What if McCarrick wasn't gay?

This month marks one year since the release of the McCarrick Report.

This month marks one year since the release of the McCarrick Report, outlining the Vatican's findings concerning the abuse of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The names involved in the creation of McCarrick's power and structures of abuse included those at the highest levels of the Church. As a result of the Report, some have engaged in mental gymnastics to absolve Saint John Paul II and others of their responsibility for the scandal. Others have used the Report to promote the argument that homosexuals are responsible for the clergy abuse crisis.

These conversations often involve a great amount of presumption. To a certain degree, this is necessary. Even with all of the information that has been released, many question remain unanswered, and the only way to make sense of McCarrick's story is to make educated guesses to fill in the gaps. One large gap concerns McCarrick’s sexual orientation, about which I myself have at times opined and made assumptions. McCarrick has never identified himself as homosexual.

The assumption of homosexuality, when treated as the explanation for his behavior, can prevent us from fully exploring and understanding the dynamics of abuse, and can narrow the perspectives with which we try to respond to them. Taking the assumption of homosexuality for granted (because of the abuse of males), some have proposed a ban on homosexual persons from the seminary. The logic of this move, I believe, is dangerous. Still, I can understand the desire for it.

But the key assumption, that McCarrick was secretly gay, might be wrong. And it can do a lot both to create excuses for abuse, and to hide what experts are trying to teach us about how abuse actually works. If the Church is to move forward in responding to our crises of abuse, we must have a better understanding of its dynamics and its relationship to sex and sexual orientation.

Understanding Abuse

One danger arises when homosexuality is treated as an easy explanation for abuse, as the primary motivator and characteristic to identify for prevention. Sexual abuse and assault, as the psychology community has continually tried to teach the public, are primarily about power. And while sex can be a tool in the pursuit of power, it is not usually the key motivator or end goal. This might help to explain why a number of the allegations against McCarrick do not involve “overt” sexual contact, and some of them do not involve physical contact at all. A number of abuse survivors in the McCarrick Report said that they would not describe the encounters as "sexual." Such a description benefits abusers like McCarrick. The focus on sex helped to prevent victims from recognizing that they were being abused.

For example, the Report writes of one victim: “Priest 2 has consistently stated that while he was subjected to unwanted physical touching by McCarrick, the nature of the touching was not overtly sexual.” The victim said that he did not pursue action against McCarrick even long after the incidents, in part, “because my experience with McCarrick made me feel extremely uncomfortable, but it stopped short of being sexual.” The victim’s focus on sex hid his own experiences of harassment and nonconsensual touching from him. He, like some others listed in the Report, identified the key motivator for McCarrick’s abuse as being “emotional,” rather than “sexual,” in nature.

Outside of the pursuit of power, key motivators for child abusers can be extremely difficult to identify. This is why experts, drawing on the foundational research of David Finkelhor, have tended to not focus on preventing abuse through identifying key motivations and weeding out persons who carry them. Instead, they have focused more on three other factors as preconditions for abuse:

  • First, they work on empowering possible victims so that they will be able to resist abuse.

  • Second, they heighten inhibitions to abuse.

  • And third, they create barriers to abuse in external environments, removing opportunities for abuse.

These can be achieved by, for example, teaching children about consensual and non-consensual touch, explaining to those in positions of power that there are no excuses or justifications for sexual contact with a minor, and limiting opportunities for non-related adults to be alone with children. Child sexual abusers are heterogenous, and efforts to identify them prior to abuse have proven largely unsuccessful as primary strategies. But more can be done to address and prevent abuse by focusing on these other areas.

The role of opportunity can hardly be overstated when it comes to the history of clergy abuse. Research by Karen Terry and others has suggested that focusing on sexual orientation can be misleading, even when the majority of victims are the same sex as the abusers. Terry has found, for example, that the proportion of abused males, as opposed to females, correlates with access to each group. Prior to the 1990s, where seminarians and priests had easy access to boys and younger men, these were the primary victims of abuse. But when “access to female youth increased in the 1990s, abuse of females as a percentage of victims also increased.”

Opportunity and Systemization

This is consistent with the abuse by McCarrick. As a seminarian and early in his priesthood, McCarrick had easy access to boys. Parents would send their sons away with him, at times overnight, while their daughters would stay home. This was common in Catholic culture, where parents wanted their boys to spend time with priests who they assumed would be good influences and connections for their sons. Sending a daughter overnight with a priest, however, was largely unthinkable in that culture.

It was in this culture that McCarrick learned how to abuse. He could use his reputation and the assumptions of the lay faithful to gain private access to boys and younger men. He would then put them into situations where he could use his influence over the boys to gain their trust, and he would manipulate the cultural dynamics to convince the boys that what they were experiencing was not abuse, or that it would harm the Church to speak about what had occurred. Over time, he learned he could do this with seminarians, and then with younger priests.

His system of abuse was established from his earlier access to boys in the Catholic community. He continued to abuse, in part, because he had established a reliable system within a culture he could manipulate. As it was remarked in the Spotlight film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.” For McCarrick's systemic abuse, he needed more than a victim. He needed a village to supply and a culture to silence them.

Opportunity and Orientation

McCarrick’s earlier successes as an abuser formed both his activities and desires over the course of his life. He may have been homosexual. But it’s possible that he may have been heterosexual. If he did not abuse girls, it may be because their abuse did not fit in with his reliable system. His abuse was specific and systematic. He did not tend to abuse or engage in sexual encounters with lay men as he rose in prominence in the Church, but over time seemed to focus exclusively on priests and seminarians. It’s possible that a predilection for men as victims was not something arising primarily out of a sexual orientation, but out of the formation of desire in the context of a life lived.

What the nature versus nurture debates over sexuality in recent decades have disguised is the complex relationship between “nature” and “nurture” when it comes to desire. Desire always arises out of a complex and dynamic constellation of realities. Desire arises from individual biology and personhood in response to external environments, which provide for the manifestation and continued formation of desire, interacting with biology and personhood which are themselves formed by external environments, which manifest and continue formation. One is neither “made gay” nor “born gay.” Instead, one discovers desires that arise in specific contexts, and the direction and definition of those desires are developed in and out of those contexts. It is highly possible that one does not initially desire to abuse, but that another desire manifests itself in abuse, which ties itself to the desire after the fact and gives the desire one pathway for definition and direction. In some ways (but not all), it's analogous to Pavlov's dog or the manipulative tactics of modern advertising.

In the context of McCarrick, this may mean that he abused as a response to undefined desires, then developed a more specific desire to abuse, which was defined and given direction by the particular abuses that access and opportunity accommodated. It is possible that he originally did not desire men, but his desire for abuse was formed by the outlet the boys available to him provided, and his desire to abuse became a desire to abuse men, and perhaps not just men generally, but men who were religious inferiors and thus bound up in the power dynamics of the system McCarrick knew he could exploit.

This might help to explain why the sex of the victim may not be indicative of the apparent sexual orientation of the abuser. Jim Hopper notes that research “suggests that men who have sexually abused boys most often identify as heterosexual and often are involved in adult heterosexual relationships at the same time.” Other researchers have also noted that the majority of men who abuse boys are married to women and have their own children. This means that focusing on sexual orientation will prevent us from identifying and preventing much same-sex abuse. Studies have found that more than 80% of men who abused boys would have been externally viewed as heterosexual, revealing that teaching children to avoid homosexual men as a method of avoiding abuse would give them a false sense of security and prevent them from avoiding actual abusers.

Given the rhetoric in many Catholic circles, all this should be more troubling than reassuring. Though abuse may be a learned behavior, the learning process is so complex and bound up in so many aspects of personhood and desire that un-learning may seem nearly impossible. Past efforts to “rehabilitate” priests who abused children have had disastrous results. And it seems that abuse can take an infinite number of forms, teaching the abuser in a twisted process of discovery, and forming and transforming his desires in the process. It benefits not only the abused, but also the abuser who is in the early processes of learning how to abuse, to detect and respond to abuse as early as possible. The first victim to come forward must be sufficient.

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Deceit and Distraction

One should be cautious about making sweeping generalizations when it comes to abuse. “Homosexuality” is an easy scapegoat for many Christian communities, but the jump to this scapegoat can hide important dynamics and considerations. It certainly is possible that McCarrick is what many would describe as “homosexual.” The McCarrick Report details what appear to be some instances of consensual same-sex sexual activities. But we should be discerning and of multiple minds when we consider his abuse. While sex and sexuality may play role in sexual abuse, we should not focus so strongly on these that we narrow our ability to understand and address what is actually occurring.

The blaming of sexual orientation makes sense, in part, because it is easy and simple. In a world saturated with crime documentaries, pills for everything, and Twittering, where we want world problems and their resolutions to be digestible within thirty minutes. We want the core of problems to be sexy and retrospectively obvious. Digging into the dynamics of trauma, abuse, and sexuality is often the opposite, a work that is a boring extended trudge into research journals, lengthy reports, and unheard stories. (Often we need to carefully read and scrutinize "reports" published by influential Catholics.) We need to learn and think broadly. There are gay men who abuse boys. But it is dangerous and ultimately unhelpful to assume that men abuse boys because they are gay.

The slow, hard, patient work must be done. We cannot get distracted by flashy answers that only give us half measures and false solutions. Scapegoats simply contribute to the problem at hand. We cannot have a false conversion, something that occurs with a flash and a bang, failing to realize that most of the important work ahead will be quiet and uninteresting to most. But that’s where we need to go. Our continued failure to do this as a Church suggests to me that we are insufficiently invested in ending this crisis. The problems continue, even to this day, and even at the seminary which McCarrick attended.

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