As we process the McCarrick report, let me continue what I started in my previous article: trying to understand why the victims are still so often invisible while the victimizer gets a 461-page international report named after him.
When my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power came out last year, I was not prepared for the phone calls from victims, scores of texts, e-mails, and long, sometimes tearful conversations after lectures on the book: all these came upon me with tremendous and moving force. Every single one of them told me that they felt abandoned by the Church, sometimes even scorned by churchmen and parishioners alike, not a few of whom recommended that victims engage in what elsewhere I described as “magical thinking”: just say another rosary and let not your heart be troubled by your traumas!
Many told me their faith remains intact, but their ability to practice that in a Church where they remain invisible and unheard is a severe trial for them, and glib counsels of “offer it up” only reinforce the pain.
Worse still, some Catholics still refuse to believe that a beloved priest could be guilty of abuse, and such people resort to attacking the victims while defending the victimizers.
For clinicians, none of this is surprising. The works of psychologist Anna Salter have been pioneering in studying and trying to treat sex offenders. (I’m immersed in this dark literature in anticipation of a clinical rotation next year where I’ll be working with offenders and victims both.) Her 2003 book Predators lays out in detail how abusers groom, molest, and sometimes kill their victims. Her book gave me a template through which to understand much of McCarrick with chilling accuracy, and to see that disbelieving victims is very common.
What mechanisms underlie the disbelieving of victims?
It seems to me that the individuals and institutions alike are very adept at splitting, a concept that comes to us from one of the great pioneers of child therapy, Melanie Klein. Children grow up splitting the world into good and bad “objects,” which term also includes people. (This forms the origin of that literary and theatrical trope: a world of heroes and villains.) Those we do not like, those who threaten us in some way, are split off as “bad” and protected from encountering the “good” objects in our life.
Picking up on this, one of Klein’s most distinguished fellow therapists in Britain, Wilfred Bion, went on to argue that in severely disturbed people, we not only split our world and objects, but we also attack any attempts to repair or recover any unity between good and bad objects. This is what he described as “attacks on linking.”
The attacks that Bion spoke of operate in at least two ways. First, there are attacks on any link that might lead the person to unwanted parts of himself. These are people we commonly refer to as being “in denial” about some problem or other. Second, Bion saw that there are attacks on those who may also link us to disturbing or undesired thoughts, memories, and emotions about other people. This is clearly evident in what have heard from people around McCarrick who declined repeatedly to inquire or report the details of the “rumors” that surrounded him.
Even when those reports became too numerous and detailed, Churchmen — like those around Pope John Paul II and the pope himself — continued to split: these reports were dismissed as bad objects from unnamed but safely external “enemies”; while McCarrick himself, writing letters to the pope protesting his innocence, was thus able to remain an apparently good object suitable for episcopal promotion from auxiliary to diocesan to archbishop to cardinal.
For years, as reports about McCarrick mounted, the Church operated under a system of episcopal promotion that is still largely in place and at work today, and — we can now see — is designed precisely to avoid linking, which is where the pioneering work of such a brilliant Catholic sociologist as Stephen Bullivant becomes invaluable, as the Herald has been reporting. He and his team are showing the links the Church refuses to see even today to men whose own episcopacy is still bound up with McCarrick.
Bion’s exceptionally disturbed patients went further still to attack not just links but even one’s own curiosity about missing objects or misplaced links. Catholics need to be grateful to Bullivant that at least his curiosity remains intact! For to attack even basic curiosity, Bion found, was to attack that “on which all learning depends. The way is therefore prepared for a severe arrest of development” which, Bion concludes, must be seen as a “psychological disaster.”
That phrase, I suggest, is where the Church is today: in an open and unambiguous state of disaster based on de-linking, allowing for many Catholics even at this late hour to continue to split the Church into good apples and bad apples, fatuously suggesting we just need to rubbish the latter and things will be fine. What if the barrel is the problem?
That is, what if our mindset of assuming clerics must be good objects only, and are never bad objects, blinds us to evil in our midst? What do we do then? On that, more next time.
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN).
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