Pedophile Priests: Monstrous But Not Monsters

I was talking with friends recently and the conversation came around to pedophile priests and the recent awful and painful revelation by American Catholic Church leaders (perhaps not so much a revelation as a moment where denial failed) that a minority of their priests had sexually abused young boys over the last 30 years or so. While all of us were united in condemning pedophilia and the actions of these minority of priests, we were split on how we interpreted the motivations behind these terrible and abusive actions. There were a variety of voices offered, but it seemed to me that essentially two arguments were being made. We might call one of these arguments the 'monster' idea, and the other the 'all too human' idea. The 'monster' voices among us thought that the pedophiles in question must have been so lacking in morals and ethics that they either did not know right behavior from wrong, or simply did not give a thought to the idea that they were doing wrong (e.g., they were simply amoral monsters and sociopaths). The 'all too human' voices among us thought that the pedophile priests probably did (for the most part at least) know right from wrong, and acted as they did in spite of that knowledge based on a compulsion that they could not figure out how to control.

I was one of the lead voices for the 'all too human' side of the conversation. I don't actively provide psychotherapy anymore, but when I did, I had occasion to come into contact with a few pedophiles. In my experience, once you got past a pedophile's bluster and denial and confronted him with his actions, he was typically pretty much ashamed of himself. This may have been simply good acting for my benefit, but I've tended to think that at least some of it was genuine. While their guilt didn't stop them from continuing to act monstrously, and of course in no way excuses what these men had done to children, it did humanize them in my eyes. The pedophiles I knew acted monstrously, but were in essence very messed up, very sick human beings and not monsters. They knew right from wrong, but acted wrongly. It seemed too simplistic for me to think about why they did what they did as due to a moral/ethical incapacity.

Why would someone who knows right from wrong, especially a priest-type of individual trained in upholding moral laws, act in such an awful manner? As I thought about how to begin to answer this question, it occurred to me that the forces that might lead a priest (or anyone vulnerable to act this way) into such vile and harmful behavior were in some sense similar to the forces that lead average people into addictions, binge eating, and domestic violence.

What we're dealing with here is the allure of forbidden behavior, and the ways that people can develop compulsions to act out forbidden behavior of various types. When a type of behavior is declared forbidden, it is generally because it has become clear that that behavior leads to harmful outcomes, either for society or for the individual. Now - people don't typically do things that they don't like to do - so really - for a behavior to become forbidden it is generally not only harmful to society or the individual; it is something people like to do a lot that happens to be harmful to society or the individual. There are lots of examples of things people like to do a lot (because those things help them to feel pleasure, or dominance or control, or arousal) that are also dangerous to society or to individuals. Drugs feel good when you take them but cause all sorts of societal and health problems. Punching out your spouse when he or she annoys you feels powerful and commanding, I suppose, but makes for bad marriages as well as societal and health problems. Finally, having sexual contact (deviant sexual contact counts) tends to be highly arousing, but can become associated with societal, health and psychological problems. In the case of the pedophile, something in their psychosexual development gets derailed, and they end up becoming sexually aroused by young children. And for whatever reasons, it ends up so that it feels good to them to force sexual contact on children, even though it very much harms the children who become victims of their attention.

Imagine for a moment that you are a person plagued by pedophilic thoughts and feelings. Lets also imagine that you've struggled with these thoughts and feelings for a long time (sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully). You've maneuvered yourself into a position in the community that affords you access to and power over children, although you may never have consciously put it all together why this was important for you to do. Your experience might go something like this.

You find yourself attracted to some children around you one afternoon. You know this is wrong and you tell yourself this is wrong. You feel ashamed of yourself for experiencing the fantasies that you are experiencing. Still, as time goes by you find yourself increasingly craving the experience of your fantasies until your craving for sexual contact with children comes to dominate your waking thoughts. While you still feel very guilty about your desire, you also vividly remember how free and nice it has felt in the past to act out. Your guilt feels restrictive while your fantasy life feels exuberant and free. And you find that, while you still know that pedophilia is quite wrong, you are also starting to see some seemingly 'positive' benefits that children might gain from it. What has happened is that you have started to slip into denial, into rationalization. Your brain has started to weave stories that, backed by the promise of sweet freedom and release of your fantasies, seem very plausible: "I'm just going to educate these kids", "I'm just expressing my affection for them", "That look in the child's eye means that he is coming on to me". And in this context of 'temporary insanity', you act out on your fantasy and harm a child, or children. And as good as the sexual release felt, you feel that much more awful about yourself as soon as it is over. You are revealed as the predatory monster you were afraid you were, guilty as charged. You are filled with self-loathing, hatred. And yet .... time goes by and the feeling of acute shame or guilt or whatever it is fades, and one day you find yourself attracted to some children around you one afternoon.....

This sort of thing is a wheel; a circular pattern of behavior. The 'temporary insanity' you experience when you give in to your strong desire is not really all that temporary - rather it is cyclic and repeating. And it tends to be stronger than your own will to defeat it precisely because it is able to undermine your will to resist it. We are not rational creatures. Rather we are emotional creatures who sometimes are able to act rationally. And, while you may be 100% invested in ethical teachings, you are also capable of having those investments 'temporarily' overridden by your desires, your cravings (and the pseudo-rational excuses you make to yourself to justify how you will act) in such a powerful way that you don't really see it coming.

The behavior is forbidden, and so you must keep it a secrete. This is particularly the case in pedophilia, but it could also be the case in addiction, or binge eating. You yourself are unable to get your appetites under control. Your best bet would be to submit to external scrutiny (as in twelve step programs, counselors, etc.) - but you don't do that because it might ruin you (so you think). And so you go on and on; the wheel goes around and round and you get sicker and sicker.

Once you understand the basic idea of how this 'wheel of forbidden desire' works, you can hopefully see parallels in other forms of disordered behavior. At least to my mind, the wheel works pretty well as a way of thinking about how people get trapped in binge eating problems, in addictions and alcoholism and in a range of other problems. While the desire for alcohol, drugs or food is not quite so awful as the desire to sexually abuse a child there are strong similarities in how cravings and fantasies play havoc with judgment and result in a cyclical and repeating 'temporary suspension of control' and a lapse into intoxication or binge eating, typically followed by remorse/guilt/shame, and then more lapses.

The wheel idea expressed above is not mine. I picked it up during my graduate training (darned if I can remember exactly where). I know ideas like this have been around since at least the 60s (in the writings of Gregory Bateson). I also remember quite distinctly being taught about a very similar wheel that attempts to be a loose model of how domestic violence stays stable over time. In the domestic violence model, one spouse (typically the man) beats the crap out of the other spouse (typically the woman) in a fit of anger. The anger feeling is also a feeling of dominance, and control. From the perspective of the domestic abuser, it feels very good to beat the crap out of your spouse at the time because "she deserves it", "she was pissing me off (and deserves retribution)", "she failed me in some way". Such distorted thoughts are very reinforcing and pleasurable to a man who is basically insecure about his ability to control anything. Shortly after the beating is over, there may be a reconciliation phase, where the man is sorry and guilty for having hurt his spouse, and the woman may be thinking things like, "I must have deserved that", or "I know he loves me because he is so jealous". The two partners may use this time to make up (and have a sexual encounter), and then there would be a period of relative quiet which would be broken by the next explosion of anger and violence. This is not exactly the same wheel - but it is similar in that you can see the same sort of changes in thinking (that justify the use of violence or not) that occur cyclically over time within the relationship.

From a social policy point of view, I'm not sure it matters whether or not pedophiles are best considered simple moral monsters or more complex sick human beings who do monstrous things. The crime here is so awful and the repercussions are so negative for the victims that for the purposes of social policy 'zero tolerance' or 'extremely low tolerance' are the only coherent responses. Once identified, a pedophile needs to be kept away from children. This imperative needs to take place as fast as possible after identification takes place, and it probably needs to remain in place for the rest of the pedophile's life. While I do see similarities between an alcoholic's relationship with alcohol, the binge eater's relationship with cookies, pasta and ice cream, and the pedophile's relationship with child sexual abuse, these similarities drop away when societal consequences of lapses are considered. A binging eater will harm only him or herself and a binging alcoholic (so long as he or she does not drive) is unlikely to harm anyone but him or her self. In contrast, a 'binging' pedophile will certainly harm others and generally in a fairly catastrophic way.

Actually, as I think of it - the social consequences of alcoholism are pretty large too (as it is unrealistic for me to assume that alcoholics will not drive. Perhaps the laws governing driving while intoxicated could be strengthened while we're at it....

So - this is obviously a complex issue, and a charged one at that. What do you think about this topic? Please leave a comment below to let us know what you think.