Therapist Musings

News Item: Pope Circles the Wagons

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Monday, March 29th, 2010

The Catholic Church as Non-Protecting Parent

Recent revelations about the Catholic church’s handling of reports of sexual abuse in Germany and the United States highlight its insensitivity to the welfare of children.  Even when victims have had the courage to report the assault, and even when psychiatrists warned that the priest in question should not be allowed to work with children, the church chose to ignore the recommendations and reassigned the priest, enabling more harm to children.

The same dynamic operates in the incestuous family where one parent abuses the child(ren) and someone else, often another parent, ignores all indications of the danger to the child(ren).

Usually the motivation to turn a blind eye relates to the parent’s own experiences of abuse;  not being able to touch one’s own pain makes it difficult if not impossible to see another’s.  Pretending everything is fine means not having to take actions that would create conflict within the family.  Denying the truth maintains a façade of normality, saves face, and avoids confrontation and even criminal charges.

When children are sexually abused, they manifest their distress in nonverbal ways.  At one extreme, they become withdrawn, even mute (flight/freeze).  At the other, they act out aggressively (fight).  Or their behavior combines elements of both.  Then, because of their reactions, they become the problem and are often targeted for additional abuse.

The reactions of the hierarchy of the Catholic church puts it in the role of the non-protecting parent;  it refused to act on evidence of the grave harm to children perpetrated by its representatives, choosing instead to serve its own need to avoid scandal.

Frank Bruni summed it up well in a piece for the New York Times when he described how a priest in Ireland handling a report of abuse had the two victimized boys sign a pledge of silence:  “It is doubtful that pledge helped them heal…It certainly did not safeguard other children…But it served a purpose and illustrated a priority: to insulate the church from outside interference and condemnation.”

Bruni goes on to explain how the church views the crime of sexually assaulting children as first and foremost a sin, to be atoned for and forgiven.  By focusing on what to do with abusive priests in order to avoid scandal rather than on how to safeguard children, the church has continued to demonstrate its lack of concern for children.  Not reporting to the authorities known sexual abusers also places the church outside the law of many lands.

What is scandalous for the church has been devastating for children and yet little has been written recently about the long-term effects on them.  It’s way past time to consider the damage done, take responsibility for it and offer restitution.  And since sexual abuse remains a danger for all children including in their churches, a system needs to be put in place that encourages them to come forward when a priest does something that troubles them.  Children should be seen, heard, believed and protected.


News Commentary: Pope’s Apologia

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Monday, March 22nd, 2010

That’s an Apology?
NY Times:  Pope Offers Apology, Not Penalty, for Sex Abuse Scandal

In his Pastoral Letter Of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI To the Catholics of Ireland, the Pope does not actually apologize to the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by employees of the Catholic Church.  Instead, he invites Irish Catholics to seek solace from the very institution that has betrayed them, exhorting them to pray and remember the suffering of Jesus Christ.

Although Pope Benedict XVI writes about the pain of the victims, he takes no responsibility for any of it, using terms like “the church in your country.”  In fact, the letter is replete with references to others and has few “I” statements.  It seems designed to prevent a massive defection from the church in Ireland rather than to atone for the grievous acts committed by priests and their superiors on children in their care.

What constitutes a meaningful apology?  Start with owning up to the specific wrong committed, acknowledge how the behavior has negatively affected others, then offer restitution.  This pastoral letter reads more like an apologia.  No wonder the Catholics in Ireland were not happy with it.


News Item: Neuroscience

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Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Fear Slows Time or Not

Many people who have experienced terrifying experiences report that time slows down, a phenomenon known as time dilation.  Writing in his Psychology Today website, Jeff Wise described an experiment in which researchers sought to discover whether the brain actually does something, like speed up sensory input and cognitive processing, or whether it just seems that way in retrospect.

Using subjects and a thrill ride that entailed a very long free fall, he first had them estimate how long it had taken them to land (in a net).  Not surprisingly, they guessed it took longer than it did.  Then he strapped onto their wrists a device that flashed numbers just fast enough to be imperceptible by someone in a neutral state.  If the brain did speed up, he figured, then subjects would be able to read the numbers.  They couldn’t.

He concluded that fear doesn’t speed up perception and processing;  it simply enables more detailed memory.  The hypothesis states that remembering more makes elapsed time seem longer.

One experiment does not a conclusion prove and needs replication.  Perhaps reading those numbers just didn’t qualify as necessary for survival.  Additional research using imaging techniques to uncover what goes on in the brain during heightened states of fear could contribute to greater understanding of time dilation.

Something different must be going on in the brain to accumulate far more details than usual, if that’s in fact what does happen.  Certainly, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the brain would evolve to pay closest attention to those things that are perceived as most dangerous.

Crime and accident victims, survivors of childhood abuse, and others, describe an acuity of perception and altered cognitive state of knowing that differs markedly from ordinary experience, shifts that often result in life-saving decisions and actions.  This research raises interesting questions that call for further exploration before conclusions can be reached.


News Commentary: Predatory Priests

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Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Say What?

NY Times:  Vatican Sees Campaign Against the Pope

Apparently the Vatican considers sexual abuse of children a matter of “attraction” rather than predation.

In a public interview, “Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the director of a tribunal inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm,” (NY Times, 3/14/10), admitted that the church had received 3,000 accusations of sexual abuse by priests in the past ten years and then made the startling calculation that 300 have been accused of pedophilia in the past nine years.  What happened to the other 2,700?

It’s not the math;  it’s the definitions.  A paragraph missing from the current online version of the Times article but existing in the printed version of the Sunday Times states, “We can say about 60 percent of the cases chiefly involved sexual attraction towards adolescents of the same sex, another 30 percent involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining 10 percent were cases of pedophilia in the true sense of the term;  that is, based on sexual attraction towards prepubescent children.”  Someone must have quickly retracted all that, realizing what had been revealed about the church’s understanding of sexual abuse.

And then there’s the part about sparing the aging priests (60% of the cases) from the undue strains of trial (though they were disciplined in some other way).  Only 20% of the cases went to trial and of those some were acquitted.

Just for clarification:  the sexual abuse of children (and teenagers are still children) involves the abuse of power and the eroticizing  of fear.  What turns on the perpetrators is the child’s terror.  Sexual abuse is not about attraction.  Remember, informed consent requires the power to say no along with the understanding of what is happening.  Children do not have either.  Where the abuser is a priest, there is also the betrayal not just by a trusted authority figure but also by the god the child worships.

The Vatican still has a long way to go in its dealings with victims of abuse and the men who prey on the children in their care.


News Item: Neuroscience

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Friday, March 12th, 2010

Newborns & Smell Memories

Recent research demonstrates that within the first week of life, newborn babies encode olfactory (smell) memories of their mother’s milk when nursing and retain a preference for that odor up to a year later.  The research, described in Science News, provided evidence of infants’ ability at a very early age to associate particular smells with positive experiences, forming memories that stay with them.

What might this mean for smells associated with negative experiences?  One symptom of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder involves re-experiencing the original horror, with all it’s associated feelings and thoughts, when confronted with anything reminiscent of it.  Just as the smell of cookies baking in the oven can elicit fond images of other times, the scent of the perpetrator’s cologne or body odor, clean (or dirty) bed sheets, or anything else, can trigger the switch on the time machine of PTSD, catapulting the unsuspecting survivor into a sensory and emotional state that’s enough to make one feel ambushed and crazy.

So much is encoded before language parts of the brain develop.  Survivors of childhood sexual abuse (and other forms of abuse and neglect) struggle with symptoms that erode their hard-won self esteem because of how beyond conscious control these triggered states can be.  It can help to know it’s a brain thing.  Babies are learning sponges that absorb everything that happens to them and goes on around them, and they learn in a visceral way that eludes ordinary cognitive memory in adult years.  Memories of abuse and neglect from the first years of life can wreak a particular havoc because of their preverbal nature.