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     By Brent M. Baum, STB, SSL, CADC, LISAC, CCH (December, 2002)

This article emerged after repeated requests from victims, families, parishes, communities, and clergy seeking to understand the presence and disclosure of sexual abuse and related patterns of repression and trauma within and to the Catholic church community. The need for a more comprehensive paradigm of healing which can assist us in understanding the subconscious impact of trauma on decision-making and moral development has been evident for some time. After working with thousands of trauma survivors, these dynamics reveal the need to update our understanding of the psycho-spiritual impact of trauma. This paradigm emergence is imminent and necessary; the shift is timely and appropriate.

Recent media coverage has brought to light an increasing pressure and awareness within the laity, clergy, and hierarchy about the issue of unresolved sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church. This is no simple matter, for an accurate grasp of the situation and the patterns involved calls for a discussion of the discoveries of “Systems Theory” in the 1960s the role of “celibacy” as an ecclesiastical law and tradition, the influence of subconscious “role assignments” from dysfunctional families, and the mechanisms of trauma repression and their repercussions.

Over the past fourteen years I have worked with numerous clergy and other survivors of trauma, totaling over ten thousand cases. In addition to the high percentage of sexual trauma survivors, news of my work has attracted the attention of the Human Resources department of TWA working with the senior staff and the family members involved with the crash of TWA Flight 800 in New York, the officers and survivors of the Oklahoma City Bombing, and numerous firefighters, civilians, and medical personnel from the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. I worked as Clinical Director and as a developer and coordinator of the trauma program for Cottonwood Treatment Centers for seven years and am currently in private practice, teaching trauma resolution techniques internationally, and seeing clients at Miraval in Northwest Tucson.

Traumatic events such as Sept. 11th function on an archetypal level to trigger the traumas left unresolved in the subconscious minds of a population. More traumatic in its impact than the events of Sept. 11th has been the manner in which the unresolved body of trauma in both individuals and systems has been forced to the surface. Every trauma, by its very nature, causes the repression of feelings of anger, on the one hand, and fear and powerlessness on the other. The magnitude of recent events has precipitated a massive “retriggering” of any unresolved traumatic issues in the general population. This is evident on “systems” levels as well: witnessing the increased awareness of unresolved trauma on corporate, governmental, religious, and societal levels. The religio-political turmoil of the Middle East has surfaced with a vengeance. Visual archetypal triggers as invasive as those witnessed live on Sept. 11th will naturally precipitate an escalation in unresolved triggers that have involved personal or collective boundary violations. Clients with unresolved sexual trauma are finding their dreams and flashbacks intensified by the imagery of violent, invasive, life-threatening public acts. I have specific cases documented of this from the evening of Sept. 11th. Our political leaders, targeted with planes and anthrax, have found their own personal trauma issues triggered as well – a process, which usually results in an impetus toward resolving not only current frustration and anger, but also similar trauma from the past. The spontaneous reaction to such powerlessness is toward some form of aggressive response. Our personal trauma histories must be addressed if our responses are not to be disproportionate to current events. This is a pivotal question of late.

On a larger scale, the “ripple effect” has widened to embrace the unresolved traumas of those within religious systems as well. Having experienced life within the ordained Catholic clergy, I can speak both from a love and appreciation of the system, and from personal experience of the limitations that the system currently holds which hamper the resolution of personal and systems level trauma. Striving to heal the personal traumas of my own life has provided some insight into the dynamics at work currently and the stressors impacting the Catholic Church and its members so profoundly. While I am grateful that my own personal trauma history did not elicit hurts so grievous as we have discovered in the accounts disclosed through recent media exposure, my experience has provided some strategies for treatment and recovery that have proven effective for many. From this experience, I shall offer some initial insights into the dilemma facing the hierarchy and the church in general.

One of the key insights helpful to individuals and institutions interested in developing an approach to treating the traumatized/traumatizing clergy arose from John and Linda Friel’s book: Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families. In one chapter of their book, they described the “Priest, Nun, Rabbi Role.” This role, they stated, arose on a subconscious level when a child received either overt or covert sexual trauma, combined with strong messages about moral rectitude, religious propriety and right behavior. An individual with an abuse/trauma history (perhaps even amnesial from the trauma – now legally referred to as “traumatic amnesia” or “delayed recall”) would be profoundly influenced, perhaps even compelled in the direction of a “religious” vocation which would meet both internal and external demands for a meaningful lifestyle while using moral principles to “control” any imbalanced impulses due to the abuse history. A “celibate” lifestyle would offer to the abused individual both an outlet for the trauma-based tendencies toward sexual repression and a meaningful channel for the energies repressed. Unfortunately, trauma resolution does not usually occur through substitution or repression. A celibate lifestyle would naturally attract a certain percentage of the population that, with the most sincere and best of intentions, is seeking a meaningful and loving context to resolve their abuse history, which could be conscious, partially conscious, or even wholly repressed. Ministerial celibacy would provide what would appear as a structured and meaningful context for the containment of potentially destructive impulses induced from abuse. Unfortunately, as we now know from trauma theory, external or “containment” behaviors in present time do not resolve the pain at its original moment of encoding. Because these efforts at containment do not wholly work, frustration, fear, and shame increase – adding to the likelihood that the repressed sexual trauma energies will press for release. The response to such impulses is usually excessive in the direction of expression or repression.

There has been found a strong correlation between alcoholism and a history of abuse/trauma. Priesthood, the second highest profession for alcoholism, has certainly attracted its share of individuals seeking alleviation from emotional pain and trauma/abuse. Alcohol abuse is often an attempt at controlled disassociation from emotional pain. The use of alcohol has prevented many trauma survivors from moving into more painful dissociative behaviors and mental states, but, in the process, has created the problem of chemical dependency. Such alcohol abuse can only serve as a temporary alleviation and, subsequently, produces a dual problem: the traumas remain intact and the addiction factor is now present. We have come a long way with our understanding of the subtleties of alcoholism, but we are still out of date in our understanding of sexual compulsivity/addiction. Much is being written and studied about both “sexual addiction” and “sexual anorexia.” In the latter case, a traumatized individual restricts all sexual interaction as an attempt to prevent any possible future traumatization; this may be conscious or subconscious. An institutionally supported celibate lifestyle will attract those predisposed for sexual anorexia from their trauma histories. This trauma-based impulse toward sexual repression finds its origin in shame. Shame fuels the addictive cycle and can even lead to an “acting out” of the script of the original, repressed trauma scene. There is a strong correlation found between religious rigidity and sexual compulsivity. When too much shame is associated with any emotion, including sexual feelings, compulsivity can result. Traditional religious language was excessively shaming and actually fostered the very compulsive behaviors it sought to discourage. Strategies for healing sexual addiction and compulsivity focus on trauma resolution and now avoid ineffective moralizing and inherently shaming language.

The treatment process of individuals with sexual trauma histories meets with some complications. Ultimately, we adapted a considerable portion of the treatment model from the spirituality model of Alcoholics Anonymous. The discovery of the disease of alcoholism was a spiritual breakthrough for many individuals and systems within our culture, helping to recognize the power of disease pathology to diminish willpower. Until the 1950s drunkenness was viewed exclusively through the “moral failure” model and was univocally perceived as a “sin.” The realization that there existed a disease pathology that generated a “loss of willpower” was a new concept for all the systems, particularly the religious systems whose principal assumption and approach revolved around the assumption of free will. The “disease” of alcoholism provided the “breakthrough point” for many systems, though some have been slower on the uptake. The first Bishop of our diocese, for instance, died of the disease of alcoholism while those ignorant of the disease and “respectful” of his position looked the other way as he died of his illness. He died within 1.5 years of his DUI arrest after forced resignation from his position. The hierarchy has evidenced some difficulty in incorporating the “disease” model for alcoholism. The issue of the church awakening to the destructive influences of sexual addiction and trauma is even more labored. By the 1960s we realized that mere abstinence from alcohol was only two to five percent of recovery. If it is true that as many as five out of seven women and three out of seven males have experienced some form of sexual abuse, the sexual compulsivity problem will prove far more extensive than the disease of alcoholism. But what is the missing ninety-five percent content of any recovery process?

With the advent of “Systems Theory” in the 1960s certain traumatizing patterns were identified in dysfunctional families; this gave rise to our awareness of the “subconscious role assignment” process. This understanding generated a level of therapeutic expertise that rendered to us the various subconscious roles which eventually was expanded to include the “Priest, Nun, Rabbi Role.” These subconscious roles actually reflect a pattern of traumatization and abuse that we professionally term a “Level 2” trauma encoding. This means that, rather than there being one, single traumatic moment or event responsible for a behavior or set of behaviors, a prolonged period of emotional repression (sexual, for instance) has occurred which has resulted in the creation of a formidable archetypal or “role imprinted” vehicle for coping. Celibate lifestyles, supported by a culture or subculture, would attract those needing an “archetypal” level of assistance. The “use of” ministry as an attempt at subconscious resolution to a sexual trauma history for instance, might provide some temporary, meaningful containment for the tremendously negative energies being repressed, but would not provide ultimate resolution. In the more severe cases, the multitude of subconsciously repressed triggers would make it likely that such individuals would begin to “act out” these repressed scripts of such emotional power when “triggers” similar to anything from the original scene were accessed. The “holonomic” (acting like a hologram) nature of encoded memory makes it very easy for anything resembling the original, repressed memory, to trigger the original emotional pain and precipitate a “relive” or “acting out” of the original abuse with another.

The growing understanding of the power of “subconscious intentionality” has contributed greatly to our understanding the dynamics involved in abuse. A great deal of the Catholic Church’s pain involving recent events rests in its overemphasis in education on the importance of conscious intentionality. Our intent is not to downplay the importance of commitment or focused use of willpower; it is simply to see its value with the greater context. This greater context has reached the attention of the hierarchy at the perfect moment. The Pope has even come to admit publicly the feasibility of the theory of evolution. But with the admission of the theory of evolution to the realm of orthodoxy comes an ancillary notion: it would appear that from our earliest evolution, we were designed to have our subconscious minds store for us that pain and overwhelm that would have otherwise driven us to aggression, rage, hopelessness, or despair. Our physiology clearly indicates that we have always possessed an inherent ability to repress emotional pain that overwhelmed us. This is the physiological function of the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis – the natural “fight or flight” response that activates automatically at crisis moments. Our survival as a species is largely due to this inherent wisdom and design. It is my understanding that our “Original Fall” was, perhaps, much more profound in nature than an “Original Sin.” The latter implies involvement of only the five percent conscious, rational, moral mind, while the former suggests a protective function involving the dissociative capacity of the ninety-five percent subconscious mind (a statistic generally agreed upon by most psychologists today).

A trauma, by definition, is a psycho-neuro-physiological disassociation – a split in consciousness that occurs subconsciously and automatically when we become overwhelmed. I have no doubt from my thirteen years of experience with archaeology and anthropology that we were dissociative before we were even capable of speech or a distinctive morality. We do owe our existence on this planet to the inherent wisdom of this system. There appears to be a great protective wisdom intended by this dissociative capacity; but it has ever held a danger. The farther one represses a basketball into the water, the greater the pressure and the greater the danger of losing control. Such has ever been the nature of repressed memory. This has proven true on both an individual and systems level, and the Catholic Church as a system has to address its own dissociative coping tendencies. Historically, this would seem an appropriate time to do so. However, I am afraid that with increased media stimulation, the growing weight of personal responsibility in the ministerial professions, and the shortage of vocations, a formidable and growing pressure is being exerted on the coping ability of those in or aspiring to ordained ministry. Traditional coping mechanisms are breaking down and memories are surfacing at a faster rate for all of us. Archetypal visual traumas via live media coverage make inevitable the emergence of the most powerful repressed messages. It is appropriate that measures are being implemented to help the system deal with these crises. The danger is that the “system” acts to protect itself, but fails to act rightly with respect to her wounded individuals within her. I believe that there is a responsibility that the church holds for creating this situation, even if its predisposition was not conscious. Support of a celibate lifestyle attracted certain traumatized individuals in need of help and conditioned by the church to have no recourse for healing but the “moral responsibility” model. The role of subconscious influences has been wholly overlooked until now. The Catholic Church, by its own self-definition and claim to spiritual responsibility, has an obligation to move beyond dissociative solutions and to embrace and heal the victims of its own conscious and subconscious creations. This includes perpetrators and victims alike; this is the extent of its “moral” responsibility. Fear of legal consequences has led to additional traumatization of both the perpetrators and victims alike. I have seen this pattern in the hierarchy’s avoidance of both perpetrators and their victims, though my work with survivors indicates that one cannot be the former without having been the latter. Disowning the individuals who came either consciously or unconsciously to ordained ministry to alleviate their pain resulted in an increased sense of shame, fueling the addictive/repressive cycle and making more likely a future “acting out” of the unresolved (now enhanced) trauma pattern. For both perpetrators and victims, some provision should be made for residential treatment and a transition setting that focuses on the emotional healing of these individuals. It is imperative that such a setting not be structured strictly from an outdated “moral failure model” or an inherently shaming moral judgment posture, particularly in light of what we now recognize as the power of the subconscious mind. Acceptance of the multidimensionality of the human psyche allows us all to remember that many of these individuals that “acted out” their sexual trauma histories also performed years of service amidst their fragmented and conflicted psyches. It would prove grievously hurtful and traumatic, not to mention un-Christ like, to simply disassociate these individuals from their vocations without making an effort to address their abuse histories. On an unconscious level, many of them came to the church for healing! We may never know whether, over the centuries, religious celibacy served to reduce or to exacerbate the societal manifestation of sexual abuse.

Systems responding to the sudden realization of the traumas repressed within them are confused as to how to approach them. Forgiveness from the five percent moral, rational mind does not seem to fully release the pain of the trauma (I am speaking now on both an individual and systems level); this is due to the fact that trauma is encoded in the subconscious mind, and this is more a matter of healing the emotional pain than a decision to release from the intellect. A trauma is in fact, “truly forgiven” or “healed” when we can think of the event and find ourselves with no emotional charge attached to thoughts of the perpetrator or perpetrating event. If we only superficially forgive from the intellect, we will find ourselves emotionally attached to the perpetrator by our anger, hurt, or fear. These emotions indicate that we are still in the abusive scene with the perpetrating individual in some part of our mind. Such attachments enable the possibility of a reenactment or “acting out” again of the original pattern of abuse. In the “acting out” scenario, the individual that was once the victim may subconsciously switch to the role of the perpetrator, having been taught that this is how to release emotional pain – a falsehood taught to them by their original perpetrator.

With respect to the healing of the "perpetrator," the church, it must be admitted, holds some responsibility for fostering/enabling the admission of individuals whose vocational motivation was (either consciously or subconsciously) trauma-based. It, therefore, has a responsibility to provide healing from ethical, moral, and spiritual viewpoints. Such treatment would also provide partial resolution for the anxiety of the laity. The treatment of perpetrating individuals necessitates the “emotional reframing” (not merely “cognitive reframing”) of their own abuse histories so as to prevent further “acting out.” Such therapies are not currently or fully in place. There is no question that a painful experience (traditionally spoken of as the “via negativa”) such as sexual trauma or abuse can prove a spiritual vehicle to inspire an authentic life of love and service to others, but the trauma history of the individual must be sufficiently addressed prior to ministry if this service is not to be manipulated into an emotional substitute for trauma resolution. This type of (mostly subconscious) manipulation of ministry to alleviate the emotional pain of trauma will not usually heal the moment of traumatic encoding. We have now developed techniques which respect the power of the subconscious mind and which allow us to resolve the emotional charge of memory without having to relive the memory and without changing historical memory.

After working with more than ten thousand trauma survivors, I can assure you that trauma is predominantly a matter of subconscious intentionality and a long-standing disease process. Trauma is “premoral” in its induction. One does not wake up and choose to be traumatized. In addition, the traumatization of others always follows upon one’s own traumatization. The former cannot occur without the latter. The application of the old pre-1950s moral failure model on the alcoholic has proven spiritually abusive to them and has mandated growth and education in the church on the disease of alcoholism. Similarly, a time of compassion and awakening is invited with respect to sexual addiction and sexual trauma within the church. Responsible action, however, is called for on the part of the leadership of the church. Understand that there can be more anger at the parent who, knowing of the abuse, did not act to protect the child, than at the actual perpetrator. The hierarchy will be under scrutiny from this emotional perspective alone. The ecclesial law of celibacy will reexamined now in light of its “enabling” potential: by this I mean its natural tendency to attract sexually repressed and traumatized individuals. This was evident on some level to all of us in the seminary who saw those who were homosexual seeking to avoid this issue wholly while channeling their energies into service.

Both the current justice system and the church have continued to use the moral failure model as the predominant foundation for decision-making. Eliminating or “locking away” a problematic situation or individual will most assuredly not resolve the source of the trauma. Such approaches do not emerge from a theology of healing or compassion, but reflect more of the Old Testament “justice” concept. This is poor role modeling in the least. And the un-Christian treatment of its own by the leadership will not go unnoticed. “Out of sight, out of mind,” has been our predominant societal philosophy in dealing with perpetrators. We have treated problematic church members in the same manner that we have, for millennia, treated our most painful memories! Disassociation cannot be used to effectively heal disassociation. Dostoevsky stated that our degree of civilization may be assessed by viewing how we treat our prisoners. Christian spirituality asks more of us. One hallmark of Christ’s ministry was his outreach to the sinner and outcast. More effective approaches to treatment must be implemented. A more comprehensive healing model must be initiated. Effective therapeutic measures must be in place to address the subconscious role assignments, which draw young men into the seminaries as an attempt to heal their sexual traumas, abuse, and dilemmas. Individuals with such histories, when treated effectively, may find themselves choosing ministry from a conscious, rather than a subconscious place, and finding themselves enriched with the spiritual gifts of understanding and compassion – all flowing from the trauma histories that they were courageous enough to address. While many may not end up in ordained ministry, their spiritual path of healing will guide them to their appropriate calling.

With respect to the emergent cases of sexual abuse in recent years, legal containment is an understandable necessity, but the old moral failure model preserved by the general public contributes to the desire for retribution and the intensity of the prosecution mentality. Clearly, the first stage in recovery from an addictive/compulsive cycle is the cessation/control of the abusive behavior. These behaviors were not always intervened upon and confronted properly when initially exposed. This has drawn much criticism and distress on the part of the unprotected laity. However, just as capital punishment cannot heal the original traumatic moment of encoding (separate explanation required here to explain the “T-1” concept), eliminating a perpetrator from a system does not, ultimately, resolve the source of the problem. A respectful but cautious approach must be taken when complaints are made, acknowledging the potential degree of wounding of both purported victim and supposed perpetrator. Appropriate therapeutic assistance and compensation should be made to those victimized – preferably offering therapeutic modalities that properly address the “T-1” original moment of encoding; this alone will provide some resolution and closure, reducing the need for ongoing prosecutory impulses or excessive attempts at resolution/satisfaction in present time. The emergent therapies of the present can provide resolution for the original moments of abuse and release the pain and anger within their proper, original contexts. This alone will reduce the excessive impulse toward external prosecutory solutions and will greatly help to resolve the original affect induced by the trauma.

When “containment” and therapy have occurred for the perpetrator years prior, an assessment should be made as to the options for disposition and treatment of this individual. The creation of a residential location or transition facility may be an advisable approach to dealing with those who have worked through their original abuse patterns, who are beyond or have addressed the legal ramifications, and who are seeking a lifestyle within a committed Christian community. In the past, the “Catholic” institutions, often run by Catholic religious and laity, which sought to provide these therapeutic residential contexts, were built upon the assumptions of the old “moral failure” model and possessed a therapeutic bias. These institutions failed to understand the role of “subconscious intentionality” and the imprinting influences of traumatic memory. An authentic healing context should be provided while fully respecting the destructive potential of the ineffectively treated or relapsed individual.

Herein lies the crux of the theological confusion: In the attribution of authentic spiritual power/authority to its ordained members, the church set up a dilemma that it found difficult to resolve: How could those found worthy of ordination and “called by God to serve” be, at the same time, capable of the most heinous acts when viewed from the moral responsibility model. The “moral failure model” could not explain or resolve such a dilemma. Subsequently, being unclear about its own contribution to the pathologies emerging, the church had difficulty in ministering to the victims of its own ordained clergy. In my work with trauma survivors, the church, at times, preferred “out of sight … out of mind” for both its victims and perpetrators. Such approaches are, themselves, dissociative and ineffective – even unchristian in nature. We come perilously close to “blasphemy against the Spirit” when we use spiritual authority to foster or enable abuse to continue.

As a final reflection, I have noted how often a well-intentioned parent shamed an eating disordered child over his/her excessive body weight or eating patterns. The shaming comments or behaviors were intended to modify or even help the child gain management of the compulsive pattern. In doing so, however, we have discovered that the parent actually reinforced the pattern, drawing excessive attention to the behavior; this precipitated further preoccupation and increased the probability of “acting out” as the script was potentiated. With little or no training in therapeutic intervention, the hierarchy in particular, and the church in general, has treated “shamefully” those individuals evidencing compulsive behavior patterns. Whenever we try to force the conscious mind to change what is, in fact, subconsciously encoded, we are “setting the individual up” to fail. This failure will produce feelings of shame and powerlessness – the emotional content of encoded trauma. We can traumatize and abuse others when we mandate change but fail to offer the means to do so effectively. The use of excessive moralistic language (addressing the five percent rational mind) emphasizing conscious assertion of control or willpower, though often utilized with the best of intentions, constitutes an “enabling” behavior and, ultimately, exacerbates the problem. This first became evident in the treatment of alcoholics.

I have spent many hours in the last few years speaking to various spiritual groups about the balanced use of the term “forgiveness.” When we encourage forgiveness without offering resolution to the subconsciously encoded trauma moment, we predispose shame and failure for the individual who finds him/herself still trapped in the flashback with the person they were encouraged to “forgive.” In the subconscious mind, the abuse is continuing in the “statically” held trauma scene—waiting for resolution. At a moment of active abuse, forgiveness is not the first dynamic that should be summoned. Trauma scenes are encoded as protective strategies. Subsequent to the encoding of a trauma, however, we must assist the survivor in utilizing his/her inherent spiritual resources to remove him/herself from the perpetrating moment so that, at some appropriate time, release from the fear, terror, and pain may occur. Encouraging forgiveness before such a moment is resolved is spiritually premature and may, in fact, prove abusive. Such individuals, encouraged prematurely to forgive, will feel shame and guilt when they find themselves triggered into the negative emotions of the unresolved memory. Forgiveness is usually initiated from the five percent conscious mind. The healing of the flashback (T-1) scene must occur with the cooperation of the ninety-five percent subconscious mind that is holding onto this scene; such scenes are routinely held until we are strong enough to extricate ourselves from this original moment of powerlessness and overwhelm. After extrication, healing and forgiveness occurs naturally.

As we grow in our understanding of “subconscious intentionality” and its power within the psyche, our models of intervention and treatment must reflect this new “healing paradigm” vs. the limited and failing “moral failure model” of decades past. The new information gleaned from our study of the dynamics of trauma induction has much to offer us theologically and spiritually. It offers new avenues of growth and healing that were not available to us under the narrow constraints of the moral judgment/moral failure model. My work over these past years, to understand the impact of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse on the psyche has led to my publication of: The Healing Dimensions: Resolving Trauma in BodyMind and Spirit. It is my hope that this work will provide new impetus and inspiration for healing, reducing the tendencies toward shaming methodologies and promoting true healing. As Barbara Brennan mentions in one of her works, alluding to the spiritual invitation that we face in the advent of disease and trauma: “Healing is a side effect; spiritual enlightenment is the goal.”

Gary Zukav, in his book: The Seat of the Soul, stated that humankind’s path of evolution up to this point has been “predominantly unconscious from unconscious intentionality.” Unconscious intentionality is largely the by-product of traumatic encoding and other forms of subconscious imprinting. Given the amount of "trauma" evident in the average person’s psyche, we must begin to heal the intergenerational shame patterns from familial, religious, educational, and societal systems if we are to manifest our true natures as conscious co-creators made in the image and likeness of God. Events like September 11th will mandate this by raising our awareness regarding all unresolved traumas within our systems and our psyches. The emergence of trauma within an individual or system is an opportunity to reclaim intentionality – to heal the breach – to heal the duality in consciousness created by the dissociative nature of trauma. Only then can we manifest the Eden we were intended to know; only then can we walk with God without shame. Such is the invitation to growth we now face.

Eternal Light!

Brent Michael Baum