Sexual Misconduct in the Clergy: The Search for the Father

Andrea Celenza. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 2. 2004.

Sexuality and Power in the Body and Spirit

The argument that sexual misconduct is really about power and not about sex is so familiar as to be a cliché. In this paper, I attempt to move beyond such a generality to theorize how sexuality and power intersect in exploitative relationships, in particular how they produce a dyadically structured closed system best characterized as a sadomasochistic relation.

Each partner in such a dyad has a unique relationship to power and sexuality that is revealed in the nature, psychical purpose, and motivation behind his/her participation in such a relationship. These factors can be examined on a physical level (i.e., how power and sexuality are embodied and enacted) and in terms of the fantasies that are symbolically represented (i.e., how these relations are constructed, held, and endure in the person’s mind).

The Psyche is First and Foremost Embodied

It is the human condition to be born both contained within and delimited by a physical body. The mortality of the flesh has a temporal beginning and end; the body’s existence thereby is finite. The body also has a certain shape (i.e., it is separate from other bodies, and it is gendered). We are physically defined as distinct from others and as either male or female, not both and not the other. (Here, I am solely referring to the fact of gender as a biological given, not to role imperatives or socially constructed meanings attached to masculinity or femininity.) Thus, it is the human condition to be born within the inexorable march of time and under the oppressive constraints of space.

We are also born into a power hierarchy, for example, of generational difference (the second difference, along with separateness, referred to by Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1983, as the double difference). We are born within a triangle, with a mother and father, and in this way are born subject to authority (even if one or both parents are absent). This authority is partly derived from our elders having been born before, a temporal advantage, so to speak. Thus, each individual must come to terms with difference and power, separateness and lack, all of which constitute the yearning, desiring condition of being human.

It is the nature of human desire (first and foremost omnipotent and egocentric) to refuse and seek liberation from these constraints. However, it is only psychically that such liberation can be attained (Celenza, 2002) and such is the lure of sexual fantasy: to find in the other what is ordinarily beyond one’s reach and to elaborate alternate possibilities both within oneself and with the other. We seek a potential relation that transgresses the boundaries of time and space and quells the fears of finitude and limit through fantasies of omnipotence and merger.

These are the challenges of the human condition, requiring a lifelong series of resolutions accomplished by successive reorganizations. Spiritually based solutions promise the transcendence of time and space, but not without prior acceptance of these universal constraints. One cannot get beyond or work through what one refuses to acknowledge or accept.

Pathological modes of resolution can be sought preemptively as a means to evade such acceptance. Spirituality offers one such path, since it makes explicit and symbolically enacts redemptive fantasies that transcend the boundaries and constraints of physicality. In this way, certain religious precepts can attract persons seeking a preemptive solution-one externally imposed rather than internally lived through. Sexual misconduct by priests is an enactment of such a preemptive, defensive solution.

Sexual Misconduct: The Body of Data

The ideas presented in this paper draw on my 15 years of experience with over 45 mental health professionals who engaged in sexual misconduct with patients or parishioners. The practitioners include therapists, psychoanalysts, priests, ministers, and rabbis. Approximately half my sample are clergy. My involvement with these practitioners includes therapy, evaluation, consultation, and/or supervision that I have conducted (Celenza, 1991, 1995, 1998), usually at the request of some overseeing professional organization (a licensing board, diocesan superior, or professional ethics committee). A few were self-referred and were seeking help for their psychological vulnerabilities; however, the majority had completed a complaint process wherein their involvement with me represented one component of a comprehensive rehabilitation plan.

Sexual Misconduct among Christian Clergy

Sexual misconduct is a particular problem among Christian clergy. There are many types of misconduct, including priest pedophilia, predatory abuse of multiple adult victims, and a seemingly more benign exploitation by an adult priest with one adult parishioner or counselee. Here I am concentrating on the latter type. I am not discussing the problem of pedophilia and priests’ abuse of children or adolescents. Nor am I discussing sexual misconduct by psychopathically organized persons who typically exploit multiple adult victims. This type of misconduct, though egregious and notorious, is actually less frequent than the composite picture I present.

Exploitation of an adult is the most prevalent type of sexual misconduct among all mental health practitioners, including clergy (priests, ministers, and pastoral counselors). I have found no substantive differences between Christian clergy who are pastoral counselors and those who are not. Therefore, for the sake of simplicity, I refer to all Christian clergy as priests and to the parishioners or counselees as victims. My discussion focuses on Christianity in general and, at times, Catholicism, celibacy, and the hierarchy of the Catholic church in particular. I believe that the unconscious fit between these priests and some of the teachings of Christianity, Catholicism, and the attendant professional and social organizations may render priests particularly susceptible to this type of sexual misconduct.

The problem of sexual misconduct in these contexts involves a priest who becomes sexually intimate with one adult victim. Because the victim is either a member of the priest’s parish or a counselee, the relationship is inherently structured around a power imbalance. This inequity renders consent moot, even if the victim believes she or he desires the relationship, since it is freighted with transferences to the structurally imbued authority. Such relationships, in my experience, are most likely to be heterosexual, between a male priest and a female victim. (Interestingly, it has been my experience that, when the priest is female, the victim is also more likely to be female, and neither is necessarily self-identified as homosexual prior to this relationship.)

A Composite Illustration

The following is a composite case that illustrates the most frequent characteristics of clergy sexual misconduct. Some elements are situational; others are features of the priest’s personality organization or typical behavioral patterns.

Rev. X, a married Christian priest, has devoted his adult life to his ministry. In fact, there is no boundary between his identity as a priest and his person, nor is there a functional distinction between his work life and his home life. Ordination marked a change in external status and formal responsibility, but he has always felt called to the priesthood and sees it as his special mission and talent to help others on their spiritual journey and in their relationship to God. He feels it is his duty to put his own emotional, physical, and sexual needs aside in order to minister to the needs of others. Often enough, the needs of parishioners take precedence over family duties as his pull toward family confuses him. He often feels anxious and guilty when not serving the church directly.

Rev. X has worked tirelessly for many years in this way. Long hours often take him away from his wife and children to minister to the needs of his parishioners. His family is largely supportive and forgiving of the many times he is not with them. They join him for services and other activities in the church. As can be predicted, self-induced burnout gradually and inevitably snuck up on him.

It was after a service that he noticed Ann, a recently divorced, childless woman who seemed to be attending services with greater frequency in the past few months. On this particular day, Ann seemed on the verge of tears, and, when he hugged her (an accepted practice upon leaving a service), she asked if she could meet with him privately. She stated that she needed some guidance and support. They agreed to meet that afternoon in his office. During this meeting, she poignantly described her struggle to get back on her feet, both financially and emotionally, after her husband left. She told Rev. X that her husband had been unavailable and emotionally abusive. She told Rev. X that she had been a victim of incest as a child. Rev. X was intensely moved by her suffering and felt a need to be generous with his time, compassion, and kindness.

They met several times a week over the next several months, and, alongside this pastoral-counseling relationship, developed an intimate interest in each other, an intriguing feeling of specialness to each other that was unmistakably sexually tinged. Though Rev. X believed that he was only trying to help Ann cope with her loneliness, hurt, and confusion about her recent divorce, he was also dimly aware that she held a particular fascination for him. She was, perhaps, a female version of himself, an unpotentiated self he had not lived out, a freer, secular spirit that he had never allowed, even in his own imagination. He particularly loved her passion for him, her wish Io own him that was at first unstated but felt, then later was enacted through intense arguments over her jealousy of his wife and family. He sometimes felt afraid of her, even trapped in the relationship, yet he could not stop thinking about her and felt throughout that he had found his soulmate.

Their sexual relationship lasted over a year, when, after increasingly escalating arguments over Rev. X’s inability to leave his family, Ann wrote a complaint to the bishop.

Rev. X is a composite picture of the most common type of sexual misconduct among all mental health professionals, including clergy of all denominations. Even celibate Catholic priests can break their vows in a manner that fits this composite. Though clinicians typically associate sexual misconduct with therapeutic relationships, any structural power imbalance will elevate and encourage the idealization of the professional in the eyes of the victim (compare Schwartz and Olds, 2002). This imbalance can then be exploited.

Sexuality and Power: The Christian Solution

Sexuality and one’s relationship to God reflect the ways in which an individual has come to terms with two bodily imperatives: the challenges to one’s omnipotence and the press of sexual needs. Pathological relations to sexuality and power reflect a narcissistic refusal of these existential conditions rather than a transcendence of them. Though celibacy can reflect a transcendence of bodily appetites, it can also be used self-deceptively to disavow the pleasures of the body, in order to establish a temporary means of (self) control. Likewise, a spiritual relationship to God can express an enlightened awareness of the mysterious nature of being and of the human condition. For narcissistically vulnerable priests, however, it may also serve an unconscious omnipotent desire to elevate and empower an enfeebled self.

There appear to be at least two reasons why this type of misconduct occurs with great frequency among Christian clergy. First, there are specific vulnerabilities in the character of some persons who are attracted to clerical life. Many of these coincide with the personality characteristics that are precursors to sexual misconduct. These typically include (a) the absence of a father figure (in fact) or the presence of a degraded father figure either in actuality or in the mind of the mother; (b) a tendency toward concrete thinking or a restricted fantasy awareness; (c) extensive, unresolved narcissistic needs (i.e., needs for recognition, mirroring, pride); and finally, (d) a great fear of and anxiety around the felt experience of anger and expression of aggression in general (Schoener, 1995; Celenza, 1998; Celenza and Gabbard, 2003). All these vulnerabilities stand in some relation to power and sexuality; all are considered to be precursors to sexual misconduct (Gabbard, 1994; Gabbard and Lester, 1995; Celenza, 1998).

A second reason why this type of misconduct occurs with great, frequency among clergy may have to do with the teachings of Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Both may offer vulnerable persons partially adaptive, compensatory strategies to cope with and manage (but not resolve or transcend) their vulnerabilities.

Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end

~ Psalm 102:27

World without end, Amen

~ Ephesians 3:21

A common childhood experience of vulnerable clergy is the absence of a positive father figure in the family. This is true whether or not the father was present; it refers to the child’s felt experience of the absence of the actual father or the presence of a degraded male figure in actuality or in the mind of the mother. Under optimal circumstances, the child psychically represents the father in fantasy, combining his mother’s image of the father and the child’s actual experience of him. He identifies with this image in some ways and contrasts himself to it in others, all in an effort to experiment with and construct for himself the man he wants to become.

When the father is absent, the son must rely primarily on the mother-son dyad as the matrix within which to find and potentiate his masculine identity. When the “father-in-the-mother” is absent or degraded, there can be a denial of difference between the son and his mother. The son may feel that sameness (to his mother) is the only acceptable mode of relating with her, that exploring their differences (e.g., his being male) is not. In the absence of a third figure or position, the mother’s psychic burdens become absorbed by the son. This situation can eventuate in the omnipotent fantasy of his being wholly responsible for (and perhaps having to sacrifice his life to) the mother’s well-being. While such a fantasy supports the child’s grandiosity, it also binds the child to his mother through the illusion of rescue, which, in turn, creates the experience of omnipotent oedipal triumph. Underlying this, as well, is the earlier experience of preoedipal guilt around the child’s desire for separation and differentiation.

That early childhood constellation accords with Benjamin’s (2002) notion of the absence of “the outward vector,” “the second other,” or a positively toned “identificatory love object.” Likewise, Parsons (2000) refers to the impossibility of structure-building in the absence of triangulation, leaving the child capable only of degrees of closeness and distance within the mother-child dyad. The importance of a third presence (internally) is prerequisite to symbolic capacity (as the child represents or symbolizes the relationship between mother and father, a relation in which he does not concretely participate).

Under these early psychic conditions and the psychic organization they can lead to, Catholicism can hold special appeal. Its beliefs and practices can be said to foster the conflation of the literal and the metaphoric, especially for those who lack a fully realized symbolic capacity. This is particularly true with regard to the sacraments, many of which are meant to transcend the symbolic. Symbols do not represent a holy act, they perform the act, as in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Likewise, Catholic fundamentalism takes Mary’s immaculate conception not as a metaphor of her virgin birth, but as a concrete reality.

Thus, the spiritual culture of Catholicism, which collapses the tension between the metaphoric and the symbolic (the “as if” becoming the “is”) can also support concreteness in the work of some pastoral counselors. When engaging in sexual misconduct, transgressing priests collapse the symbolic register of the transference into the actuality of the relationship. One vulnerable priest reported that he felt responsible for his female patient’s pain, as if he had caused it, with an urgency that led him to feel he must do something to alleviate it. The urgency to act, for this priest, reflected a loss of symbolic capacity, an inability to maintain or regain emotional and cognitive distance in the face of his parishioner’s distress.

This conflation of metaphor and actuality operates in other dimensions of Catholic theology, which are also problematic for priests with a vulnerable psychic structure. When the third vector in the mother-child dyad is an omniscient and omnipotent figure (God), ordinary paternal power can never be tested or affected. When the father figure is real (human), the son can play with and test his own potency against the father’s; the son can compete with it, aggress against it, compare himself with it, and even diminish the father’s power (Herzog, 2001). But God’s power is never diminished, nor are his limits ever felt. The Catholic priest is destined to submit his authority and power to the Magisterium and the ways in which the hierarchy already permits. (This submission may be one way, as well, that the hierarchy of the Church coincides with and encourages the internalization of anger and the tendency toward masochistic action.)

To the extent that the third represents the “outward vector” or the representation of the outside world, the mother-child dyad (lacking a viable, positively toned vector) can become a closed system. The son may feel that there is no acceptable alternative to the mother, either another woman or a man, if, for example, the degraded image is of a retaliatory, aggressive male. One Catholic priest who broke his celibacy vow in a romantic and sexual relationship with a female parishioner, said, “I was afraid to devote myself to a woman for fear I would lose her. This seemed inevitable because she might leave me or she would eventually die. I believed God might kill her because he was angry with me for betraying him … I decided to make God my primary love object … He is always there. I am never alone.”

For this priest, the fear of retaliation by the father still persisted after this psychic shift and was sometimes transferred to his superiors. He longed to be accepted by a father figure, yet never achieved it in a lasting way:

Everyone is called father, never dad. There is no intimacy. I spend a lot of psychic energy trying to please father figures from this distance. I’m always saying to myself, “I hope I’m doing this the way they want … I hope this won’t displease.” My sexual acting out, in part, was a way to free myself. But something was going on between me and God that I sought this woman out in the first place. I was running away from God.

When the mother is narcissistically fragile herself, the son’s merger fantasies may threaten annihilation, for the child’s fragile identity suffers from a lack of mirroring, recognition, and acknowledgment of separateness and difference. Often, the experience of the child-self is dissociated as the child precociously adopts a mirroring stance toward the mother to make contact with her and find relief from isolation. This dissociated self may be revived later in an overidentification with the victim. This circumstance is especially common in the female priest-female victim pairs. One female priest described her lover (the victim) as, “the child I was.” Another reported, “I couldn’t stand the pain in her. I understood it. It was the same I have known but never expressed.”

Cease from anger and forsake wrath

~ Psalm 37:8

In the case of a degraded male identificatory figure, either in the mind of the mother or in the child’s actual experience of the father, the priest may inhibit the capacity for aggression in a defensive attempt to disidentify himself with this image of men. One priest described his father as always holding back his temper. He sensed in his father a powerful and violent presence that required constant monitoring. On several occasions during the priest’s childhood, his father lost his temper and released a tirade of verbal and physical abuse. Although his father lost control on only a few occasions, the son felt that his father’s anger was a constant presence. This priest stated, “I consider it my job to eliminate anger.”

The inhibition of aggression represented, for this priest, a disidentification with the aggressor, his father. But he was also unable to differentiate himself from his mother because differentiation in the context of psychic merger is experienced as a psychologically aggressive act.

When males are degraded in the mind of the mother or fathers are experienced as unacceptable in actuality (or both), the son cannot use the father or his image as a pathway to his own masculinity. The son may turn to the Church for alternative pathways that devalue aggression and power. Sexuality may be interpreted as an aggressive act as well. One priest considered his mother an autocratic matriarch who could be warm and loving toward his nine sisters but was unaffectionate and unpredictable toward him, her only son. He felt that he could not please her and that he was often punished solely because he was a boy. Alongside this maternal degradation of masculinity was his experience of his father as a man whose sexuality was perversely aggressive. His father raced hot rods and brandished a “rape whistle” about which he would joke, “If you want it, blow it.”

On a conscious level, a reconciliation can be found in the Christian ideal of nonviolence, often masking a prohibition against assertion and separation. Merger fantasies with Christ or God (the acceptable masculine ideals) are ritualized and can offer a triumph over oedipal rivalry without competition or aggression. For example, in the Eucharist celebration (prior to Vatican II), Christ, in the form of a host, is taken in without chewing; the boundaries melt, as it were.

All hierarchies may conjure up unresolved oedipal struggles, but the hierarchy of the Catholic church is particularly rigid. At least on a conscious level, most priests do not seek promotion within it, nor do they believe promotion is possible. Climbing up the ladder requires a self-acknowledgment of ambition, competition, and other narcissistic needs that are deemed unacceptable, forbidden desires. In this way, a Catholic priest’s attraction to the Church hierarchy can be viewed as a search for the oedipal father (the third) who cannot be dethroned or displeased.

Likewise, in cases of therapist-analyst sexual misconduct, there is almost always the absence of a third presence, such as a consultant, supervisor, or peer supervisor. The enactment can be viewed as an actualization of the internal, dyadically structured configuration. Like transgressing priests, therapists and analysts describe the relationship with the victim as allowing them to feel as if they were in an insulated bubble. The transgressors report feeling isolated and totally dominated by the need to manage and control the relationship on their own. Although there is an undeniable grandiosity underlying this attitude, it is very common for the transgressor to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the felt responsibility to rescue the victim. Not only is there no help in the outside world, there is also the absence of a third within.

That may all be one, father, as you are in me and I am in you

~ John 17:22-23

A patient of mine (a Catholic priest) stated:

Celebrating the Eucharist is about being present to the eternal. Being one with God … By eating the host, we become Christ. When you and I have him in us, and we are one with him, we become one with each other. There is a mystery inherent in this act: we accomplish this unity without losing our individuality and without Christ being divisible.

Merger fantasies in the priesthood can represent a uniquely compromised solution. As in all fantasies of merger, the boundaries of time and space are dissolved, presenting the priest with a symbolic solution to difference and separation in return for the security of the maternal womb, without aggression or loss. In this way and through the Holy Spirit, the third vector of the Trinity, the priest becomes one with Christ and God without separating from the maternal object and without diminishing the power of the father. Thus, a defensive use of priesthood as a difference marker (Goldner, 2002) can solve the separation crisis by “inventing a magical solution to the profound human crisis of interdependence: a strategy for separating without feelings of loss” (Benjamin, cited by Goldner, 2002, p. 76).

Similarly, the identity of priest (as a feminine kind of male) can be used to solve the crisis of impotence in relation to a domineering mother and an absent or unacceptable father. The priest takes in a masculine figure that dominates the maternal object without aggression by elevating himself above her. He also takes in a masculine ideal without dethroning (i.e., losing or provoking) him. A vowed Jesuit priest described it this way:

The Catholic church is a very castrating hierarchy. Bishops to priests [and] the Pope to Bishops. It removes the opportunity for initiative. Ordination is it. Usually there is little opportunity for promotion. Everybody becomes a pastor and that’s it. [For vowed religious priests] there are three vows: chastity, in Latin is castitas, which means “to be made impotent”; obedience, submit your will; and poverty, surrender ownership.

Christ himself can be viewed as an antioedipal figure, in total identification with the father’s will (Vitz and Gartner, 1984).

Lead us not into temptation

~ The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

As this part of the Lord’s Prayer conveys, we are not the authors of our own desire but are tempted by others to be led into sin. Like Eve offering Adam the apple, ownership of desire is already one step removed. Many clergy who have chosen celibacy as a way of life find in the priesthood a haven from bodily desire. In this way, they hope to find a solution for conflicted or dissociated desire by substituting disavowal for transcendence. Transcending the satisfactions of the material (bodily) world from this position is not possible because one cannot give up what one refuses to own or authorize. As one priest rationalized while insisting that he had been seduced by his counselee into a sexual relationship, “I didn’t leave [her apartment] because my body responded, though I did not.” Such a psychic cleavage is a common finding in cases of sexual misconduct and may represent a precursor to it (Celenza, 1998), to separate the “me that wants” from the “me that sacrifices for others.”

I understand this precursor to stem from the sexualization of preoedipal (pregenital) needs. In the early childhood histories of vulnerable priests, it is common to find such sexualization, usually taking the form of covert maternal seductiveness and overstimulation (although outright sexual abuse is unusual). Most importantly, this seductiveness occurs in the context of an emotionally depriving relationship with the maternal figure.

Thus, paradoxically the sexualization is paired with an overtly repressed and sexually prohibitive atmosphere within the family. For example, one priest who was raised in a conservative and highly religious family, reported early memories of seeing his mother undressing, not in an intentionally seductive way but in an asexual manner, seemingly unaware of the stimulating potential of her body. Another described his mother as highly intolerant of physical touch; she prohibited her three young sons from hugging her or even holding her hand. He commented, “The more I tried to get close to her, the more frightened she became.” This mother, however, enjoyed a vicarious titillation from hearing of her sons’ multiple sexual exploits when the boys were older. He said, “My mother always enjoyed lusty sons” (Celenza, 1998).

Another priest’s Rorschach imagery expressed the way in which he had struggled to make contact with his mother, especially in his particular experience of his power and sexuality. On Card VII (a card that typically evokes imagery associated with femininity or maternal figures), he perceived, “Two female puppets-you can put your hand in through the bottom [the vaginal area] and make them move whatever way you want” (Celenza and Hilsenroth, 1997; Celenza, 1998). In this way, his desire for her was unstated but expressed through his manipulation and control of her desire.

For some priests, the church takes on aspects of the maternal transference and provides a way for the priest to reenact his pathological relationship to his mother while finding the father at the same time. In this self-object configuration, he remains secure within the mother’s domineering orbit while being exempt from the responsibility of authorizing his own desire. Cozzens (2000) describes the way in which the Church and the bishop fall psychically into place:

This maternal Church, while supportive and pointing to his dignity as a priest, is also demanding and controlling. His sexuality is restrained, his dress is determined, his residence assigned. This mother wants him for herself. The defining decisions most men make as they claim their personal ground as men are denied. At the same time, the ecclesial mother in partnership with his father-bishop provides identity, status and security [p. 57].

Thus, the priest finds maternal holding through merger (with her, the Church) while taking in and becoming one with a masculine and omnipotent ideal (with him, Christ and God).

Moreover, the experience of maternal holding through the institution of the Church, combined with the narcissistic elevation that accrues to the role of the priest in reality, provides a pseudosolution to the painful mother-son bond. Cozzens describes the social status conveyed to mothers of priests in Catholic circles. Narcissistic and oedipal needs (for both mother and son) coalesce around the experience of, “my son the Messiah … Aware of his human neediness and his special dignity as a priest, he becomes her special prize” (p. 64). In this way, the son’s omnipotence is inadvertently supported by the church.

Cultivate humility.

To be exalted is to be in danger.

Pride is … sin because it warps our existence.

It establishes our lives on a false foundation.

not to want praise,

not to be proud, …

to distrust one’s own will …

~ The Rule of St. Benedict

The cultivation of humility in a manner that denies needs for recognition, assertion, and pride is a form of deprivation, specifically in the narcissistic realm. Yet the Church also tempts narcissistic needs, especially as they are represented in paternal symbols. As a Catholic priest remarked,

I sometimes doubt my own motives for enjoying the celebration of public mass. I know everyone is watching me. I wear special robes. I can do something nobody else can do. The church has made me special. I perform the sacrament of the Eucharist. Only I can change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ! It may be good psychology but it is bad theology.

I asked him to explain more about this distinction, and he continued, “It is not me that changes the bread and wine. Only God can do that, through our faith, all of ours, not just mine. But sometimes the idea sneaks up on me that it is I who has that power.”

Under a thin cloak of humility, symbolically enacted in many rituals and sacraments is the placement of the priest in a position closer to God. He is viewed by parishioners and priests alike as a conduit to the holy, a step closer to the sacred than are ordinary beings. In this way, the hierarchy of the church tempts and may support omnipotence rather than challenging it, while at the same time offering a vehicle for its disavowal. As Cozzens (2000) describes, the elevation to bishop (much like being chosen or “tapped” to be a training analyst) can be constructed in the mind of the chosen as evidence, “that he is not like other men’ (p. 49). Moreover,

ordination … constellates a fresh Oedipal configuration … bishop-father, Church-mother, and priest-brothers … By God’s grace, the bishop is clearly a man of the Church, a shepherd of the Church, an icon of Christ … as a bishop he is anointed to be a kind of martyr [pp. 54-61].

Thus omnipotence and grandiosity are paradoxically tied into the stance of humility, and together they can mask envy, jealousy, rage, and competitiveness, while compensating for the denial of pride, sexuality, and other relational needs.

As Cozzens notes, “This oedipal desire to be the center of the world, to be loved and admired as no one else, to be first among one’s siblings and peers, to possess all power and knowledge, to be special, is from the psychoanalytic perspective, the original sin” (p. 52). Martyrdom, self-sacrifice, and humility can perform a psychological undoing of consciously disavowed omnipotence.

Forgive us our trespasses

~ The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

To find the peace without want

Without seeking it for ourselves,

And when we fail,

To begin again each day.

We humble ourselves … we keep silence

~ The Rule of St. Benedict

The public is aghast at the Catholic church’s response to the current crisis, especially in its apparent unwillingness to take responsibility for the horrific transgressions of pedophile priests. The silence, lack of apology and, worst of all, inaction in the face of repeated acts of exploitation are shocking. Recall, though, that, the Christian faith is founded, in part, on turning the other cheek, forgiving through prayer, confessing and performing acts of contrition in private conference with God. What appears to the public as inaction, silence, denial, and arrogance may be rationalized and dismissed by some transgressing priests as symbolic acts of forgiveness for their frailty, weakness, and inevitable humanity. That is another example of a preemptive solution: the privileging of forgiveness in a context of disavowal is nothing more than an immoral evasion of accountability.

Wrath killeth the foolish man, and envy slayelh the silly one

~ Job 5:2

The pervasive denial of aggression in the culture and psyche of priests includes a denial of anger toward authority figures. For vulnerable priests, the church or an overseeing professional organization can take on this aspect of the transference. One patient, a Protestant minister and therapist, revealed the fantasy that he and I were in secret collusion against the licensing board to reverse the suspension of his license. This fantasy paralleled an unresolved oedipal dynamic in which his mother had prohibited gratification while his father secretly colluded with him to obtain gratification without the mother’s knowledge (Celenza, 1991). Another Christian minister and pastoral counselor experienced his involvement with his patient as an attempt to simultaneously “fuck God and fuck the church.”

Another minister (and Jungian analyst) told a revealing story on the second card of the TAT. He was asked to construct a story in response to a picture of a man raking a field, a pregnant woman leaning against a tree, and a young woman in the foreground:

There’s … a dark side of it-a flirtation-not dark, maybe ambiguous … There’s sexual tension between the man and his niece, because of her freshness, her openness … That sets up a triangle. That newness catches his eye, catches his soul. I don’t think anything [happens]. But there might have been, if that doggone pregnant woman weren’t keepin’ such a close eye. I think he’d probably like to.

It is not insignificant that I was eight months pregnant at the time I evaluated this priest!

Typically the maternal figure was the authoritarian parent in the childhood of these priests, and she was experienced by the child as seductive yet prohibitive and rejecting. Unresolved authority issues are usually reexperienced in the negative maternal transference and are easily projected onto the Church. Analysts who have transgressed have been found to harbor evidence of unresolved anger or resentment at the institute or at a training analyst. Accompanying their anger were fantasies of embarrassing these authority figures by disgracing themselves (Gabbard, 1999).

On a more positive note, there can be poignant moments of redemption as transgressors seek to rehabilitate themselves. In a consultation with a priest who presented as genuinely contrite, if not self-punitive, I noted his ability to take responsibility for his misconduct. He discounted this empathie understanding from me. His style was not off-putting but appeared to be an earnest effort to do the morally correct thing without asking anything for himself. He made a striking point in response to my query about his current relationship to God. He said,

I don’t feel anger toward God. I have too much guilt. I don’t feel God violated his part of the bargain. When I was feeling desolate and alone, it was because I had left, not because he did. Can I be forgiven? I have so violated my position of trust as one of his servants. I’ll just have to see.

Then, apparently realizing I might misinterpret his statement as “depending on the outcome of this evaluation,” he added, “This is not a contemporary question. This is an eternal one.”