STRIKING PARALLELS AND CONTRASTS between collusion in clergy sexual abuse and familial responses to substance abuse

by Dee Ann Miller
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NOTE: Although I am aware of several cases of clergy sexual abuse by female clergy, I’ve chosen to use the masculine gender when referring to clergy perpetrators throughout this document for two reasons:

  • l. In the wider community, studies continue to indicate that the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse are male
  • 2. Regardless of the faith, female clergy remain a small minority of the total number of clerics.

This choice, however, is in no way intended to deny or minimize the suffering felt by victims of female abusers or male victims.

Collusion with abuse occurs in virtually every family, in every culture, wherever abuse has occurred. Yet it is multiplied in the faith community because of the added spiritual abuse that increases the trauma, especially when sacred scriptures are used as weapons.

Since the church considers itself to be “the family of God,” the parallels in how families deal with the shame of alcohol and drug abuse are strikingly visible when we compare how families of “faith” justify such pervasive collusion with abuse.

It is generally recognized that enabling behaviors of the family members of a drug addict help to keep the patient in denial and out of treatment. By constantly "lowering the bottom" through rationalizing and covering for the addict, close relatives become a part of the problem. Generally, they are as resistant to seeing this as addicts are to facing their own addictions, however.

Family members do not collude intentionally. It's just that addicts are experienced con artists. They know how to play on the emotions of everyone. They are excellent actors, often even fooling themselves. By diverting attention, often to other issues, the addict keeps people from staying on course to clearly focus on the addiction as the root cause of their suffering. The same is true for perpetrators. A clergy perpetrator, usually with years of being in the public eye, is skilled at convincing almost everyone, including victims, that he is really innocent or just “made a mistake.” He uses his charisma and status to enhance this skill. Even if he breaks down and "confesses," he finds ways to minimize the problems and the harm already done. It takes an enormous amount of energy to find one’s way to reality through the fog of deception which has been created by the offender and the many colluders who have already been misled.

The co-dependency of the people being battered emotionally, financially, spiritually, and often physically and sexually, wins out over all attempts by outsiders to convince the colluding family members of the importance of tough love. This is true whether the problem is with a perpetrator or an addict. And in families, addicts are often perpetrators, as well--either committing sexual or domestic violence or both. The colluding family members, generally, blame victims, denying the abuse as well as the addictions. Yet as the disease of addiction and rationalization spirals further and further downward, "protection" for the individual and the family becomes more and more difficult.

Addicts and their families want simple solutions to complex problems. Denial, ignorance, and minimization are the norms in these families. The same is true with many dedicated church leaders when faced with clergy sexual and domestic violence, for collusion with violence within the institutional church is also an addictive process.

Only the outsiders seem to know that "the secret" is no secret at all. In desperation, the family members become more closed, isolated, dishonest, and defensive with each attempted intervention to keep others from seeing what's really going on, until one day they all hit bottom together.

Sometimes hitting bottom allows hope to enter. For only then can some in the family be persuaded to allow the addict to bear responsibility for the problems he or she has created. That's the sad reality about the addictive process. There appear to be few shortcuts to facing reality. Hitting bottom seems to take an eternity--if it ever happens. As long as some “helpful” person is around the rescue and to continue lowering the bottom, accountability just never happens.

Roman Catholics leaders have said that clergy sexual abuse is their greatest challenge since the Reformation. As of yet, few people from other faiths seem to regard it with equal seriousness. Some Catholic leaders have suggested to me that this is only because of the fragmentation of other denominations or their protection under the "autonomous church" defense.

Certainly there has already been a lot of effort, on the part of most denominations, to consult attorneys and instruct clerics about the "new rules." With all of these activities, at least a lot more fear has been instilled into the system. Unfortunately, just like many spouses of alcoholics, the concerns seem much more about protecting the image of the "family" than protecting its most vulnerable members.

The spouse of a drug addict is constantly bombarded by confusing messages. Some come directly from the addict's behavior while others come from inside the head of the spouse in the form of irrational thinking. Feelings of self-blame, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem result from this confusion. The same feelings permeate a congregation whose pastor has betrayed their trust. They are also quite common among colleagues of a perpetrator when the misconduct of another is revealed. "If we had only noticed how depressed he was, we could have stopped this," we often hear.

When a patient enters treatment, everyone in the family minimizes. "It must be a chemical imbalance." OR "He'll be fine in a few weeks. After all she's only been drinking heavily for five years." The same dynamics are evident with clergy perpetrators and their colluders. "It's just the stress of the ministry. Treatment will be tough, but we are all going to expect total rehabilitation. With all the prayers going up for him, he'll be back in the pulpit in no time, being the great guy that he has always been.”

Other common characteristics which colluding church leaders share with family members of substance abusers: distrust, high anxiety, conflict among formerly close colleagues, inconsistency, unpredictability, constant manipulation of the rules, and aggressive tendencies. A propensity for forgetfulness keeps survivors and advocates constantly wondering how much of this is genuine and how much is convenient. All of these (and more) are illustrated in the author's book, How Little We Knew.

When an addict is finally forced into treatment, he seems to "clean up" quickly, but often does not stay sober for long, once he is released. It is common for him to look at the wife and children he has harmed and expect them to forget what he has done, welcome him home, and restore him to all the blessings of marriage and fatherhood while leaving behind their memories of neglect and/or abuse. Colluding family members have the same attitudes, thereby naively giving his denial support more than his sobriety. All of this is usually true, as well, of the clergy perpetrator and his colluders, as he tries to manipulate his way back into a trusting relationship with his congregation and profession.

A few years ago a physician-patient stood at my desk on an inpatient unit and laughed as he told me: "My family tells me that I'm not like the others because I'm a doctor. I tell them that they are dead wrong. I'm just an old drunk, same as everybody else in here." This patient was exceptional in one way, however. The higher functioning the addict, the harder it usually is for him and his family to face reality. He simply has too much help denying it! The same is true for clergy perpetrators.

As any sober addict will tell you, "Admitting the powerlessness is just the first step." Well-meaning people, steeped in DIM thinking, often erroneously equate this First Step in a 12-step program with being the last.

Just as substance abuse is an age-old problem, so is clergy abuse in its many forms. Just as people have been naively enabling addicts for years, so have folks been colluding with sexual abuse and domestic violence by clerics since the profession's origin. Until very recently, the general population seems to have been much more shielded from the secrets of the church than from those in society at large. (While media attention was strongly given to familial sexual abuse in the early 1970's, the public was only occasionally made aware of clergy sexual abuse fifteen years later. Even in the late 90's, the tendency is to put most cases in a Religious News section, rather than on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.)

Now that the secrets are being exposed increasingly, however, the community of faith has the opportunity to become the exceptional "salt of the earth" which it has so long claimed to be. Will honesty, accountability, justice, and safety be placed higher on the priority of our institutional values list? Or will the press and the courts have to be used to shine more and more spotlights on the truth until we are able to find the bottom and develop zero tolerance for the profession, as well as the reprehensible problems which we seem unable to solve on an institutional level?

Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)