The scandal of sexual
abuse of children by priests and religious has done untold damage to the
reputation of the Catholic Church. Here Edward Pentin interviews a priest
psychologist, Father Giovanni
Cucci SJ, the co-author of a recent book about the problem.
What conclusions do you come to in your book?
The book tries to
outline the complex personality of the paedophile, possible causes of paedophilia,
and points which demand attention in terms of diagnosis and treatment,
specifically focusing on paedophile priests in the Catholic Church.
For this purpose,
some points come into focus, especially regarding those who are called to
evaluate requests of possible candidates to a seminary or novitiate, and
relevant points concerning a unified and integrated formation. The second part
of the book is devoted to this issue.
In conducting this
research we have noticed some particularly significant points that deserve
greater consideration, not only within the Church. It must be made clear that the problem of child abuse has always
existed in our society. Today, there is growing sensitivity and awareness among
citizens of both victims in civil society to address these cases. This is one
reason why such painful facts have emerged in recent years.
However, we have
found amid the general outcry a strange silence among those who know more than
anyone and had the power to speak out. I am referring to the silence of those
who work in the world of education and have experience in dealing with children
(parents, teachers, sports coaches, community leaders, priests) and those who,
as experts, can provide suitable comments about the issue of paedophilia:
psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists.
newspapers in recent months has it been possible to find anything that goes
beyond a timely denunciation, to offer a broad reflection on this problem,
investigating its causes, prevention possibilities, and also offering
appropriate therapeutic proposals. On this front, there is an almost
complete lack of action, not just in terms of opinions, statements, interviews,
but also when it comes to publicising this issue.
One reason for this
deficiency, in our view, is that the topic of deviance and perversion has
become increasingly marginal within psychiatric and psychological research,
which undoubtedly makes it difficult to operate in a manner that is equal to
the seriousness of the problem. To this deficiency must be added a
curious ambiguity: in our culture, while it rightly stigmatizes these acts, it
forgets that in the past, society has not only tolerated them but also publicly
The cultural and political climate
of the 70s and 80s repeatedly tried to publicly justify paedophilia, without
encountering opposition or criticism. In 1998,
the Italian Radical Party published a document entitled: ‘Paedophilia and the
Internet: old obsessions and new crusades’, in which, among other things, it
stated: “In a state of law, to be a paedophile, to proclaim to be one or
to even to support its legitimacy, cannot be considered a crime; paedophilia,
like any other sexual preference, becomes a crime at the moment it harms
The same happened
in Germany – also now in the news. In 1999, the Humanistische Union (HU) of
Berlin fought to permit general pornography and all “consensual” sexual acts,
including with minors. Looking at more recent news, the official birth of a
legalized paedophile party, formed in Holland in 2006, arouses not a little
All that has
happened, therefore, can be put into a radically broader cultural context, one
in which there is often uncritical acceptance, approval of transgressions and
perversions as manifestations of freedom and spontaneity. It’s a culture which
takes a totally negative view of values and the moral law.
Paedophilia is a perversion and to
be recognized as such and calls to recognize it as the norm should be resisted,
ethically and psychologically, even before the law.
How can psychology help determine whether a priest has tendencies
towards paedophilia, and what are the signs to look for?
First it should be clear that the paedophilia
phenomenon has some common elements that psychologists describe as “perversion,”
“deviance,” “paraphilias.” These terms mean a disorder of
sexual excitement that is awakened only on very particular occasions, such as
the sight of objects and clothing (fetish), the wearing of clothes of the
opposite sex (transvestism), watching sex performed by others (voyeurism),
showing nudity to others (exhibitionism), inflicting humiliation, violence,
until the death of a partner (sadism, rape), or finally molestation, inflicting
violence, or sexual relations with children and adolescents (paedophilia,
ephebophilia). The paedophile is therefore a person sexually attracted to boys
or girls under the age of 13 years. The majority of abuse perpetrated by
priests of the Catholic Church is more related to cases of ephebophilia.
I should also say that psychology is
certainly not a mathematical discipline, from which it is possible to reach
clear and distinct conclusions. It is very difficult to define precisely the
personality of a paedophile, because those who commit abuses rarely reveal
their own tendencies and ways of thinking. It must also be said that many cases
of violence stay secret and are not revealed, out of shame or fear of
From the latest research carried out in Italy, it seems that
abusers are overwhelmingly male: according to data from Censis in 2000, most of
the abuse (84-90 percent) took place in the family, and 27 percent of
perpetrators were a close family member, that is, cases of incest. Studies show
in particular some problematic areas, and some real “red flags”
warrant particular attention. Among them are: infantile interests, lack of a clearly
defined sexual orientation, a history of sexual deviance, hyper-sexualisation or
sexual repression in the family, having suffered abuse as a child, or a poor
upbringing lacking affection and communication. Naturally, the situation should
be considered in its entirety, especially if an element recalls another.
What possible solutions to the problem are there?
A situation of ephebophilia, from a
therapeutic point of view, is undoubtedly a more favourable prognosis. To quote
the words of Kochansky and Cohen: “The psychodynamic and character traits
of ephebolphilia are quite different from those of paedophilia. The typical
ephebophile, except in cases of perversion, is a relatively healthy person. He
is not a psychotic. And although some may have difficulty establishing close
and intimate relationships and can therefore be somewhat antisocial, it’s not
an anti-social trait in the sense of a psycho-pathology.” In the
case of a paedophile personality, one is instead dealing with a sick person
who, only through the support of specialists, can contain and control their own
How should the Church – and wider society – best tackle this problem?
To report cases is important but not
sufficient, as noted above. In the absence of professional points of reference,
this can easily degenerate into what Philip Jenkins has called “moral
panic”, a mode of information that instead of reflecting on the problem in
its effective dimensions instils in people fear and panic, leading to a
generalizing, block phenomenon, a category, without providing any criteria for
analysis and intervention. Thus, any contact with a child raises the suspicion
In this way, potential victims,
children, are even more damaged and helpless. Above all, they will be
increasingly alone during a developmental period in which the educator’s role
is indispensable. I give you one concrete and significant example. In many
kindergartens children are no longer cared for and cleaned, staying all day in
their own excrement; the teachers absolutely don’t want to touch them for fear
of being accused of paedophilia. These are the typical consequences of moral
panic, and the ones paying the price are, once again, children …
Church, faced with these facts, many say that the Vatican doesn’t have
procedures to deal with paedophile priests beyond laicizing them. Of course,
this procedure can be right and proper, provided by the Code of Canon Law, but
that’s not to say, with all the facts in hand, that it is really the best thing
for potential victims, children, and for the perpetrator himself, who often
returns to society without any oversight and, left to himself, returns to
This was the case with James
Porter, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River (Massachusetts): once discharged,
he wasn’t pursued by the civil authorities, he married, and shortly afterwards
was charged with harassment against the babysitter of his children.
That said, you
still have to reaffirm clearly that this painful event requires careful screening
and adequate preparation on the part of formators and superiors who have
responsibility over those who are seeking to become priests or religious, since
the request can cover major difficulties in the area of sexuality and
personality in general. In the book, we offer some possible steps. He should
get to know a candidate in his human dimension, especially emotional and
sexual. He should have an emotionality that should imbue also spirituality and
the ideal of a priest.
A devastating human
and spiritual poverty characterizes paedophiles, and the root of their behaviour
is fixed on a state of infancy. More generally, from the perspective of human
sciences, it is important to verify the emotional maturity and the overall
balance and control of the impulses, which are basic requirements for the man
of God, as Church documents, also recently, have repeatedly pointed out.
Some say that paedophilia is linked to homosexuality. How true is this?
There is no
connection between paedophilia and homosexuality, just as there is no
connection between celibacy and paedophilia. As said, the
majority of paedophiles are married with children. The paedophile personality is very complex and includes the father of a
family, the professional, the priest – it includes people who are really
unexpected. Again, we warn against using easy labels in the hope of more easily
understanding the phenomenon.
Will your research be available in English?
For the moment we
have not thought of an English edition of the book. We have published one chapter
in a theology magazine in India, and we will do so with another chapter. If a
Catholic publisher, for example in the US, might be interested, we’d think
Edward Pentin writes
from Rome. Father Giovanni Cucci SJ and Father Hans Zollner SJ are the
‘Chiesa e pedofilia. Una ferita aperta. Un approccio
psicologico-pastorale’ (The Church and Paedophilia. An Open Wound. A
Pastoral-Psychological Approach) Milan, Ancora, 2010.