A priest psychologist notes that a “strange silence” about pedophilia has existed among adults and professionals involved in caring for children, a cloak he attributes partly to a culture that repeatedly tried to justify underage sex in the recent past.
Pedophilia always has existed in society, says the Rev. Giovanni Cucci, a Jesuit priest and co-author of a new Italian book on psychology, the church, and sex abuse. But the crime has been spotlighted in recent years, he says.
The book is entitled “Chiesa e pedofilia. Una ferita aperta. Un approccio psicologico-pastorale,” which translates to “The Church and Pedophilia. An Open Wound. A Pastoral-Psychological Approach.”
For years, sexual abuse was shrouded in silence and secrecy, most notoriously in the church but also in other institutions.
“We have found amid the general outcry a strange silence among those who know more than anyone and have the power to speak out,” Cucci told me. “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 pedophilia: psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists.”
Amid the condemnations in the newspapers, it is rare to hear any broad reflections on the problem, any investigations of the causes, possibilities for prevention, or therapeutic answers, Cucci said.
Cucci added that, incredibly, in the late 1990s, humanist groups in Germany and Italy were campaigning to legalize “consensual” sexual acts, including those with minors, arguing that pedophilia was a crime only if it harmed another person.
He also pointed to Holland where a party supporting the legalization of pedophilia was founded in 2006.
“All [this] can be put into a radically broader cultural context, one in which there is often uncritical acceptance and approval of transgressions and perversions as manifestations of freedom and spontaneity,” he said. “It's a culture which takes a totally negative view of values and the moral law.”
Pedophilia, he stressed, “is a perversion” and calls to recognize it as the norm “should be resisted, ethically and psychologically, even before the law.”
Cucci, a psychology and philosophy professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the majority of abuse cases perpetrated by priests are more related to ephebophilia — that is, a sexual attraction to adolescents rather than children, though he stressed that this does not lessen the seriousness of crimes by priests currently making headlines.
He said it is hard to define the personality of a pedophile psychologically because those who commit such crimes rarely reveal their motives for doing so.
Many cases of violence “stay secret and are not revealed out of shame of fear of consequences,” he said.
But drawing on research from Italy, he said perpetrators are overwhelmingly male and that most of the abuse (84 to 90 percent) takes place in the family with 27 percent of abusers being a close family member — that is, cases of incest.
He also said it is possible to pinpoint some red flags to help identify a pedophile.
Among them: “infantile interests, lack of a clearly defined sexual orientation, a history of sexual deviance, hyper-sexualization or sexual repression in the family, having suffered abuse as a child, or a poor upbringing lacking affection and communication.”
He stressed that each case should be considered in its entirety, especially if elements are linked.
But Cucci warned against “moral panic,” leading to groups of people being lumped together as suspected pedophiles. Such fear hurts children most of all, who, because of suspicion, have to go without affection and emotional bonding with adults that are indispensable to their growth and development, he said.
From his research, Cucci said there is no connection between pedophilia and homosexuality, in the same way that there is no connection between celibacy and pedophilia.
“The majority of pedophiles are married with children,” he said. “The pedophile 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.”
Cucci concluded: “A devastating human and spiritual poverty characterizes pedophiles, and the root of their behavior is fixed on a state of infancy.”
He said his book, co-authored with another psychologist priest, the Rev. Hans Zollner, also gives tips for the church on how to screen men for the priesthood, identifying any candidates with pedophilic or ephebophilic tendencies. There are no plans yet to publish it in English.
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