Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.November 13, 2011
  Demonstrators hold candles and flowers Aug. 20 in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, Chile. The demonstration was held as a protest against sexual abuse committed in the Chilean Catholic Church, in an event organized by the Network of Survivors of Ecclesiastical Abuse in Chile. (CNS photo/Alberto Pena, EPA) 

Several years ago, I was invited to address a conference for psychologists and psychiatrists on the topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, held at a large teaching hospital in New York City. My own presentation focused on the ways that the sexual crisis came about in the church, that is, the factors that allowed priests to continue to abuse, and bishops to overlook the abuse. (Clergy from other denominations offered their perspectives as well.) Immediately following my presentation a psychiatrist stood to present his paper.

And what he said astonished me.

There were, he explained, two main characteristics of the sexual abuser: narcissism and grandiosity. The narcissist is almost entirely focused on his own needs and personal gratification. Think of it this way, suggested the psychologist: When an emotionally healthy person accidentally does something offensive to someone, and notices another person recoil or senses a feeling of discomfort in the other, the healthy person will stop, because he or she respects the needs of others. To take a benign example, if you are speaking to someone at a party and physically move too close, accidentally invading someone’s “personal space,” you may notice the other person take a step back. If you are healthy, you will say to yourself, “I’m making someone feel uncomfortable.” And you will take a step back as well.

When the narcissist, however, experiences another person’s recoil or discomfort, he will not take that step back. He will not consider the other’s feelings. He may not even notice those feelings. Why? Because, as the saying goes, “it’s all about him.” The narcissist’s needs are paramount. This, in part, helps to explain the tragic tendency of the abuser to continue to abuse even when the other is clearly suffering. Though I have never witnessed an actual case of abuse first hand, it is not hard to imagine the suffering that must be evident on the face of the child or young person. The healthy person registers this emotional response; the narcissist does not.

The second quality is grandiosity. Many abusers, explained the psychologist, are typically grandiose men and women. The grandiose person is often the “Pied Piper,” the one who easily gathers around him students, football players, altar boys, or even adults. Often a larger-than-life character, he may be the charismatic founder of an organization, the successful president of a school, the beloved teacher, the energetic Scout master, the popular pastor or the well-respected principal. Children and adolescents gravitate towards him because of his charisma; and, more importantly, because of his exalted status adults may feel more comfortable leaving their children in his care.

When the narcissist experiences another person’s recoil or discomfort, he will not take that step back. He will not consider the other’s feelings. He may not even notice those feelings.

Let me be clear about something else: I’m no psychologist, and no expert in sexual abuse, so I cannot offer any further data other to say this: these words struck me with the force of a lightning bolt. Why? Because the majority of priests I knew who had been removed from ministry because of abuse claims showed precisely these two qualities. And in the case of Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football’s defensive coordinator accused of sexual abuse, we see some signs of both: the narcissist (who-allegedly commits rape despite the terrible suffering it causes) and the grandiose Pied-Piper (who founds a center for boys).

But there is a further problem, one that is not often spoken about.

In my experience, after the conviction or removal from office or ministry, those two qualities merge in the person with the terrible consequences. And these consequences make it far more difficult for the institution to address such cases. The grandiose narcissist now focuses almost exclusively on his own suffering. His removal from office, or from ministry, he believes, is the worst thing that has happened to anyone, and he (or she) laments this fate loudly and frequently. Because of his narcissism he focuses almost entirely on his own troubles; because of his grandiosity he inflates them to ridiculous proportions. He suffers the most. This is the “Poor Me” Syndrome.

Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people. The focus of those within the institution is shifted onto the person they know, rather than the victims that they may not know. “Poor Father,” some parishioners may say, “how he suffers.” It is difficult for a diocese, a religious order, a school, or indeed members of any institution to resist the powerful pull of the grandiose narcissist. Indeed, people often seem unaware that they are being deluded into an overblown sympathy for the wrong “victim.”

In addition, institutional leaders can be overwhelmed by repeated pleas to see how much “poor Father” is suffering, or by widespread complaining about how “hard-hearted” they are for taking action. Tragically, the result can be resistance to real institutional change.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Liam Richardson
12 years 6 months ago
Ah, yes, "poor Father".

The meme of the "Wounded Healer", when adopted by grandiose narcissists, is a particularly popular rationalization in the past couple of generations. Of course, we should not lay any blame at the feet of Henri Nouwen for this, because his goal was for people in pastoral ministry to become more self-aware so that they did *not* fall into the pathologies associated with this blindspot. However, there have been a lot of self-anointed "prophetic" ministers who use their sense of personal woundedness in myriad ego-serving ways.
david power
12 years 6 months ago
Lots to chew on from both Fr Martin and Karl Liam.
I think that the example of personal space is not the best.If somebody backed away from me I might not think "Oh dear I am making them feel uncomfortable " but the other way around. It all depends on the culture .
The psychological make-up of a pedophile is something that only those poor souls who work with them have to know about and the rest of us have an intuition and a surface knowledge. 
Looking at the reactions I have to say that I have witnessed them all in the prelates who were under pressure for handling those cases.Cardinal Brady truly believes that right now the suffering of victims is a drop in the ocean to his own.The profile of all catholics when reacting to it is very important.
I sealed off the abuse for years.I was in love with all the goodies on offer and would just let it pass my consciousness . I thought that the victims were a blip on the radar of the church. It was then known as the "Irish problem".
Many catholics still manage to "manage" it all.The Church helps them in this by putting on the occasional show and barking "move along nothing to see here".  Fr Barron is a perfect example of this.His talk of a "handful" of guilty people is indicative of my old mentality.
He of course would need to think this if he was to have the energy to do "catholicism" and lead people past the gore onto the wrapped goodies under the tree.
A spiritual mendacity is the outcome of all of this sealing off. We all have selfishness within us and are capable of doing terrible things but to harm a child I think requires something more.
How are catholics themselves dealing with this?What is the psychological profile of a practising catholic at this moment?I see Idealists ,Realists and Saints .The first are a smiling bunch on the 1st of May but unaware of suffering of others as they will not let it enter.The second are shell-shocked and speechless and searching for men or women of wisdom   to help them to be with Jesus.The Third are what they always are.
Molly Roach
12 years 6 months ago
"Even more dangerous: he draws others into his net, and the suffering of the real victims, those whose lives have been shattered, is overlooked-even by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people."

This describes people who are very effective at manipulating others.  They seem to be willing to argue their case forever.   They are often talented verbally.  And because they are priests (or celebrity coaches!) people can feel overwhelmed and unable to think for themselves-at least openly.  

I think that questions are a useful way into reflecting on this stuff. How has each of us been manipulated in the past?   Does this leave us vulnerable to further manipulation or have we developed some defenses against it?  How can we address the person who is attempting to manipulate us?  What are the issues around which we have been manipulated already?  Is someone trying to manipulate us now?   Manipulative people are deeply insecure, often very smart and have very little if any experience in conducting themselves openly. 
They're not easy to deal with but with enough attention, it is possible to spot them.  And with enough determination it is possible to avoid their net.

Matthew Pettigrew
12 years 6 months ago
To David Smith:  What sides?  Compassion for whom?
Helen Smith
12 years 6 months ago
David Power:

What is the psychological profile of a practising catholic at this moment?
(As Martin Sheen said recently in an interview. He is a practicing Catholic, practicing until he gets it right.)
Who are we?  We have lost our idealism; we are realists, holding on for dear life in a Church that is so flawed, hoping to God that we will be validated in the next life.
And that’s the truth as I see it.
david power
12 years 6 months ago
Helen Marie,

Like Tom said it was a good way of putting our position.Sheen is an example in many ways to other catholics.
I am not so sure that everybody is on the side of realism but I think a great deal are.
It could be though that in about 10 years people will have forgotten all about the abuse and the cover-up. There is no day to commemorate it or meaningful act to show the dark side of the Church like we have for the positive side (Saints,Cathedrals etc).
Younger generations will probably think that we are making most of it up if we tell them the sad truth.
They will be able to rationalize it as a smear campaign by a liberal media or else as exaggeration.Time will allow that to happen.People will move on and I think the Church is unlikely to learn anything in the end. That is why I think it is equally important to have a clear and forensic profile of catholics and especially of clergy.About 50 years ago Eugene Kennedy and Fr Greeley made a survey of seminarians and there results were pretty much what you have now being reported. I read it but cannot seem to find it on the net now.It spoke of immaturity and narcissism.Of course it was not paid any attention to by those who knew better.I have a Jesuit Friend who teaches at a very important (the most important!) Jesuit University and he just shakes his head when he talks about those who are there now in terms of the seminarians.He is usually a very postive guy and a keen and acute observer but his diagnosis is very negative.   
Molly says that questions are a useful  way to reflect and I am sure that now more than ever we need to question ,not only pedophiles but also the make-up of those who covered up and those who remained silent.If not..........   
david power
12 years 6 months ago

It was actually 40 years ago. I am sure there are people at the moment doing something along these lines with the clergy but is anybody doing it with the laity?.
Those who emerge as the lay leaders in the future may be a great step forward from the  past or else a reversion into what we have just witnessed.
What psychological qualities  are needed and visible within catholic lay people?.What deficiencies are there?.
Some people will have a more docile temperament and they will be obviously more malleable to the hierarchy and so more likely to be put forward.It is natural for us to go with those who do as we say.   
These  very people though will probably not have any intellectual depth and as spokesmen for Mother Church will come across as Parrots rather than as those who have encountered Christ. Pope Benedict sometimes uses the word "pathologies" to describe certain patterns within the Church and the World (mostly the latter) and maybe we need to discover those within ourselves so that having overcome them we can give a better account of God.
ed gleason
12 years 6 months ago
To add my 2 cents to David Powers analysis ..besides the Idealists and the Realists there is a larger group I would call the Hopefuls. These are the pew Catholics who survive in their faith life hoping that the present crop of bishops have already put in place the reforms and watchdogging that will stop the flood of abuse. They need this HOPE in the leadership solution  because they have a fierce need for the sacramental life. I am not that hopeful knowing that the present leadership while 'waiting their turn' gave a pass on the cover-up. Therefore the cover up is still enmeshed into the clerical culture and  with the present leadership. e.g. Finn in KC.
This spring's Philly trial will be another chance to purge the system. The leadership for the purge will either come from a new lay initiative or maybe but  less likely, from the lower ranks of the priesthood.
Robert Dean
12 years 6 months ago
Heartily agreed, Mr. Costa.  I am a mental health professional, and Fr. Martin is spot on.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 6 months ago
A fine essay. For those commentators here who enjoy a good book, the priest in Pat Conroy's South of Broad is just a perfect literary type of the grandiose narcissist Fr Martin outlines here.
Des Farrell
12 years 6 months ago
A brilliant and concise! essay. There will be many more reports of abuse in the future if this culture of narcissism and grandiosity is not further weeded out. It is so ingrained that for many ordinary Catholics this type of criticism is considered an Attack rather than what it obviously is meant to be, a loving education.

The latest from america

Pope Francis accepts the offertory gifts during Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on May 19, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
The pope devoted his entire Pentecost homily to describing how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians with both “power and gentleness.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 19, 2024
Today’s text from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear that henceforth, as a rule, the Holy See will not declare any alleged spiritual phenomenon, such as an apparition, as authentic‚ that is, “of divine origin.”
Gerard O’ConnellMay 17, 2024
Cardinal Robert McElroy, Bishop Robert Barron and Bishop Daniel Flores joined moderator Gloria Purvis for a roundtable discussion on the rise of polarization in the church.
Michael O’BrienMay 17, 2024
Whether carefully reflected upon or chosen at random, picking a confirmation name is a personal and spiritual journey for Catholics, reflecting a connection to the saints or a loved one and a commitment to embodying their virtues.
America StaffMay 17, 2024