The first in a two-part series on Unconscious Processes on Display
Recent disclosures about the Catholic Church force me to wonder: how could men who devote their lives to God behave so poorly? We all have a remarkable ability to deceive ourselves about the impact of what we do. Priests who repeatedly abuse children have stories that they tell themselves, and apparently so do many of those who are supposed to supervise them. Sadly these stories can enable behavior that is horribly destructive.
Nearly 95% of what we do and experience falls below the radar of our awareness. This means that we all have enormous blindness to our own ways. This is how we end up deceiving ourselves about our “real” intentions – not knowing who we really are, or what really matters to us. This is how we can know things about others that we do not know about ourselves. This is why our motivations are so often irrational, and even destructive.
Whether we admit it our not, the vast majority of what we feel and do occurs without our awareness. All of us, including clergymen, are blind to many of our motivations. Preserving our social groups – our tribes – is incredibly important to most people. This is apparently true even among members of the highest levels of the Church. So desperate to preserve a vision of their group’s image, the clergymen who supervised abusive priests were seemingly governed more by their fears than their wisdom.
As a psychologist who has treated emotions and other unconscious processes for nearly thirty years, I think it important that people understand how vulnerable we ALL are to forces inside us. Our blindness to the power of these inner forces can harm what we most cherish – our reputations, our loved ones, successful pursuit of our goals. Had these Cardinals been able to think about their fear, rather than be ruled by it, they might have been able to make better decisions. Decisions more consistent with their most deeply held beliefs and values. They might have been able to think more clearly and seen the long term risks to children and to their authority. The chances of getting caught in a cover up of sexual abuse with this many victims and this many perpetrators was fairly high. Having covered up the abusing priests’ initial crimes only made everything much worse. People are now enraged not only with a few disturbed priests, but also with those who hold authority in the church.
Are priests at unusual risk to become pedophiles? If so, does this mean something about the culture in which they live? Or does it reflect selection factors in who chooses to become a priest in the first place. Do the church’s demands for celibacy in the priesthood create an environment in which “acting out” becomes more likely? Were these offending priests blind to their own needs, did they deceive themselves, or did they just have no morality?
My guess is that they told themselves stories about their behavior that made it seem alright, kind of knowing what they were doing, but not really. These stories led them to ignore their own needs, needs that refused to be ignored. This is tragic for everyone.
The biggest problem develops when the church, as an institution, decides to look the other way. Loon Pond had a funny cartoon about this, but the problem really isn't funny.
Church culture seems to almost permit priests to meet their needs when no one is looking. There needs to be some built-in structure for managing errant primal needs in the priesthood. Some structure to help priests manage their impulses, and another to deal help those in authority deal effectively with abusive priests.
We would all be a lot better off if people with authority made regular efforts to self-reflect. It would be protective to everyone if people in authority had to bear the fear and horror that self-scrutiny can prompt; so that they could benefit from the wisdom it can bring. Self-knowledge and understanding can help prevent abuses of power, whether in teachers, government officials, or religious leaders. People in these professions are at risk to exploit others as part of human nature - a few inevitably succumb. Non-judgmental self-reflection might help people learn about how to manage their impulses better.
No doubt there are many forces that prompt some priests to sexually exploit children in their care. Deep self-awareness does not guarantee protection from such destructive behavior, but it can certainly help prevent it. It would go a long way to make sure that people working in positions of power tried to look inside at their true motivations.
Even better, is the church’s decision to require priests to report such abuse – as social service professionals do here in the United States – it would be a more reliable institution. It is too much to ask people to make the right decisions when faced with a rogue colleague. With greater self-acceptance the church will hopefully be forewarned and braced to handle such unpleasantness in the future . Such a system will help protect children from inevitable abuses of power.