A Tragic Mistake

In recent months there has once again been much discussion and publicity concerning those who have attempted to rehabilitate priests involved in scandals with minors. Sadly but predictably, the media has pounced on this with endless accusations, including many directed at our great Pope Benedict XVI.  

Having been a priest for 50 years and a psychologist for 40, I’ve watched this drama unfold — or, rather, unravel — with a mixture of interest and sorrow. The current problems are, I have long thought, based largely on a tragic mistake, a fallacy. This great mistake was that Church authorities (and many others, as well) placed their faith too completely in the curative powers of psychotherapy.  

It is hardly a secret that for many decades the Western world has been enamored of psychology in general and specifically of psychotherapy. From the time of Freud we have been told that through depth psychology of one kind or another, all our problems could be remedied.  

This, of course, is untrue, but the people of the Western world have enthusiastically accepted it. It was thought that through the modality of psychotherapy, enormous changes could be made in the human personality — in the human soul. We believed that psychotherapy was able to change compulsive behavior such as alcoholism and the use of narcotics; we especially thought that compulsive behavior of a sexual nature could be transformed through psychotherapy. And so, when priests were found to exhibit such behavior, they were sent by their bishops to psychotherapists.  

This was an honest effort to effect change, and according to the “wisdom” of the time, it was reasonable to expect lasting change as a result. Obviously, things didn’t work out exactly according to plan.  

My own interpretation of all this is something I arrived at years ago and have found no cause to alter in any substantial way. It is that psychotherapy — even by the best of therapists — usually cannot “cure” compulsive behavior, although it can be one of several elements involved in gaining control over such behavior. Actually, the people who first came to understand this very well were the members of Alcoholics Anonymous.  

Long ago I knew and respected a number of AA members, and I believe that I was among only a very small number of psychologists at that time who would admit to being friends of theirs. Many people in the behavioral sciences then were extremely critical of AA — despite the fact that it worked!  

By the time I received my doctorate I was coming to the realization that it was futile to rely on psychotherapy alone in cases of compulsive behavior, that such therapy by itself was not accomplishing all that we expected it to accomplish. I then became increasingly certain that it was also necessary to do what AA did, to have some kind of spiritual program along with psychotherapy.  

Today we find ourselves confronted by many sad proofs of the inability of psychotherapy to change compulsive behavior, but we must not forget that both clergy and laity (almost always with the best of intentions) believed for years that getting good therapists involved in such cases would solve this problem.  

The kind of personal, individual conversion which is the basis of AA, and which ultimately grows out of the exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, is really what is necessary. It is known that the founder of AA was exposed to the Ignatian exercises, and he applied them to the problem of alcoholism with great success. AA, by the way, is a spiritual program rather than an explicitly religious one, which means that it is not denominational in any way. 

As I read the criticism of Pope Benedict for things that happened many years ago during his tenure as Archbishop of Munich, it seemed that this was simply the same problem over again: sad mistakes made by good people despite the best of intentions. But that was long ago, and we understand things more clearly now.  

We all must realize that, ultimately, conversion is a spiritual and personal experience, one that is dependent on grace and is accomplished only in union with Christ. This holds true even for a person of another faith who comes to conversion through his knowledge of and dependence on God.  

Pure therapy, even done by devout people and received by devout people, may be of great benefit, but alone it cannot succeed without the explicit personal conversion so well described in the twelve steps of AA.  

In recent years the popularity of psychotherapy has waned somewhat, and I am not disturbed by this. Of course it is still available and in many cases very useful. We should be glad for good psychotherapy, for it accomplishes many positive things.  

However, as Christians, we must never forget that real change — real transformation — comes about through personal conversion and moral confrontation of one’s self. Sinful behavior, even if it is compulsive, is ultimately a spiritual problem.  

I hope and pray there will be more and more recognition of this as the years go on.  

We must also always be cognizant of the fact that, no matter what approach is taken in regards to treatment, an adult person who has had any sexual contact with a minor must be removed immediately from any situation in which minors are present. No sort of professional work with the young can be considered for such a person. There can be no exceptions to this. TP 

FATHER GROESCHEL is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.