Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


As Catholicism deals with sexual abuse, society may face its own ‘distorted picture of sexuality’

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Nov. 10, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Dr. Bill Barber Spokane psychologist Dr. Bill Barber (left) has served for several years on committees convened by Bishop William Skylstad, of the Spokane Diocese, to study and advise on cases of sex abuse by priests in the diocese.

Dr. Barber graduated from Gonzaga University in 1956 and received his M.A. (1957) and Ph.D. (1961) from St. Louis University. He has served in both administration and faculty positions at Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga University, Tufts University, and Washington University in St. Louis, and in his private practice he lists among his many corporate clients the American Psychiatric Association, the Carnegie Corporation, Exxon Oil, Inc., General Electric Co., the U.S. Department of Defense, and Weyerhauser Lumber Co. Dr. Barber is a professor emeritus of psychology at EWU.

Recently, Dr. Barber wrote an article for the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, titled “Psychosocial Dynamics of the U.S. Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Crisis.” While written for professional and academic audiences, Dr. Barber’s article is of interest to a wider readership, as well.

First, a summary overview:

Essentially, Dr. Barber suggests that the Catholic Church in the United States needs to move beyond “attributing responsibility to designated culprits” and become aware of feelings of pain and confusion, “including the lurking truth about one’s own and others’ unconscious motivations.” We need, according to Dr. Barber, “a new starting point … one that enables us to avoid falling into the trap of blaming and victimizing.”

Instead, Dr. Barber suggests a focus that will “unearth the maze of special relationships within a covert interpersonal underworld…” This focus on “the psycho-social underworld” will help in understanding “how some church leaders, while in their own minds behaving in thoughtful, responsible and altruistic ways, have collectively interfered with and even worked at cross purposes … with their own stated goals and objectives.”

Dr. Barber cites Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, the popular author who was the keynote speaker at the Spokane Diocese’s Catholic Conference this year. In a 2002 university lecture, Father Rolheiser suggested that in the clerical sexual abuse crisis “the church is being asked to ‘carry’ – in the biblical sense of Christ carrying human-kind’s sins – the responsibility of dealing with the critical problems of pedophilia and sexual exploitation of young people that society as a whole has avoided.”

Thus, Dr. Barber comments, “the hidden world of sex crimes against youth is being forced into the open in the church so that maybe the church will help society face the epidemic of sexual psychopathology within its own ranks. The church’s humiliation and forced epiphany will, God willing, help society face its distorted picture of sexuality and move toward needed remedies about sexual abuse of children.”

Dr. Barber continues: “The primary task of the church – and that means all its members – is to live, celebrate and proclaim the person and program of Jesus Christ.” This includes worship, support services, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and other forms of ministry.

Distortions concerning sexual matters occur in the church in part because of what Dr. Barber terms the church’s “dependency culture.” For example, “As high dependency cultures, church work groups are susceptible to adopting dependency defenses when faced with complexity and conflict. Such groups alternate between compliant, ‘tell us what to do’ behavior and ‘we don’t like what you are telling us to do,’ both of which reflect dependency.”

The church, Dr. Barber says, “has been sidetracked from its primary worship and salvation tasks and thrust, in a traumatic way, into dealing with the sexual crimes of its ministers.” One consequence is that “attention is drawn to all priests – those accused of offenses and those not accused – in their ‘persons’ instead of in their ‘roles.’” Under such conditions, priests and others closely identified with the church “are not unlikely to manifest psychological symptoms including depression, psychosomatic complaints, workaholic behavior and acting out – taking action as a way, unconsciously, to escape the painful feelings.”

“What [church] members expect from church leaders – to make black and white distinctions about impossibly gray issues – is so extreme and out of line with what is possible, that disappointment and failure are inevitable,” he says.

As priests and others struggle with all this, Dr. Barber writes, “parts of their sexual selves are disavowed and projected on to church leaders.” As church leaders try to cope with the projections placed upon them, “as if the church could solve all of the world’s problems,” they feel increasingly more pressure. Church leaders then tend to place greater demands on themselves and their helpers. “While these projections and expectations give leaders great power, they also increase the risk of abusing power.”

Dr. Barber concludes his article on a hopeful note.

“Change and renewal are possible, if church leaders use the energy and motivation which have been thrust upon them by the crisis to re-position the institution with structures and policies more in line with espoused values – i.e. more democratic, more consultative; essentially more of an open system.”

Dr. Barber explained that he wrote his article because his education and experience have led him to understand that “effective leaders understand that there’s an irrational aspect of group and organizational life, almost an unconscious if you will, and that they need to think about two organizations, a conscious, rational organization and an unconscious, irrational organization, and how to work with both of those.”

Dr. Barber asked himself why the clergy sex abuse crisis happened. “My experience is that things like this are not without meaning. It’s not accidental. Yet the idea that there are a few bad apples out there that seduced altar boys is not an adequate theory, it’s not an adequate explanation. And there are two parts to this.

“One is that human nature is resistant to change, both in individuals and in groups, and major changes – in persons and in groups – do not happen unless there is some significant emotional impact, and trauma is one of those. We all know of individuals whose life got changed because of something happening, a car wreck, a DUI, a divorce.

“I had a clinical practice at Sacred Heart [Medical Center] for 30 years,” Dr. Barber says, “and I had a patient who drove home from work, and everything he owned personally was on the curb, his clothes, his computer, his golf clubs, everything that was his in the house was on the curb in front of his house, and all the locks had been changed on the doors. That had some impact.” And this is comparable to what has happened to the church with the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“The long-term purpose of the crisis may be to force the church to reevaluate, to renew, to overhaul – to be humiliated. Humility doesn’t come without humiliation. The church talks about being humble, and humility, and yet the behavior is autocratic, authoritarian, and it’s not humble. It may be that the unconscious purpose [of the clergy sex abuse crisis] may be to force the American church, and maybe other parts of the church, to get its act together. That’s one hypothesis.”


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