By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
We’ve had a great number of inquiries in this country into institutional and clerical sex abuse. The most recent one, The Cloyne Report, is consistent at least in that it reinforces the picture of Ireland that has emerged from earlier inquiries. Abuse was perpetrated on the vulnerable and those most in need of protection and care. It was done by those in positions of power which, in the case of the clergy, was usually unquestioned. The task of bringing the truth to light was a long and arduous one. The abused were not believed and the abusers were not inclined to own up to the truth of what they had done. And, perhaps unnervingly, the abuse was perpetrated by those who were concealed or protected behind the veil of ‘doing good’. Their credentials were never in doubt, their intentions never questioned and, often, they were simply moved to another location and allowed continue their abusive activities by the Church.
There are any number of perspectives from which to approach the issue of the systematic clerical sexual abuse of innocent children in this country. But at the core of it all there is a running theme that never really gets highlighted. For men or women, whether they are of the cloth or not, to have carried out the kinds of abuse they did means they are perverse. Now that’s a word you will have to search long and hard to find in the acres of coverage that the sex abuse scandals have produced. But perhaps that’s not so unusual.
Perversion is not something that is studied or written about or given as much prominence by other branches of psychotherapy as it is by psychoanalysis. That in itself is a curious thing. The word began to fall out of popular discourse from some time around the mid 20th century, probably in the post-War period. Then in the Sixties with sexual freedom it became downright unpopular to even consider it. And yet behind the scenes it was going on all the time until it burst upon us in the past 15 years. It seemed to take people by surprise, as if we didn’t know what word to put on what was happening. Well, we didn’t. And the Church, in particular, has been regularly criticized for being so unprepared in its response. Yet how could it respond to something whose name had been effectively forgotten by society as a whole? How could it respond when it appeared to know practically nothing about the grim reality it was supposed to deal with?
Perversion, in the psychoanalytical sense, is when someone who has been profoundly affected by their upbringing acts out sexual fantasies on another person, almost exclusively against that person’s will. The reason they choose a sexual act is not so much the pleasure they get from it directly but because they know their actions carry such a social and moral taboo that the kick from breaking rules, and indeed being able to experience boundaries being broken very clearly, is all the greater. So, in this sense perversion has a paradoxically intimate relationship with the law, both written and unwritten. The priesthood was not chosen simply on the basis of allowing easy access to victims; its position as symbol and representative of law was essential too.
In most if not all cases of clerical sexual abuse the perversion has been of the sadistic rather than masochistic kind. It is rare to read of a priest having an act of suffering inflicted on him by a child. But the examples are abundant of things being the other way. The sadistic pervert has no interest in the person or child they are abusing. The person is merely an object that allows them achieve their goal. This is often a crushing experience in itself for victims.
And what is the goal of true perversion? Well the perverse act seeks to re-enact a very particular fantasy. The pervert must see and experience the anxiety they are causing in the other person. This anxiety is going to be the signal that triggers all sorts of pleasures for them. Any sexual satisfaction after that is merely a bonus. And even witnessing this anxiety in the other is not the end of it. It is done in the compulsive and unconscious hope of reducing their own massive anxiety.
The pervert is a conundrum. Externally they appear calm, nice, friendly, understanding, at ease with the world. Yet internally, they are continuously haunted by anxiety on such a scale that it often takes the complete violation of another human being to temporarily banish the demons. Psychoanalytically understood, this massive internal and very secret anxiety is there because at some early phase in their development they remained both sexually and psychically attached to the mother-figure in a way that was not healthy for them. Their life was and is, in a very real sense, not their own and their search is for continuous independence through evoking again and again the moment of separation in a staged, often sexually explicit way. It is not a pretty picture and from the outside it does present a confusing face: violence behind calmness; complete human disregard behind empathy; sexual voraciousness behind sexual abstemiousness. A study in the March-December 2011 edition of the Irish Journal of Psychology found that the clerical child sex abuser is a man with low self esteem, who denies sexual drives and sexual interests, but who is interpersonally agreeable and empathically concerned with others. He is more conscientious and has fewer psychological vulnerabilities, such as neuroticism, loneliness and sensitivity to personal distress. The study doesn’t go as far as to say so but this mix of characteristics makes him a frighteningly efficient predator.
But what does it mean to say that causing anxiety in another person is done to reduce their own inner anxiety? When a sadistic pervert ( as opposed to a masochistic one) is carrying out his acts of sexual abuse, violation, humiliation and so on - and because by definition he has chosen a person who is unwilling - he is seeking to illicit a sign in the victim that a limit has been reached. And remember a limit is a boundary along which a law, written or unwritten, is usually laid down. This limit is usually when the victim says stop, calls for the help of a parent or makes some other gesture or sign that what is happening is unpleasant or unacceptable. For the perpetrator this is the moment he is looking for, this is what all the grooming was for, when the boundary line between two important things becomes obvious, when the victim signals that this is not what they want and they vitally want something quite the opposite. It is here that they are being separated by the pervert from the thing they want most in the world, the thing most precious to them at that moment. It can be mother, father, safety, bodily integrity, peace of mind, ordinary life without nightmares, their favourite doll or train set, untrammelled confidence, wholeness of spirit, self-belief, an absence of confusion, their right to innocence. And in the moment of separating them from it, the pervert psychologically speaking gets a clear glimpse of what that most precious thing is. There are many, many ways he can see or imagine he sees this. It is a re-enactment of the act of separation from something precious; the pervert through his victim gets to see the moment that failed for him, the moment when he failed to separate off from his most precious thing and so was condemned to a life of not being his own person, but somebody else’s.
Psychoanalytic theory has been constantly evolving the notion that the perverse individual is formed as a result of this unsuccessful passage through a crucially important moment in every child’s development. Each and every one of us has to learn at a very young age, and at an unconscious level, that we must separate emotionally and psychologically from our mothers, even though mother is the source of all comfort for most of us. If we don’t somehow take on board this idea, we remain attached in a way that is unhealthy for us, not in moral sense but in the psychological sense that while being oddly comforting it is also deeply anxiety provoking. Helping us to separate is usually father or a father figure (which need not be a man). And helping him out in this regard is mother herself, or what the late English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the ‘good enough’ mother who can signal to her child that while she loves him/her unconditionally she also has her own desire in life. If the child remains convinced that he/she is the only thing that can fulfil mother, we have the beginnings of a problem. What starts out as a comforting notion, begins to be burdensome (because no-one can fulfil that role) and eventually massively anxiety provoking (because one’s life is not one’s own).
The thing that makes perverts differ from other folk who start out deeply caring for their mothers is that they can’t get away, and often don’t want to get away, from an uncomfortably close relationship and one that has not always been a positive experience for them. They then begin staging acts on others that re-route their anxieties about this into causing equal anxiety on their usually defenceless victims. The reason the grooming of victims is so important is because it ensures the victim becomes ‘defenceless’ either in a physical or psychological sense, mirroring the defencelessness that the perverse person has always felt about their prototype relationship with mother. The universal law that insists we all separate from mother at a profoundly personal and unconscious level (even though consciously loving her and caring for her all our lives) is behind it all. The pervert is re-enacting his unique position with regard to this law, he is bringing to life the boundaries of this law because he compulsively but unconsciously believes it will allow him separate from mother and dispel his anxieties. Except it never works, and that’s why it must be repeated again and again.
Where did this cruelty come from? How did mostly men and some women in religious orders get such a taste for debasing vulnerable women and children? These were the polar opposite of the values and beliefs they were supposed to represent. Weren’t clerical abusers supposed to be well educated and come from good stock, good families? It seems ridiculous to imagine they were all abused as children and so repeated the abuse on others. What makes far more sense is that they, like generations of perverse characters before them, had profound disruption to a seemingly simple but deceptively complex ‘moment’ in their development in learning how to treat mother with love and respect while being able to become their own person. A new study that compiles the personal histories of these offenders to see if there are common patterns in their childhood experiences would make interesting reading.
For victims, it is often a major step to be able to say ‘I was sexually abused’. But that’s not the end of it. The grip of sexual abuse on its victims long after the abuse has stopped is due to the finer detail with which the abuser stitches his handiwork together. Usually a campaign of conditioned defencelessness has been waged on them long before any abuse takes place. The antidote, if that’s the right word, lies in unpicking the threads of that stitching one by one, bravely and slowly and carefully, so that eventually all that remains of a masterwork in cruelty is a collection of loose threads that no longer have a dominating effect on the larger fabric of someone’s life.