“The Crisis in the Church: Dealing with the Many Faces of Cultural Hysteria” by Stephen Levine and Candace Risen (2004)

Source: Levine, S. B., & Risen, C. B. (2004). The crisis in the church: dealing with the many faces of cultural hysteria. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1(4), 364-370. https://doi.org/10.1002/aps.92

Content note: Contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.


On three occasions during the summer of 2002 we responded to invitations from parish staff to discuss the mounting national crisis with the Church with audiences of parishioners, lay ministers, nuns, and priests. We each presented for about 20 minutes and planned for at least 50 minutes of discussion. Each program ran over and could have continued for longer.

We will elaborate on seven ideas that we, as clinical experts who have evaluated more than 30 parish and Jesuit priests and 80 other professionals since 1991 (Fones et al., 1999), conveyed to the audience. Our hope was to calmly share what we knew about the subject (Levine et al., 1994) with audiences that were distraught and uncertain what to think, but which loved their Church and were used to being comforted by their faith.

“Most sexually inappropriate priests are not pedophiles”:

Although we recognize the problems created by priests’ sexual behaviors with minors, we clinicians distinguish a psychiatric diagnosis of “pedophilia” from the media convention of labeling all sexual behavior with minors as “pedophilia.” The media has identified a few priests in the USA who have been driven during most of their post-ordination years to target young adolescents for sexual gratification. We might readily diagnose such men as having an ephebophilic (preference for early to middle adolescent males) form of pedophilia. Pedophilia is a psychiatric condition with legal implications because society designates sexual behaviors between an adult with those aged less than 14, 16, or 18 years as a crime. In Canada, for example, age 14 or less constitutes the age of minority for sexual purposes. It is lawful to have sex with 15-year-olds.

The vast majority of priests who have been reported to behave inappropriately with youth do not meet psychiatric criteria for pedophilia.

Our local media, in concert with several substantiated cases from other areas, began suggesting that the Cleveland Diocese was a sanctuary for those who lusted after adolescents. In response, the prosecutor announced that he was eager to investigate. When the paper published the names of 15 priests who had been accused of sexual contact with someone less than 18 years old during the previous 20 years, the prosecutor announced the assignment of 35 investigators to seek evidence for indictments. A few days later, a sixteenth priest killed himself four days after being accused by a victim. On the day their names were published, the 15 priests were re-suspended despite the fact that the diocese had previously suspended them and had already made judicious decisions on all of them five or more years ago.

Eight anxious months later the Grand Jury indicted one priest – for purchasing sex from a teenage male prostitute. The prosecutor explained the low indictment rate by stating that he believed many of the 167 priests investigated were guilty but for various reasons could not be indicted. The newspaper did not focus on the damage that its relentless speculation had done to named and unnamed priests, parishioners, and those youth who engaged sexually with a priest. The 14 named priests who were not indicted, however, were not returned to duty.

“It is easy for the media to use the term ‘pedophilia’ because we don’t give details and the priests do not defend themselves”:

Here is a clinical example, which we think of as a single episode of breakthrough of repressed sensual hunger, which our newspaper wrote about five times as prototypic of the priest’s pedophilic villainy and the Bishop’s cover-up.

In 1986, a heterosexual 44-year-old priest who, for 16 consecutive summers, camped with one or two adolescent males without sexual temptation, incident, or accusation, mightily embarrassed himself and frightened his 17-year-old companion by ejaculating while giving him a back rub when his hands touched the boy’s bare upper buttocks. Both were clad only in their underpants (their sleeping attire) in their tent. This was the first back rub the priest had ever given. The priest, who tries not to think much about sex (“What’s the use?” he says) and who never had discussed his occasional masturbation and kissing episodes with a woman with anyone, still claims that he did not know he was aroused during the back rub and was surprised by the appearance of copious semen on the boy’s back and legs. The boy, feeling wetness on his back, thought he was assaulted despite the priest’s immediate distress and red-faced apology. Both the priest and the boy had had some alcohol. Two days later, the boy disappeared while in town. When the panicky priest immediately called the boy’s parents, much to his relief, he learned that they had arranged his return home. The three of them agreed to talk about the incident when the priest got back to Cleveland. They agreed to inform the Diocese. The Bishop sent the priest for an inpatient psychiatric evaluation, after which a clarifying apologetic meeting was held with the boy and his understanding and forgiving parents. The boy was offered psychiatric assistance, paid for by the Diocese, and the family asked that the priest would be given psychiatric assistance. The same team re-evaluated him in early 1988. They again concluded that the priest was sexually repressed and worked too much but had no sexual or psychiatric disorder. After assigning him as a hospital chaplain and keeping him in psychotherapy for a year, the Bishop assigned him to a parish and eventually made him Pastor. In 1993, the Bishop asked us to assess his psychiatric and sexual status. The Diocese had nothing but positive feedback on his life and work since 1986. We saw no psychopathology. He continued as Pastor without incident or complaint until 2002 when the Diocese responded to the Prosecutor’s subpoena by turning over our 1993 report. Because the paper published his name, the Diocese immediately placed him on administrative leave. He had to leave his home, the rectory, the same day. In a few days, the paper began to repeatedly report that the priest had sexually abused a 17-year-old who escaped from a camping trip. During the recurrent media attention, the now 34-year-old man filed a lawsuit against the priest and Diocese. The priest received anonymous hate mail. Two years later, as of this writing, he is still on leave. The Diocese and priests, on the advise of their separate lawyers, never respond to the accusations. Their silence allows the speculation that even the most respected, widely valued, and beloved priests are demons.

“The public believes that any sexual contact with a priest ruins the life of the victim”:

What the media hears from victims, victim groups, and lawyers who sue the dioceses for victims is that these pedophilic behaviors have ruined the lives of the adolescents. We know that psychological damage can be done to minors (and even older individuals) who engage in sexual activities with priests. We clinicians who have dealt with victims, however, recognize that many variables come into play in determining the degree of life disruption and the duration of consequences caused by a specific trauma. Nowhere in this scenario is any public skepticism placed on the depictions of decades long suffering from one or two psychologically consensual nonviolent genital experiences with a priest. (Legal consent is not possible with a minor.) The depictions of the consequences of these acts give the impression that there is something so destructive about what happened that gender identity, orientation, sexual function, and general mental health are inevitably jeopardized. Many exaggerations abound, including that the gambling, drug abuse, depression, psychosis, and anxiety disorders of the victims were caused by the experience with the priest. Is the sexual seduction of an adolescent minor more problem-producing than the family dysfunctions that led to personal friendship of priest and father-abandoned adolescent?

No one has asked clinicians to testify about what is known about sexual victimization, gender differences in responses, and recovery from inappropriate or regretted adolescent sexual liaisons. No one has asked clinicians about our work with patients who eventually acknowledge their substantial distortions about what happened between them and priests many years ago. Mental health professionals should recognize the derision with which their even minor expressions of skepticism about victimization will be met. Courage is required to present a balanced fair-to-all perspective.

Atomic Gender is a comprehensive analysis of the reality of gender identity, the world-changing power of the transgender community, and the impact of gender identity denialists worldwide.

Atomic Gender is an evolution of Gender Analysis. Zinnia Jones is a trans woman researcher and community advocate living in central Florida.

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