Spiritual Networks

Silence Enables Abuse


Allan Schnarr, M.Div., PhD.
Submitted to National Catholic Reporter 5/11

A Time to Speak

I knew the time had come a couple days ago when I had trouble sitting still. I didn't understand what was going on at first. I was in a peer supervision group with psychotherapists who integrate spirituality into their work with clients. We were discussing how our clients, and we ourselves, were struggling with the lasting sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

I spoke about a client who’d been seduced by her spiritual director. I remarked how shocking it was to me that it took her so long to recognize what happened as abuse, much less stand up to him and his order. I talked about another client who was working in a rectory at the age of fourteen. He was recurrently raped by one of the priests. It took him several years to be able to find the strength to leave the situation, and two decades before he could confront his abuser. We spoke at length about the therapeutic journey that sets the truth free to be spoken.

I asked everyone if they grapple with a desire to have influence in the public sphere, outside the potentially far reaching ramifications of the inner healing of their clients. Some felt no need to have a public voice. Others spoke about the small ways they try to have some influence. I talked about this article, the seeds of which had been coming to me recently. We didn't say it directly, but I believe we were all feeling powerless. I certainly was.

Furthermore, I knew I had long silenced myself for fear of the consequences.

I had grown up in a large Catholic family, and my fear of pain inflicted by someone in authority began at a young age with my father. Eventually, in my thirties, several years into therapy I found the courage to confront him with the fear he had engendered in me. My mother had been so afraid of what might happen if I spoke my truth to my father. I told her I was making an act of faith in the love in our family, that it could hold the truth. My dad and I reconciled, and found a way to openly love each other, a way that had so long eluded us.

My healing journey brought me to a belief that my father would not disown me for speaking the truth. Finding the same faith in my Church has been a much greater challenge. I'd seen so many church authorities humiliate those who did not tow the party line. And always, looming in the distance was the unyielding sword of excommunication. Growing up in the Church, I not only towed the line, I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. I was purposefully orthodox until it all fell apart, a devoted Catholic until the sword cut me off. Getting a safe distance at that point tore up my insides. I've been in the shadows on the fringes ever since. When people have asked me if I'm Catholic, I've been unsure what to say. Sometimes I say that the essence of the Catholic Church is in my bones. I've never gone on to say that these bones have long been left with the silent dead.

As the oldest son of a deeply dedicated Catholic family, I’d gone right from high school into a Catholic religious order. I spent ten wonderful years there, fulfilling the role of the hero/saint, making myself a blessing for all those I met. Eventually I outgrew this role. I was a priest who’d fallen in love once too often. Once I got a little distance I realized it was not just my longing for love that meant I had to leave the priesthood. It was also my love of the truth, in myself. With a little distance I began to recognize my issues with authority in the church. Their requirement of submission had always grated on me. I still remember the anguish in my conscience when I took the required oath to accept and uphold all the church's teaching before being ordained a deacon. I knew I disagreed with many things that I "should" believe. I now believe that "shoulds" are the guilty pleasures of the self-righteous, claiming as their own what has been imposed upon them, and against which they are too much in fear of their own anger to take a stand. This was true for me. I could always figure out what the authority believed and tell them what they wanted to hear. My academic success was built upon my ability to digest and mirror the truths that the powers that be say should be believed. Ultimately, it was the affront to my God-given dignity that meant I had to leave.

The Cost of Silence: An Abusive System

I drifted more and more to the safety of the shadows on the fringes. Most of my students and clients were Catholic ministry professionals. I could respect their beliefs and, given the topics of my courses (emotional awareness in relationships) and the nature of psychotherapy, I could keep my beliefs to myself. I considered it politically wise if I wanted to keep my jobs. Whatsmore, I didn't want any humiliating confrontations with the bastions of orthodoxy. For three decades I have lived this way, imposing silence on myself lest I rock the boat and be thrown overboard. It's clear to me now how unsafe I've continued to feel, how afraid of abandonment or humiliation if I said the wrong thing.

What has become evident to me as I've watched the enduring scandal from my safe distance is that I've been complicit with an abusive system. It's my belief that those who are silent about abuse share in the responsibility for its happening. This is the judgment / hold against the Church leadership regarding the hidden flagrance of pedophilia. This is also the judgment I hold against myself regarding the blatant abuse of authority by leadership in the Church. I believe abusive authority is complicit with all abuse within its sphere. So also are the silent critics. All of us are willing to ignore the suffering of the victims. All of us are willing to blame others and discount our own responsibility. All of us are willing to slide into the powerless posture of the victim. There's nothing I can do that would make any difference. Others hold all the power.

In a dysfunctional system power is always in the hands of others. This perception is what entrenches the codependent roles of Victim, Abuser, and Rescuer.

  • The Victim, obviously, feels powerless and at the mercy of both the Abuser and the Rescuer. If I am in the role of the Victim, these others hold all the power to determine my fortune, for ill or for good. My only option is to hide anything that might incur the censure of either of them.
  • The Abuser, not so obviously, also feels powerless, and is acting out to prove it is not so. In the role of Abuser, as long as I'm proving my power over others, then I do not have to face the powerlessness I fear. My only option is to make it clear that I'm in charge.
  • Even the Rescuer, perhaps least obviously, is struggling with feelings of powerlessness. As a Rescuer, I am convinced that my fate lies in the hands of the Abuser and the Victim. To the extent that either is not happy, they will get caught up with each other, and my needs will be ignored. My only option, therefore, is to anticipate and provide what quells the Abuser and salves the Victim. Then they will have to treat me the way I'm treating them. It's only fair.

In some forms of Judaeo-Christian spirituality, the Victim and Rescuer are idealized, and the Abuser is demonized.

  • The Victim is the suffering servant as portrayed in Isaiah. It's good to be a Victim if you can believe your suffering is somehow helping others. How many Catholics grew up like me, believing that if it hurts, it must be good for you, or more truthfully at least, good for others?
  • The Rescuer is the messiah come to save all from their suffering. It's best to be someone who lives for the sake of others. How many in my church grew up like me, believing that the only way to be good was to be serving the needs of others?
  • The Abuser is the sinner, the selfish one who disregards the suffering s/he brings upon others. Such self-absorbed people are the cause of all that is wrong with the world. How many good Catholics grew up like me, suppressing angry guilt for any way that I was looking out for myself?

Victims and Rescuers get to self-righteously judge the Abusers who are also stuck judging themselves. Surely the kingdom of God would be here and now, if only we could get rid of the Abusers. Throw them out of the Church. Send them to hell.

What has not been understood in this arcane moral code is the systemic nature of these roles. Victim, Abuser, and Rescuer form a codependent triangle, a dysfunctional whole, outside which none of them can exist. Whatsmore, in most dysfunctional systems, the same person takes turns playing each of these roles. Victims become Abusers when they find themselves with someone less powerful. Rescuers become Abusers when their resentment overwhelms them. Abusers become Rescuers to redeem themselves. Victims become Rescuers to make things safe. Rescuers become Victims when they're not perfect servants. Abusers become Victims when their hubris hits the wall. The root of the horror of this systemic trap is in the perception of power. It's really outside myself. The only way to get it is to take it from others. The only way to be sure I have it is to lord it over others. In other words, the only real power is power over others. I can have the good form of it as the Rescuer, the saint. Or I can have the bad form of it as the Abuser, the sinner. Or I can be without it, at the mercy of the good or bad in others, as the Victim.

In such a system, the more power you have, the better off you are, of course. The more powerful you are, the less likely you are to be victimized. You get to have things your way. This is why hierarchy and dysfunctional systems so often coexist. The further you can climb in the hierarchy, the safer you are from the ravages suffered by those below you. In fact, you could always redeem your powerful position by being benevolent to those less fortunate. Teach them how the system works, how they can have a place of value within it. Convert them to the truth. Save them. The role of those in positions of authority in such a system can be very well intentioned. I believe this is true of my parents, priests and nuns, and all the other teachers I had within the Catholic world in which I was nurtured. As I was making my way toward adulthood, I learned to think and feel (or not) in the ways that they sincerely believed were best.

Breeding Abusers

Unfortunately, such a system of authority is inherently destructive. Alice Miller, a German psychoanalyst calls it Poisonous Pedagogy. It is the self-righteous position of those in power to teach the right ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and to punish what is wrong. The hidden destructiveness in this way of operating is that those without power come to believe that any experience which contradicts the authority must be wrong. Any thoughts I have that differ with the powers that be must be bad. When I have feelings of which the authority disapproves, these feelings only prove there is something wrong with me. And any action I take which violates the authority's standards means I'm in big trouble - unless of course - I don't get caught.

Poisonous Pedagogy makes some of the truth dangerous. It necessitates the secrets that are the poison of every dysfunctional system. I must hide what the powers that be don't want to see. Such a motivation keeps the power of judgment outside myself. It interferes with the formation of my conscience. I am not really allowed to make choices in terms of what I believe is best. Furthermore, in such a system, I learn to distrust my own experience. I am so much better off if I can avoid being aware of anything within me that conflicts with the authority. Root it out. Excommunicate it. Forget about it. Keep it a secret from yourself.

The worst horror of such a system is that it spawns abusers. It does this by violating their inner knowing of what is true, by teaching them to lie to themselves and others to keep up proper appearances, and by modeling the acceptability of power over others and insensitivity to the consequences of the same. Poisonous Pedagogy makes everyone long for power over others. When do I get my chance?

I Am Who I Say I Am

The first essay I wrote once I was free of the requirements of mirroring the external authorities in educational systems was about divine freedom. It was something I learned from Marcel Gervais, a priest who became a Canadian bishop. He taught us about the Old Testament through the lens of the Exodus. The understanding I formed from his teaching is that the Exodus was the seminal event for the Jewish faith, and indeed for all of Christianity. In the Exodus a group of slaves claimed their freedom. How it happened is worth telling. Moses was born a slave and, through a quirk of fateful providence, raised as a member of the power elite. When he discovered his origins, he lost the righteous certainty of his identity. Completely disoriented, he went wandering in the desert. There he saw something that made no sense to his upbringing. Nonetheless he trusted his experience and approached the burning bush which was not being consumed. He recognized the sacredness of the ground on which this mystery was occurring. There he allowed himself to trust his experience of God, a powerful presence who told him that he and his people were free. Moses, well schooled in the ways of power over others, told God he needed the backing of a God who was more powerful than those of the Egyptians, one who could scare them into letting his people go. God told him the divine name that is the key to all power: I Am Who I Say I Am.

The real miracle in the Exodus is not that the mighty Egyptians lost control over the lowly Israelites. The power of God's name was most clear in changing the consciousness of a group of slaves. In some way they understood the mystery beyond explanation. They realized what was beyond justification to or by the powers that be. They discovered themselves sharing in the identity of God. Herein lies the key to the liberation of every human being. I am who I say I am. Jesus found himself in these words. I and the Father are one. His freedom is mine. As God reveals himself from within, so do I. It's not what goes into a person but what comes out that says who s/he is. It is from this sacred ground that he challenged the religious leadership who were oppressing the people with imposed rules that violated the divine spirit. Like Moses he cut through the violation of the powerfully self-righteous who were stifling the divine freedom of the people. He told his followers the truth would set them free. He told the religious authorities that they had no power over him. They engaged their form of excommunication, having him killed. Little did they know the Spirit of power that he revealed would never die.

The power which I came to know and love in Jesus was never about power over others. His life was simply the embodiment of love. He focused the whole teaching of the law and the prophets in the two commandments which are really one: love God and your neighbor as yourself. In this commandment is the key to the divine essence. Herein it becomes clear why I Who I Am is not a selfish statement. The full truth is I Am Who I Am With You, As Are You With Me.

Self-revelation always happens in a relationship, and is always reciprocal. This is the everyday meaning of the doctrine of Trinity. I first learned this profound truth in a theology class called The Doctrine of God. The professor taught the class from his Latin notes which many of us believed were taken straight from the Council of Trent. When all the big words were boiled away, the doctrine of the Trinity fascinated me. In the beginning was a person (the Father) who didn't like being alone. So this Source emptied him(her)self into a second person (the Son), brought into being through this act of self-emptying. The Receiver, so enthralled with this gift, returned it in kind, offering all that s/he was to the Source. This loving exchange between Source and Receiver was so uniquely vital that it was her(him)self a person, the Spirit. This is still revolutionary! Every relationship is itself a person. The Spirit is what happens whenever two or more connect with each other. Trinity means that reality is relational. The Beatles proclaimed it: Love is all there is.

In terms of power, Trinity means that all power is shared power. Power over others is the only illusion. All who awaken to the divine essence within themselves arise to claim their share in the self-revealing power of God. These children of God grow into the realization that others have no power over them. We who are in this process of discovery learn what it means to be true to ourselves with each other. We dedicate ourselves to cultivating open awareness, the godlike readiness to know what is happening. We reveal what is happening inside so that others may know us and love us. We respect and welcome the truth as revealed from within each other, so that we may know and love them. We honor the experience of the Spirit of God as a community of equals.

Once I became aware of it, the challenge of being true to myself with each other staggered me. At the time I left religious life I was all too painfully aware how out of touch with the truth I'd become. I'd created a false self that I thought was me. I'd pushed out of awareness so much of the truth of my experience. That was thirty years ago. Since then, my dedication to the truth of my experience has led me though many years of psychotherapy, including the healing and reawakening of my body. I have learned how to rise to the challenge of honoring the emerging truth in each moment of each relationship.

I always hoped this time would come, the time when I could speak the truth without fear. I knew it was the legacy of Jesus. I am joyful to be here, letting the words come. I am doing it even now, simply saying who I am. To complete this disclosure, I am following with a statement of my beliefs. I am naming these beliefs in the first person plural. It's my way of joining with all  who share these beliefs. I know I'm not alone. I wonder just how Catholic this creed may be.

An Inclusive Catholic Creed

We believe in the one God who is embodied in all that is, whose awareness and Spirit flow through all that is happening in every present moment.

We honor this God as Mother and Father to us all, the Source of all life, the one who feeds and shelters us, and who provides whatever we truly need.

We cherish our earth as the divine body within which we live, and move, and have our being. We respect the interdependence of all life in our glorious home.

We recognize our God as the one who is honored by all people, whatever name they use to claim their God. Whoever you are, we believe that your God is our God too.

We believe that every human being, and all forms of life, are a revelation of who God is, deserving honor and respect. We listen with care to each diverse embodiment of God.

We reverence each of our bodies as the dwelling place of God, the source of experience by which we know our place in the universal body of God.

We believe that God's creative act is ongoing, that all life forms are participants in what is coming to be. We value the contribution of all life, even when we don't understand it.

We honor Jesus as the revelation of God, and challenge ourselves to see God’s self-disclosure in ourselves, in every other person, and indeed in every form of life.

We believe that the God revealed in Jesus is love, the power that holds all that is just as it is. We claim that the meaning of life for each individual lies in learning how to love.

We believe that all attempts to have power over others result from unacknowledged fear, and need to be held in love so that the healing truth may be discovered.

We bless the poor in Spirit, those who seek no power over others, who are content to simply be aware in the present moment.

We believe that we are challenged, in every present moment, to hold the truth in intimate relationship to each other. We honor the Spirit between us as our experience of God.

We bless the pure in heart, those who accept the simple truth of Spirit as it presents itself within themselves, and from within each other.

We believe the Church is the people of God, the ones who cherish equally every member, whatever their skin color, gender, age, health, or sexual orientation.

We honor our Church leadership as the ones who listen most carefully to the ongoing revelation of God within the people. We confront their attempts to have power over us.

We accept our share in the divine responsibility for everything that happens in our Church and our world. We are moved to act in concert with all who suffer.

We believe that death is the way to new life, that familiar old ways need to die when they no longer hold the truth whose discovery promises exciting new life.

We come together to celebrate the glory of the Mystery that fascinates and overwhelms us. We welcome each surprise as the gift of our God who wants to be known and loved.

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