Pedophilia, Priests and Human Nature

Psychologist Mark Dombeck, writing in an online article entitled “Pedophile Priests: Monstrous But Not Monsters,” claims there are two possible ways to think about the subject.

The first is the “monster” hypothesis and the second is the “all too human” hypothesis. The “monster” hypothesis is the idea that the child-molesting priests either do not know right from wrong, or don’t care to think about it. The “all too human” hypothesis is the notion that child molesters suffer from a compulsion they don’t know how to control.

Citing his own experience as a psychotherapist working with child molesters, Dombeck writes: “In my experience, once you got past a pedophile’s bluster and denial and confronted him with his actions, he was typically pretty much ashamed of himself.”

Dombeck’s experience actually shows why there’s no basis for dividing his views about child molesters into two categories. His own experience proves that child molesters don’t care to think about right from wrong, do understand the difference between right and wrong while choosing to evade it, and clearly have a compulsion they don’t know how to control.

A “compulsion” refers to a strong desire or urge. It does not refer to an action.

If we say that an individual suffers from a compulsion to do something, he still can exercise the choice not to do it; it’s just that the choice is a very hard one for him, while it would not be for others. A person with a compulsion to abuse a drug, for example, can exercise the choice to stop using that drug when he has experienced enough of the negative consequences. (Drug abuse counselors call this experience “hitting bottom.”)

The urge to use drugs will continue for a period after the drug abuser stops, a period in which he might seek professional help, the help of peers, or might simply go it alone. It’s possible that the urge will disappear and reappear over his life, at which time he can choose whether or not to start using again.

Dombeck is correct that child-molesting priests, like drug abusers, suffer from compulsions to do something irrational. He writes of a “wheel of forbidden desire,” or a cycle of compulsion which develops in the pedophile: First, something gets derailed in the individual’s psychosexual development, causing him to be attracted to children rather than to adults. Second, the adult pedophile at some point decides to start acting on this sexual desire. At first he disagrees with and is even disgusted by his own actions, but the pleasure which comes from acting on the desire gradually begins to outweigh the disgust and intellectual disagreement.

However, the pleasure which the sexually troubled pedophile gets from the act of repeatedly molesting children is usually not enough to keep the cycle going. Something else must psychologically “prop up” the behavior if it is to continue. In a word: denial, evasion, and rationalization.

Rationalization essentially involves excuse-making. Examples of excuse-making include, “I can’t help it;” “It makes me feel good;” “The child wants it too, he gets no love in his life.” The excuse-making is clearly invalid to the non-pedophile—and even to the pedophile himself—on an intellectual and objective level. However, the pedophile, over time, becomes more skillful at denying and evading the clear wrong in what he’s
doing. He essentially chooses to place emotion above reason, with the choice to do so becoming deeply internalized and automatic over time.

This whole “wheel of forbidden desire” cycle, propped up with evasion and rationalization, keeps the cycle going until the abuser is eventually caught, if he is caught.

Does it follow from the presence of this compulsiveness that the abuser is not responsible for his actions? It seems reasonable, first of all, to assert that the abuser did not choose his sexual orientation to children. His sexual orientation developed for whatever, and as yet largely unknown, reasons having to do with overall psychosexual development.

At the same time, the abuser does make choices. The abuser chooses to shut down his thinking in favor of his whims—whims which are not only self-destructive, but also harm and even destroy others forever. The abuser also chooses to let himself act more and more over time on his rationalizations.

The fact that this dysfunctional, irrational cycle of behavior and evasion becomes automatic does not change the fact that choices originally brought it into existence. Its automatic status merely makes the behavior seem somehow “inborn” and “instinctual,” but to conclude this is to oversimplify and ignore the fact that choices were part of the picture.

The priest, for example, must know that people trust him to counsel and guide their children but never to sexually molest them. The priest could choose to recognize the dangerousness of his problem and get himself away from children, seek professional assistance, or seek counsel from someone else in his church. We can’t let the fact that he never originally chose his sexual orientation obscure us from seeing that he still allowed himself to evade, deny, and rationalize his way into having sexual relations with innocent children.

Dombeck describes the psychology of the child molester as follows:

Imagine for a moment that you are a person plagued by pedophilic thoughts and feelings […] You’ve maneuvered yourself into a position in the community that affords you access to and power over children, although you may never have consciously put it all together why this was important for you to do … You find yourself attracted to some children around you one afternoon.

You know this is wrong and you tell yourself this is wrong. You feel ashamed of yourself for experiencing the fantasies that you are experiencing. Still, as time goes by you find yourself increasingly craving the experience of your fantasies until your craving for sexual contact with children comes to dominate your waking thoughts […]

Your guilt feels restrictive while your fantasy life feels exuberant and free. And you find that, while you still know that pedophilia is quite wrong, you are also starting to see some seemingly “positive” benefits that children might gain from it. What has happened is that you have started to slip into denial, into rationalization.

Notice how Dombeck’s characterization of the mindset of a typical pedophile involves both compulsive desire (over which one has no direct or absolute control) and choice. Look at the choices involved: “maneuvering” oneself into a position in the community where one has power over children (instead of changing careers or insisting that one not be left alone with children); knowing right from wrong, but choosing to increasingly act on the craving anyway; allowing oneself to fall into rationalization, evasion and denial. The life of a sexual abuser is not one of total passivity, total and helpless “mental illness”—any more than the life of a drug addict is bereft of choice, as any former addict will readily acknowledge.

Despite his insightful recognition that the inner world of a pedophile involves both compulsion and choice, Dombeck makes a terrible mistake in his reasoning—a mistake so philosophically profound that it undermines any value in his otherwise insightful psychological points. He writes that, “We [human beings] are not rational creatures. Rather we are emotional creatures who sometimes are able to act rationally. And, while you are 100 percent invested in ethical teachings, you are also capable of having those investments ‘temporarily’ overridden by your desires, your cravings … in such a powerful way that you don’t really see it coming.”

This statement represents the mother of all excuses. Not just about child molesting; but about absolutely everything.

Dombeck, as so many of his colleagues in the field of psychology, provides the perfect escape hatch for a compulsive offender of any kind. In essence, he says that our emotional desires are stronger than reason and, therefore, we can’t be expected to control them—at least not the strong ones. Reason, though it is man’s very means of survival and is responsible for all the material and moral progress the human race has made so far, is minor when compared to the power of emotion.

Man is a beast waiting to happen. This is what passes for the science of the human mind as of the early twenty-first century, at least.

Dombeck also denies the law of identity. The law of identity, originally formulated by the philosopher Aristotle, asserts that an entity is what it is; A is A, and cannot be both A and non-A at the same time. A human being is either, by nature, a rational entity or he is not. Dombeck tries to have it both ways. He tries to say that man is a rational entity—implying that he can, unlike a snake, wolf, or a tiger—make choices as opposed to act out his preprogrammed instincts; yet he also says that man is too emotional to be “able” to act rationally in certain, undefined cases. What are those cases? Dombeck himself does not likely know. However, he would certainly assert that having the sexual desires of a pedophile constitutes one of those exceptions where one loses control of one’s actions, and where one’s nature as a rational, choosing animal is “temporarily” overridden.

How convenient.

What seems to be confusing Dombeck, or perhaps threatening him, is the unassailable reality that precisely because man is a rational entity, he can be expected to make choices—even when (in the context of psychological compulsiveness) it’s difficult for him to make good ones.

Psychologists already know with certainty that it’s possible for choice and reason to override compulsion, because we know of cases where cocaine addicts go clean; people stop smoking; people curb or control their gambling; people stop dating destructive people and find more wholesome mates; people lose weight and keep it off; the list goes on and on. There would be no point of psychotherapy if people were unable to get a grip on their irrational desires and make better choices.

At a minimum, a pedophile with a compulsive desire to have sex with children does not have to act on that compulsion. He might not ever be able to feel sexual attraction to adults, but at the very least he could leave children alone and, if nothing else, confine himself to a fantasy life and leave it at that. This is a position which is consistent with the law of identity, that man is a reasoning animal who can make choices, even difficult ones, to advance his own rational interests and respect the right of others to be left alone to do the same. A child molester is no more predestined to molest than a serial killer is predestined to kill. It’s a combination of compulsion and choices which shape him into the person he becomes.

A human being has no choice over the fact that he has a rational capacity, that he must exercise that capacity in order to survive and be happy, and that he does not live merely on pre-determined instinct as do lesser animals.

Because of this capacity, a human being (even one of modest talent and intelligence) can potentially live a profoundly meaningful and enjoyable life, especially if he lives in a culture respectful of individual rights, scientific endeavor, and free enterprise.

However, enjoying this rational capacity also means accepting the burden of choice and responsibility for one’s actions. To try and assert, as Dombeck and most other psychologists do, that human beings are both reasoning animals with choice and creatures with instincts making them completely helpless over certain actions, is to indulge in a profound contradiction. Mental health professionals and others who spread this view create a comfortable atmosphere in which present and future pedophiles can prop up their rationalizations and continue their crimes.

Sexual abuse of children, whether in the context of the Catholic Church or not, is a difficult and sometimes painful subject. Not only for the obvious reasons; but for the facts and myths about human nature that we have to uncover in trying to respond to it.

Source of Dombeck’s article:

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