SEXUAL ABUSERS: WHO ARE THEY? by Teresa Hartnett

This is the fourth in a series of articles by Ms. Hartnett on the topic of spiritual healing after clergy sexual abuse. Her other articles are listed under her name in our Archives by Author

praysunriseKnowing the identity of sexual abusers reveals the truth about priests. To start, it’s important to know how sexual abusers are defined and, indeed, what sexual abusers are not.

Contrary to what many critics insist is true, sexual predators are not more likely to be celibates or priests or ministers. Homosexuals are not more often predators than heterosexuals. Statistics from many studies replicate similar findings. Abusers come from every socioeconomic class, every race and ethnicity, and both genders—although men are more often reported as abusers. Abusers are almost always known and trusted by their victims.

Modern psychology groups sexual predators by the gender and age group (e.g., late or early adolescence) to which they are attracted. The #MeToo phenomenon highlights how even adults are targeted by sexual predators. The attraction is elevated to diagnosis if it is acted upon or if it proves so distracting that normal social functioning is impaired.

To the casual observer, sexual predators excel at projecting normalcy. In my experience, they could flip a switch and seem flawless. That was their charisma. Hidden behind the public face, they had one goal—to have access to victims with minimal risk. People and situations were assigned value by their utility in this game. Power was a means to this end, with the added benefit of further insulation from accountability.

I grew up when clergy had easy access to me with little risk in the Church during the 1960s into the 1980s. Priests were trusted by everyone. They held power over our eternity. Schools, kids’ camps, colleges, cloisters, and seminaries were vulnerable. The Church was still insulated within some immigrant groups, so doubly insulated from the culture. Yet, make no mistake. The culture also turned a blind eye toward my abuse.

As I look around the world now, too many positions still offer sexual predators low-risk access to minors through teaching, daycare, coaching, child-oriented nonprofits, and kids’ camps. By some accounts, foster care is riddled with abuse. Mass immigration exposes unaccompanied minors in transit; but adult immigrants, with no security and little English, are also vulnerable to blackmail by predators. The stories of adults harmed within #MeToo reflect another insular system, like those in the fashion industry, government, and international and college sports.

Reforms in the Catholic Church are ahead of other institutions, including, in the US, mandatory background checks for all staff and volunteers; age-appropriate training for staff and children; and a defined reporting and review process. Beyond the US, the Pontifical Centre for Child Protection is rolling out child protection programs globally. Cultures are being challenged. The process of changing the world takes time. Meanwhile, a painful internal reckoning continues as reforms reach into every corner of a worldwide spiritual family and victims come slowly to terms with a terrible past.

My hellish past finds the diagnostic descriptions of sexual abusers falling short. I see abusers in a larger context, starting with my experience that sexual abuse is domination by sexual means. Only looking from the outside can abuse seem merely sexual. I experienced abuse as violation, as violence. It killed my childhood. It killed everything in me that was spontaneous and free. I watched as each abuser manipulated adults with devious charm. Whoever might have protected me—parents, teachers—was groomed, confused to blindness. Make no mistake. This was domination, too. Predators sat at the middle of a web with power over everyone, not just me. They relished the thrill of that domination. I saw that. I know that.

This is why I believe that knowing the truth about sexual abusers is knowing the truth about sanctity, in particular the sanctity of priests. My experience revealed to me what a true priest is. A priest is the exact opposite of an abuser, even if the abuser is wearing a priest’s garb. The abusers dominated; they destroyed my free will. A priest lives to cultivate free will in the lives of people he serves. The abusers killed my childhood and left me lessened. A priest points us to a full and eternal life in God. The abusers savored the power that lies gave them over others. A priest sacrifices his whole life to serve and share the Truth. He surrenders to the Truth and helps others surrender similarly. The contrast could go on, but simply stated it is a matter of evil versus sanctity, death versus life.

Knowing the sanctity of the priesthood is particularly critical when sexual abuse is involved, and especially when abusers are clergy, because these wounds cut to the soul, and they find full and complete healing, after all the appropriate health care still, in the Lord.

Priest abusers of children or minors or vulnerable adults can seem like a dead-end impasse to the sacraments for healing; whereas, in relationship with a true priest and his own sacrificial gift of life, even the wounds caused by the evil perpetrated by his facsimile cannot stand.

Teresa Hartnett is the co-founder and editor of The Healing Voices magazine and co-author (under the name T. Pitt Green, with Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS) of Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse—A Christian Approach. Through Spirit Fire Ministry she partners with dioceses, priests, sisters, and other Christian ministers to promote healing after abuse or trauma in faith settings. The website offers many free resources. She also manages operations for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and runs her own publishing consultancy.

Ms. Hartnett is available to conduct workshops or engage one-on-one with Orthodox bishops, priests, and laypersons who minister to abusers and victims/survivors of abuse, or who are themselves abusers or victims/survivors of abuse.

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Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise
by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.
Through them Thou hast drawn the world into Thy net.
O Lover of man, glory to Thee.