the past sexually abusing priests were allowed to return to ministry while undergoing psychotherapy. Do you think the therapists believed that this priest could effectively be cured, therefore once again be trusted with children or youngsters?

Van den Aardweg: This criticism is justified. The responsible authorities in such cases are to blame that they did not have the prudence to wait a couple of years, check the results of treatment, and that they did not personally and critically follow up the case. Their too weak reaction was sometimes the easiest way out.

It is also true that in general, psychotherapists had — still have — too much confidence in their insights and methods. 

Indeed, psychotherapy can help a minority of people with aberrant sexual penchants such as homosexuality to change radically and a higher percentage to improve, in so far that their feelings lose most of their intensity and obsessive nature, and their overall emotional stability has sizably increased. But that often takes years, and the best results are with those who enter therapy out of their own initiative and not forced by the external situation.

Also, a therapy client may fare better during therapy for a period of time, and that may occasion a therapist to prematurely consider him fit for returning into his former situation; however, under renewed inner and outer stress the chances are not slim that he will slide back in his old pattern. 

We see this not only with persons with sexual problems, but with a variety of other neurotics and delinquents as well. Therefore, prudence prescribes never to place someone with these former behaviors back in the old situation for many years at least, as he remains vulnerable.

ZENIT: What is the current relationship between Church authorities and psychologists in working with pedophile/homosexual priests? Has this changed over time?

Van den Aardweg: It depends on the individual authority, but also on the availability of qualified Catholic psychologists. The European reality is that only few psychologists work therapeutically with same-sex attractions, for this branch of therapy is almost outlawed in the European Union that has officially embraced the gay ideology. 

Therapy of sexual deviations is short of being treated as a violation of human rights; universities do not transmit knowledge on homosexuality other than the politically correct ideological slogans, let alone would or could they give therapy courses for professionals. Only a few Christian therapists specialize in this subject.

As for the Church, the interest in cooperating with these Christian/Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists is growing on the part of especially those bishops, prominent staff members of seminaries, individual priests and theologians who endorse the sexual morality of the Church. 

Others, who are insecure in their opinion on this issue, or afraid of confrontations with the media, liberal priests and faithful, or with their own theologians, prefer to keep psychiatrists and psychologists who treat homosexuality as a disorder at arm’s length. But I think something is changing for the better in this area, however slowly.

On the one hand, more younger psychologists and psychiatrists are interested in what we may call «Christian, or Catholic psychotherapy,» that is, methods based on the Christian view of man, marriage and sexuality, and sexual disorientations, and which recognize the therapeutic value of «the religious factor,» conversion, the importance of an interior spiritual life, and of the exercise of the virtues and fight of the vices, for mental health and character stability.

On the other hand, as more bishops, theologians, and priests turn to the wholehearted propagation, explanation, implementation, and defense of the full Catholic doctrine on sexuality and marriage — or to put it simply, making «Humanae Vitae» a substantial part of their re-evangelization activities — they naturally seek more of the advice and assistance of Christian/Catholic psychologists, and this is already here and there leading to a lively and mutually fruitful cooperation.

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