Why sexual abuse?
Stephen Schubert, a psychotherapist from Houston, offers a look into the complexities of sexual violence
By Chiara Catipon
It happened. Again. Recent reports of clergy sexual abuse seem to highlight rampant sexual misconduct in several Catholic dioceses in the U.S. over the last decades. People can’t help but ask, “Why?” Depending on the source of the problem analyzed, the proposed solution varies. While for the majority structural reform remains out of reach, perhaps frank discussions on the topic could help dispel the cloud of shame and pain surrounding the victims.
First of all, it is not their fault. Sexual abuse and sexual assault are crimes and include a wide range of unwanted sexual contact or activity “with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent,” according to the American Psychological Association.
The motivating factors of sexual assault and abuse are varied and undefined. “There is no easy answer because it’s complicated, because the human person is complicated,” says Stephen Schubert, a psychotherapist specialized in marriage counseling and a consecrated member of the Focolare. The most basic motivator could be physical: “the need for sexual gratification, with some people having stronger libido, sex drive, and less impulse control.”
Compounding this is social ineptness, which makes it more challenging for certain individuals to develop meaningful adult relationships. “When they are not able to fulfill that drive consensually, they may resort to manipulation and violence.”
Another big motivator is power. “Many sex offenders have low self-esteem, with feelings of powerlessness due to experiences in the past, and one area to assert power is by aggressively sexually assaulting a person or turning toward a minor.”
Anger is another factor. “Studies indicate a high correlation between child molesters and children who grew up with domestic violence, who witnessed their parents fighting, where there was a very hostile atmosphere in the home.” Relationships are thus seen as violent in nature. These are also emotionally unsupportive environments where fathers tend to be distant or uncaring.
One out of five boys who were sexually abused as children go on to become child molesters, according to one study. Yet more recent studies indicate an even greater link between child molesters and having witnessed domestic violence rather than childhood experience of sexual abuse.
However, in almost all these cases, Schubert notes that cognitive distortions play a big role; many sex offenders believe that their victims will enjoy the sexual act. Social cues are misinterpreted, and even if the victim says “no,” offenders believe it is just a way of actually wanting more or playing. In addition, he describes greater incidence of “sexual objectification” in which victims are not seen as human beings.
“With an obsessive-compulsive component to abusers’ personality, there is the tendency to repeat the offense because aggressors continue to search for that perfect person who will like them,” he adds. In the worst cases, there is the element of sadism which provides sexual gratification to those who inflict pain and torture on others.
Distinguishing types of offenders
With the latest media coverage of sexual abuse, it is important to differentiate between child sex offenders and pedophiles. “A child sex offender is anyone who sexually assaults or abuses a child,” Schubert specifies. “A pedophile is someone who is exclusively or predominantly attracted to pre-pubescent children, under 13 years old.”
Thus their attraction is exclusive to or primarily in that age range, as in the case of some pedophiles that are married. “The origin of pedophilia is uncertain, with studies seeming to indicate a genetic component or factors during prenatal development. It develops very early in puberty and is stable over time. They are attracted to children, both male and female,” he says.
He emphasizes that not all pedophiles are child molesters and not all child molesters are pedophiles. Only 25–50% of child molesters are pedophiles. “Just because they have this attraction does not guarantee that they are going to act on it.”
Pornography and abuse
Schubert notes that there is “no definitive correlation between pornography and sexual assault and child sexual abuse.” In fact, studies indicate a decrease in child sexual abuse cases since the legalization of adult pornography. Yet other studies claim that it decreases respect for long-term monogamous relationships, increases sexual objectification, and violent pornography may be linked to rape supportive attitudes.
Child pornography, on the other hand, is an extensive illegal industry, and Schubert affirms that “child sex offenders will often use it. Yet it cannot be determined to be the cause. Pedophiles will often look at child pornography, and this is a stronger indication of their condition than them actually acting on it and abusing a child.”
Some claim that pornography increases abuse incidents because it legitimizes child-adult relationships and builds tolerance up to the next step, abuse; others say that it has actually decreased the incidents because it acts as a substitute. There is no conclusive evidence either way.
Celibacy and child abuse
No research shows a link either between celibacy and child abuse. “The majority of child abusers are not celibate, and there is a large number of married men who are child abusers,” says Schubert.
He explains that the fact that most victims of clergy sex abuse are male children does not necessarily indicate pedophilia or homosexual orientation. Just as male-to-male sexual abuse is prevalent in prisons among heterosexual men, the clergy’s choice of victims seems to stem more from their accessibility to altar boys and seminarians.
He finds a potential link however between abuse and clericalism. “A priest’s celibacy needs to be taken in context with today’s clericalism. Sometimes it is thought that because a priest is celibate, he is on a higher moral plane. This can be dangerous because it can keep him from really connecting with others, from having genuine human interactions.
“It is important to understand that celibacy is a calling. It is not for everybody. Some people become priests who may not have that calling; perhaps their motivation for being a priest is more clerical: ‘One day I want to become a bishop...’ For those individuals there is an increased risk.”
Schubert emphasizes the need for stringent application of the “zero tolerance” policy. Once a priest has abused a child, even if not a pedophile, he must never be allowed to be near children unsupervised again. Even with therapy and treatment, the risk is too high that he may relapse into that behavior. Unfortunately, research findings have consistently shown a high recidivity rate.
Living a healthy celibacy
How does Schubert, a consecrated layperson, live his sexuality as a celibate?
He explains: “If we define sexuality as what it means to live as a man or woman, celibate people are still sexual beings. As a celibate man, I am called to give life to other people. I am called to generate life spiritually with the children I work with, in the relationships that I have, to be a spiritual father or brother to these people.
“Celibacy is not suppressing my sexuality because I am called to it. If I didn’t follow this call, I would actually be suppressing my sexuality because I am called to be free to be a spiritual father, a brother to a lot of people which wouldn’t be possible for me if I were married.”
He concludes, “What is needed among celibates is that space for intimacy, where we are safe to share who we really are with another person, really deeply, that space of warmth, a family atmosphere.” This helps to find one’s connection to self, to others, and for believers, to God.
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