Catholic Psychology and Sexual Abuse by Clergy (Part 1)

Interview With Gerard van den Aardweg

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By Genevieve Pollock

HAARLEM, Netherlands, APRIL 27, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Pedophiliac behavior -- as in cases of child sexual abuse by clergy -- cannot be equated with homosexuality, but research reveals that the two are not disconnected either, says a Catholic psychotherapist.

Gerard van den Aardweg has worked as a therapist for almost 50 years in his homeland of Holland, 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 ways the media may be distorting the facts about the sexual abuse of minors and the empirical data about pedophilia and homosexuality.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Wednesday.

ZENIT: Recent news stories in Europe have focused on cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests. In your opinion as a psychologist, why has there been such an outbreak in the priesthood?

Van den Aardweg: The idea of a more or less recent outbreak of sexual abuse of minors by priests may be suggested by the media, but we should not buy it. 

The real outbreak we witness is one in media attention for the subject. We must not trust the media in this matter, especially not the left-leaning and liberal newspapers and television channels, because they exploit these scandals for their own agenda.

No doubt, scandalous sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious has occurred in the past, much too often, and more than many people have thought or believed; and it still happens. But the situation is clearly improving, and the peak of the abuses lies roughly between 1965 and 1990, so 20 years back.

That is not amazing; the sexual revolution in the secular world did not stop at the Church door. However, that does not mean that such behavior was typical of priests and friars, or that it occurred more frequently in Catholic parishes and institutes of education than elsewhere.

Without any attempt to check on their validity, accusations, ripe and unripe, are indiscriminately broadcast as proven truth, in an aggressive tone of righteous indignation, often commented upon in a Church-hostile way. Day after day the same message is hammered home.

It looks like a Pavlovian conditioning of public opinion: The association between "Catholic priest" and "child abuser" is reinforced in the mind of the reader or listener, and implicitly, too, the association between "Catholic moral doctrine on sexuality" and "hypocrisy."

ZENIT: How reliable do you think is the information the media divulge at present on abuse of minors in the Church?

Van den Aardweg: The truth lies in the middle. 

It is true that too many serious cases have been played down or covered up in the past. 

On the other hand, the present black picture of the media is quite exaggerated, a portion of the accusations has more the character of rumors than of concrete facts; in Holland accusations are being made of events that would have happened more than half a century ago -- will the majority of people wait all that time if they suffered serious injustice?

And no distinction is made between grave abuse, such as priests or religious who physically or psychologically coerced a vulnerable boy into a sexual relationship for a longer period of time and which often has deep effects on the victim, and an occasional contact or attempt that left no such traces.

As an example of the latter category, a rather popular priest who taught at a secondary school repeatedly tried to impose himself sexually on a series of adolescents, but these simply did not take him seriously; some even slapped him in the face when he became too obtrusive, and he was the object of jokes. 

In one British study with adolescent boys, 35% of them said they had been approached homosexually by an adult (family member, teacher, youth leader, etc.); only 2% of them had given in.

This is also an aspect of the problem. The behavior of the teacher-priest I just mentioned was of course very reproachable, but it may not be equalized with that of a priest or religious in a boarding school who plays the affectionate father role to a lonely young boy from a disrupted home and then abuses his position of power to make his affection dependent on the boy's complying to his filthy desires. 

In Holland, one or two boarding schools had a bad name in this respect, it was evident that some influential staff members were no good (and they tend to attract others of their ilk), but in many -- probably most -- of the others, sexual molestations were the exception.

ZENIT: You mention the relationship between people with homosexual tendencies and people who abuse children. Some Church leaders have been criticized for making a connection between the two groups and others have come out with public statements about how the two are completely separated and unrelated. As a psychologist, what would you say about this?

Van den Aardweg: The data on complaints of sexual abuse by priests in the United States, where this type of scandal has best been researched, indicate that 14% of the complaints were about children up to 11 years old, 51% involving preadolescents, and 35% about adolescents 15-17 years old. We could say that roughly 20% of the complaints in general concern children, or if we want to be more liberal in our definition, we may estimate that a third of the cases technically involve pedophile behavior. In any case, they are not the majority. 

For European countries, these statistics are not yet available, but whatever partial information we have points to a similar pattern. Besides, this pattern is confirmed for other groups of molesters of same-sex children and adolescents, in other words, for teachers, youth leaders, or personnel of educational institutes.

Now seduction and abuse of adolescent boys is normally not the trade of "pedophiles." 

Pedophiles are on average no more interested in boys after these enter the phase of puberty and develop their first masculine traits; it is the childlike body and psyche that attracts them. 

Suppose also in Europe about 20% or more -- which is not very likely -- of the victims of molestation by priests were clearly under the age of adolescence and that all of these molesting priests were real pedophiles. Even then the bulk of the crimes must be accounted for by priests and religious who were not "pedophiles," but indeed persons with an ordinary homosexual "orientation."

That is not surprising. For it is a universal fact that many self-identified homosexuals are focused on adolescents -- the term is ephebophiles -- and if they act out their feelings, many of them are tempted to seduce an adolescent if the occasion presents itself.

ZENIT: You said your impression is that only few priests are homosexual pedophiles, that is, directed to young boys, 8-11 years old. How do these few men account for the estimated 20% of the cases of sexual abuse of male children?

Van den Aardweg: One active pedophile may make many victims, so cause many complaints. 

But then, coming back to the relationship between "normal" homosexuality and homosexual pedophilia, many men who identify themselves as practicing homosexuals may occasionally also be interested in a boy who is still a child, or a pre-adolescent. 

About a quarter of practicing homosexual men have reported sex with boys of 16 years and younger, including with boys before puberty. About half of homosexually active men in one study reported some interest in youngsters as young as age 12. This percentage may also be assumed for practicing homosexual priests.

This is a gray zone, also because for understandable reasons men who are mainly focused on adolescents -- technically ephebophile homosexuals -- do not like to admit they may occasionally have feelings for younger boys. 

If the taboo on such contacts would become less strict, I would expect much more "borderline pedophile" and pedophile behavior on the part of adolescent-directed men.

This is also suggested in the declarations by an official gay organization known as the Dutch COC (Club for Culture and Leisure). In 1980 it proclaimed that "by acknowledging the affinity between homosexuality and pedophilia, the COC has quite possibly made it easier for homosexual adults to become more sensitive to erotic desires of younger members of their sex, thereby broadening the gay identity." 

Therefore, it stated, "liberation of pedophilia must be viewed a gay issue," and "the age of consent must be abolished."