A priest’s view of Penn State
Penn State students gather at Old Main, at the center of the university’s campus, to express solidarity with the alleged rape victims following a night of rioting in response to the firing of head football coach Joe Paterno. (Jeff Swensen – GETTY IMAGES) The terrible parallels between the horrific sexual abuse cases at Penn State and those in the Catholic Church are by now well known. But as a priest, I must say this at the outset: the vast number of children and young people abused in the worldwide church dwarf–by an order of magnitude–the number of victims at State College.
The similarities between the two institutions are striking: In both cases children were abused in the most sordid and tragic ways, scarring individuals for life. In both cases well-meaning adults reported the abuse, or at least their suspicions, to officials in the institution, assuming that this would put an end to the crimes. In both cases high-level officials could have reported these crimes to the police but did not do so (for a variety of reasons.) In both cases the abuse happened in an institution that seemed for many to be at the center of their lives. (The cheer “We are Penn State” shows a deep identification with the university.) In both places the desire to avoid “scandal” led to even greater scandal. In both cases there were complex emotional reactions about a person (a coach or a priest) who was also thought to have “done much good” in other parts of his life. And in both cases longtime members of the institutions (parishioners and students) responded with intense emotions over the scandal. (The rioting at Penn State may have shown not only frustration over the removal of Coach Joe Paterno, but also shame and anger over the public denigration of their school.)
The differences are important to count as well: Penn State is not an institution responsible for the spiritual care of souls, as is the church. It is not is expected to live up to the highest standards of the Gospel. Nor is it an institution as vast as, as complex as, or with the international scope of the church. Most importantly, once those at the highest levels of authority (that is, the Board of Trustees) discovered unavoidable proof of crimes, action was swift and decisive at Penn State, unlike, sadly, in the church. Bishops were not immediately removed for their failures in oversight, as was Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, the university president. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned, for example, months after the abuse scandal first erupted in Boston; and other bishops resigned in the wake of the abuse scandals–but they were not removed.
But I would like to focus on another area that has received little attention in the church, and which may help to shed light on what may still happen in State College.
Several years ago, I was invited to address a conference for psychologists and psychiatrists on the topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, held at a large teaching hospital in New York City. My own presentation focused on the ways that the sexual crisis came about in the church, that is, the factors that allowed priests to continue to abuse, and bishops to overlook the abuse. (Clergy from other denominations offered their perspectives as well.) Immediately following my presentation a psychiatrist stood to present his paper.
And what he said astonished me.
There were, he explained, two main characteristics of the sexual abuser: narcissism and grandiosity. The narcissist is almost entirely focused on his own needs and personal gratification. Think of it this way, suggested the psychologist: When an emotionally healthy person accidentally does something offensive to someone, and notices another person recoil or senses a feeling of discomfort in the other, the healthy person will stop, because he or she respects the needs of others. To take a benign example, if you are speaking to someone at a party and physically move too close, accidentally invading someone’s “personal space,” you may notice the other person take a step back. If you are healthy, you will say to yourself, “I’m making someone feel uncomfortable.” And you will take a step back as well.
When the narcissist, however, experiences another person’s recoil or discomfort, he will not take that step back. He will not consider the other’s feelings. He may not even notice those feelings. Why? Because, as the saying goes, “it’s all about him.” The narcissist’s needs are paramount. This, in part, helps to explain the tragic tendency of the abuser to continue to abuse even when the other is clearly suffering. Though I have never witnessed an actual case of abuse first hand, it is not hard to imagine the suffering that must be evident on the face of the child or young person. The healthy person registers this emotional response; the narcissist does not.
The second quality is grandiosity. Many abusers, explained the psychologist, are typically grandiose men and women. The grandiose person is often the “Pied Piper,” the one who easily gathers around him students, football players, altar boys, or even adults. Often a larger-than-life character, he may be the charismatic founder of an organization, the successful president of a school, the beloved teacher, the energetic Scout master, the popular pastor or the well-respected principal. Children and adolescents gravitate towards him because of his charisma; and, more importantly, because of his exalted status adults may feel more comfortable leaving their children in his care.
Let me be clear about something else: I’m no psychologist, and no expert in sexual abuse, so I cannot offer any further data other to say this: these words struck me with the force of a lightning bolt. Why? Because the majority of priests I knew who had been removed from ministry because of abuse claims showed precisely these two qualities. And in the case of Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football’s defensive coordinator accused of sexual abuse, we see some signs of both: the narcissist (who–allegedly –commits rape despite the terrible suffering it causes) and the grandiose Pied-Piper (who founds a center for boys).
But there is a further problem, one that is not often spoken about.
In my experience, after the conviction or removal from office or ministry, those two qualities merge in the person with terrible consequences. And these consequences make it far more difficult for the institution to address such cases. The grandiose narcissist now focuses almost exclusively on his own suffering. His removal from office, or from ministry, he believes, is the worst thing that has happened to anyone, and he (or she) laments this fate loudly and frequently. Because of his narcissism he focuses almost entirely on his own troubles; because of his grandiosity he inflates them to ridiculous proportions. He suffers the most. This is the “Poor Me” Syndrome.
Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. The focus of those within the institution is shifted onto the person they know, rather than the victims that they may not know. “Poor Father,” some parishioners may say, “how he suffers.” It is difficult for a diocese, a religious order, a school, or indeed members of any institution to resist the powerful pull of the grandiose narcissist. Indeed, people often seem unaware that they are being deluded into an overblown sympathy for the wrong “victim.”
In addition, institutional leaders can be overwhelmed by repeated pleas to see how much “poor Father” is suffering, or by widespread complaining about how “hard-hearted” they are for taking action. Tragically, the result can be resistance to real institutional change.
Let me be clear: the pattern of abuse that happened in the church is far more widespread that what is reported to have happened at Penn State. And I should be clear about another factor: the Catholic Church has, since the scandal broke, instituted important steps to remove abusers and prevent future abuse. (The U.S. Bishops Conference’s Office for Child and Youth Protection is one such step.) But anyone who seeks to combat abuse in an institution should be aware of a hidden trap: Be vigilant not only about safeguarding against sexual abuse, not only about holding perpetrators accountable, not only about turning over credible accusations to civil authorities, but also about resisting the powerful draw into feeling too sorry for the wrong people.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and culture editor of America magazine.