Frawley-O’Dea, Mary Gail

Frawley-O'Dea, Mary Gail. Perversion of power: Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

Vanderbilt, 2007. 320p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780826515476 pbk $24.95. Outstanding Title!

CHOICE Magazine, the magazine of the American Library Association – October 2007

For decades, Catholic families have proudly sent children to Catholic institutions for religious education and safekeeping. But the Roman Catholic Church now faces a crisis concerning priests who sexually abused minors–a bad situation compounded by bishops who conspired to deny, silence, or cover up the problem. How could such abuse continue and remain cloaked in secrecy for so long? Often the victims and families are blamed, and fingers have been pointed at such causes as lax parenting and homosexuality. Frawley-O’Dea (a clinical psychologist and former executive director of the Trauma Treatment Center, Manhattan Institute of Psychoanalysis) highlights research showing that sexual abuse of children is predominantly a heterosexual phenomenon. She examines the meaning of “father” and asks how abusive priests have atoned for their abuse, the women they impregnated, and the children they fathered. Frawley-O’Dea observes that church structure and power traditions that cover up abuse and fail to protect vulnerable children are fundamentally flawed. She argues that Catholic theology and doctrine–with its powerful traditions of suffering, sadomasochism, gendered issues, prescriptions for celibacy, and the sanctions on sexuality and homosexuality–may have set the stage for the abuse. This is important reading for those working with minors and concerned about issues of sexual abuse. Summing Up: Essential. All readers; all levels. — S. M. Valente, University of California, Los Angeles.

Andrea Celenza, PhD, Book Review: Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church by Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea Nashville, Vanderbilt Univ Press.

Fall 2007 Newsletter of The Division of Trauma Psychology (56) of the American Psychological Association

There is no more hypocritical and perverse exploitation of power than the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Americans have been deluged with report after report of priests’ sexual molestation of minors and the immoral cover-up by their bishops that only enabled more abuse. The cover illustration of Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea’s book on the subject captures this darkly perverse scandal and pulls at our heart strings-the silhouette of an innocent but admiring altar boy looking up at a trusted priest . . . it’s actually hard to look at the cover. Few writers on this subject, however, have tried to comprehensively amass the data about this crisis as well as explain it at a sufficiently sophisticated level. Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea has done both and more in Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Frawley-O’Dea sets for herself a high standard-to go beyond the reporting of idealized perpetrators and their crimes against innocent children. She delves deeper, tells the story from both victim’s and perpetrator’s perspectives, does so through a contemporary and a historical lens, and analyzes (describes as well as explains) the scandalous cover-up. To fully address these issues, she also weaves her perceptive knowledge of theology, psychoanalysis, and passionate spirituality throughout.

Frawley O’Dea concentrates on the years between 1950 and 2002 when about 4,300 priests abused over 11,000 victims. A later study brings the number of accused priests to over 4,800 (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004). This accounts for about 4.75% of the priesthood and it must have been reported. Frawley O’Dea presents us with the fact that 2/3 of the bishops overseeing these accused priests allowed them to continue working. Many participated in the ensuing cover-up, especially those empowered with the authority to stop it, including bishops, cardinals, and popes. She does not hesitate to let us know where she stands on this by stating throughout the book, “The cover-up is the scandal” (p. 10). By now, the Catholic Church has paid over $1 billion in sexual abuse lawsuits and, more importantly, has lost credibility worldwide.

As if the sexual molestation were not trauma enough, O’Dea reports abominable damage that was wrought on the victims as the priests called them sinful and told them that God hated them for their actions, filling them with shame and self-loathing as well as demolishing their faith. Of course, these perpetrators sought out fatherless children and particularly vulnerable but trusting and needy victims. As is true for most trauma victims molested at a developmentally fragile age, their sexual molestation became a “central thematic strand of their lives” (p. 17) warping their identity and poisoning their faith. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this book is the way in which Frawley-O’Dea integrates her vast descriptions of numerous aspects of the crisis with her incisive knowledge of theology, especially the underpinnings of classical Catholicism. She reminds us that the organized church is an imperfect instantiation of this theology and not coincident with it. Though probably not her intention, this book could return your faith as she offers important distinctions between the historical institution’s interpretations of Catholic theology and iconography from the theologically more pure understanding of Jesus’ life.

She defrocks, as it were, the valorization of suffering, for example. She informs us that this is not in the Bible nor was it lived by Jesus. Likewise, the emphasis on the crucifixion (as part of Catholic symbology over other aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry and resurrection) and masochistic asceticism are not part of Christ’s teachings. Some of the damage infused in the psyches of the victims used masochistic asceticism as a value; many were told to accept their suffering as Christ accepted his. Frawley- O’Dea finds the roots of sexual abuse and the cover-up in classical interpretations of Catholic theology, especially sadomasochistic power relations, the valorization of suffering, sadistic interpretations of the Crucifix, as well as deeply problematic avenues for embodied and gendered self-expression within the church hierarchy. She contends that “Catholic theological renderings . . . are often stultifying to human psychological and spiritual growth and even can be unethical.” These include dualistic views of the body, misogynistic views of women, the inability of priests to fulfill stereotypical masculine gender norms, the oppression of lust, the straitjacketing of condoned sex into marital sex, the imposition of celibacy, and the Church’s relationship to homosexuality. She adds to this her broad psychoanalytic knowledge of trauma and sexual abuse to explain the motives of the perpetrators. For example, she posits a temporary identification with domineering superiors as part of the perpetrator’s motivation, implicating the problematic church hierarchy in the overall scandal as well. In this book, Frawley- O’Dea discusses Christian theology and the ways in which spiritual teachings have developed over the centuries to culminate in the Catholic Church as we know it today. Pre- and post- Vatican II are not the only junctures; the first and second centuries already saw misinterpretations of Christ’s teachings and Frawley-O’Dea catalogues these in a theme-driven mode that underlies her deconstruction-a religion that became hierarchically organized by relationships of domination and submission. She makes the sexual abuse crisis explainable across a broad spectrum of issues, but never falls into a language that might excuse the priests or (especially) the bishops who were responsible for them. So, in large measure, this is also a book of accountability, a sorely needed correction that is satisfying in and of itself.

An example of Frawley O’Dea’s broad and sophisticated treatment of her themes is her chapter on celibacy. She informs the reader of its historical beginnings, rooted in economic concerns that then became theologically justified. It was the Lateran Council in 1139 that deemed celibacy mandatory for all priests. This mandate insured that popes, bishops, and priests would have no offspring who could inherit their father’s holy offices or require financial support. Both outcomes were problematic eventualities of married priests prior to the Council with all the difficulties associated with nepotism as well (e.g., incompetent heirs). Thus, celibacy solved a sociopolitical and economic problem for the church and the valorization of celibacy followed in order to institutionalize it. Coupling with ascetic masochism, the degradation of women, and the church’s intolerance of sexual pleasure for its own sake, celibacy was already well positioned to become an overarching and entrenched value. Quoting Richard Sipe, a critic of obligatory celibacy, “Celibacy offers . . . a graced opportunity to live in the image of Christ . . . The truly celibate priest [is seen as] transcendent, even mystic” (Sipe, 2003, p. 90). To be fair, Frawley-O’Dea includes positive outcomes of celibacy as well. Not only does the mandate of celibacy insure that the Church retains its property; it also preserves the continuity of parishes, monasteries and abbeys. In her continuing discussion of celibacy, Frawley-O’Dea brings us to the present and reviews the ethnographic studies from within the church to describe the ways in which celibacy is actually lived now. Probably the most extensive study spanning a forty year period was performed by Richard Sipe (2003, p. 89). His conclusions reflect that approximately 50% of priests are living out a life of celibacy at any given time. Others are sexually active with women, adult men, or engage in other sexual activities such as masturbation, pornography, or exhibitionism. Though Frawley-O’Dea is always careful to acknowledge members of the clergy who do not engage in hypocritical, unethical, or outright abusive activities (and mercifully, there are high percentages of these), she documents the fact that 9 American bishops who led diocese have resigned since 1990 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. In the wake of these allegations, there is no lack of the usual denials, externalization of blame, and in general an “institutional lack of empathy” for the victims of the misconduct or abuse.

It may surprise the reader to learn that even nuns, cloistered in convents and clothed from head to toe, are not safe from exploitation. Frawley O’Dea does not rely on hearsay or anecdote; here too, she cites a comprehensive found 6% having had sexual liaisons with priests or vowed religious men. Twenty-nine were impregnated by priests in one community and, shockingly, priests brought pregnant nuns to abortion clinics to dispose of the fetuses. Yet another disturbing fact includes the rape of some religious women in Africa ( France , 2004). Though the Vatican claimed that the rape of nuns by priests was confined to Africa (given that nuns could be considered safe sexual partners for priests and prelates fearful of contracting AIDS), Frawley-O’Dea cites studies reflecting this behavior in 23 countries, including the United States (Filteau, 2003; Smith, 2003). Whether the abuse involves adult men or women, adolescents, or children, the fundamental concern described throughout the book is that the relationship with a priest is one that is structured around a power imbalance. Even if the victim is an adult and not a member of the priest’s parish, the priest is “a representative of the Divine . . . [and] unconsciously draws erotically tinged yearnings for intimate, even sexual, communion with the Divine” (p. 96). In this way, Frawley-O’Dea demonstrates her facile marriage of psychoanalytic insight with passionate spirituality. She goes on to reveal other unconscious mechanisms operating at deeper levels, for example, including the paradigm of fatherhood embedded in the role of the paternal priest-the living icon of the Law ritualized in confession and the meting out of penance.

In addition to the sexual molestation of male minors, some priests adopted their victims as foster children in order to provide the child with a needed paternal figure and home. This was but a thin disguise for the priest’s opportunistic move to experience a kind of sublimated fatherhood in his relationship with his victim and, of course, a well designed cover for the abuse. Frawley-O’Dea cites authors who have found that a large percentage of priests are drawn to the priesthood in search of their own psychic fathers (Hoge, 2002; Celenza, 2004) and Frawley-O’Dea suggests that the victimization of minors is an attempt to experience a father- son bond from the dominant position. For others, it is an attempt to relate to a psychic equal given the immature developmental level of some priests.

In one of the finest examples of Frawley O’Dea’s facility with psychoanalytic insights and language, she describes her wish for the Church’s future stances on both celibacy and homosexuality: “Perhaps instead it would be productive, humane, and spiritually sound for Catholic officials to assume relational views of both celibacy and homosexuality. Here, each sexual orientation could be evaluated according to the relational context in which it is expressed. Celibacy and homosexuality, along with heterosexuality, could be deemed ethical, procreative, and spiritually meaningful to the extent that the psychological and spiritual growth of individuals and those in relationship with them were enhanced by the union. Similarly, any enacted sexual orientation could be considered destructive if it impeded an individual’s or couple’s relationship with self, other, and God” (p. 111). Despite her obvious disillusionment with the institutionalized Church, she cannot help but expose her hope for the Church in positive terms.

Frawley-O’Dea has meticulously reviewed an enormous amount of data from a great variety of sources. Beyond a comprehensive review of books, book chapters, and journal articles in her professional literature search, she references the media (including newspaper articles, magazines articles and Television news reports), as well as judicial reports and Vatican documents, all of which reported on the crisis in the last five years. Finally, she applies her expert psychoanalytic knowledge of trauma and development to offer a scholarship that cannot be matched and that has culminated in a definitive expose of the scandal and its origins. This book will be interesting to a wider audience than those curious about the facts behind the sexual abuse crisis and its perverse cover-up. This book should be read by all disaffected Catholics who have had difficulty with the ways in which the institutionalized church has interpreted Christ’s teachings as well as those readers who want the real and full story behind the sexual abuse crisis and the scandalous cover-up in its wake.


Celenza, A. (2004). Sexual misconduct in the clergy: The search for the father. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 5, 213-232.

Filteau, J. (2003). Study says two-fifths of U.S. nuns suffered some form of sexual abuse. Catholic News Service.

France, D. (2004). Our fathers: The secret life of the Catholic Church in an age of scandal. New York: Broadway Books.

Hoge, D.R. (2002). The first five years of the priesthood: A study of newly ordained Catholic priests. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (2004). The nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sipe, A.W.R. (2003). Celibacy in crisis: The secret world revisited. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Smith, B. (2003). Nuns as sexual victims get little notice. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.