End of Innocence
past week, defrocked priest John Geoghan of Boston was sentenced
to 10 years hard labor for fondling a 10-year-old boy. Though
the verdict ended this chapter, the unraveling mystery of
sexual-abuse cases in the Catholic Church promises to yield
more headlines in the months and years to come.
Media coverage of cases like Geoghan’s has made Americans
increasingly aware of the frequency of sexual abuse, both
in church and in society, and the terrible emotional trauma
that such abuse—and its denial—inflicts on innocent children.
Reports of pedophilic priests like Geoghan have become common
precisely because their victims have grown up, broken through
their denial and fear and acquired the courage to report their
abuse. As a psychotherapist, I frequently bear witness to
this process in my clinical practice, a process in which a
patient will reconstruct shameful sexual experiences from
childhood and struggle to realize that he or she was innocent
and unfairly victimized.
As a culture, we have become increasingly preoccupied with
the innocence of childhood and, in particular, its sexual
innocence. And so we are often more outraged when children
suffer sexual abuse than any other type of pain, neglect or
hardships, despite the fact that, in my clinical practice,
I have often seen parental absence, addiction, depression
or illness damage children more than some forms of inappropriate
sexual contact. Moreover, frightening stories of abductions
by a sex-crazed stranger, although statistically rare, inflame
us from the side of a milk carton, while stories about millions
of children without health care or housing elicit mild concern.
We shouldn’t have to choose between or rank evils. Sexual
abuse, emotional neglect, and social hardship are all potentially
deadly threats to the psyches of children. Why is it, then,
that sexual threats to childhood innocence are more intolerable
to us than others?
For example, the judge who heard the case of accused child
molester Jerome Wilhoit told his courtroom during Wilhoit’s
arraignment that if someone had molested his own daughter,
his attitude would be, “You touch her, you die.” The fact
that Wilhoit was found both not guilty of all charges and
later deemed “factually innocent” doesn’t mean that the judge’s
reaction isn’t understandable. Most parents probably feel
the same way. It does suggest, however, that when it comes
to sex and children, we have a tendency to shoot first and
ask questions later. The question, again, is: Why?
Historians would certainly note that the image of children
as innocent is only a recent phenomenon. In the past, children
were routinely used, abused and seen as containers for antisocial
impulses that had to be curbed or even stamped out. My experience
as a therapist, however, leads me to believe that our passionate
defense of childhood innocence expresses not only our altruism
but also our vicarious wish to feel innocent and protected
ourselves—a wish that our psyches and our culture make difficult.
My clinical work shows me every day that most of us have a
difficult time feeling innocent. We grow up secretly feeling
responsible and guilty for the emotional ills that befall
us. We unconsciously take the blame for our parents’ unhappiness,
their narcissistic self-preoccupation, their temper tantrums,
or even their direct abuse. It’s said that we’d all rather
be “sinners in heaven than saints in hell,” underlining the
fact that human beings have a hard time accepting the psychic
reality of their own victimization.
On a broader level, most people in our society buy into its
basic meritocratic illusion, namely, that our social lot reflects
our intrinsic worth as human beings. We privately feel like
social failures if we can’t achieve the “good life” of material
wealth that our culture holds out as an ideal.
One of the reasons why there is little public outcry about
the crass way that the Bush administration panders to the
wealthy is that people feel powerless to affect the system
and resigned to the cynicism and greed of their political
leaders. But while we may consciously blame “the system,”
knowing that the game is rigged, we unconsciously internalize
the problem and numb ourselves against feelings of injury
or outrage. We’re actually victims, but we don’t believe it
enough to blame our victimizers. Instead, we feel that we
shouldn’t feel like innocent victims, that such feelings are
weak, and that we’re secretly responsible for what ails us.
But this kind of responsibility is terribly misplaced, because
it denies the very real ways that our political and economic
systems are run to serve the interests of elites. We may avert
our gaze from the suffering—our own and that of others—that
these systems generate, but most of us aren’t the ones calling
Unable to feel much compassion for ourselves, we experience
an intense identification with the innocence and victimization
of children. We take up arms in defense of a vision of childhood
that contains all of the feelings of innocence, vulnerability,
and entitlement that we can’t directly claim for ourselves.
It’s the children being molested by predators, kidnapped by
pedophiles, or stalked by unregistered sex offenders that
are entitled to our protection—not our own injured and vulnerable
selves. We’re outraged at the priest or teacher for harming
children, but not the authorities in our own childhoods who
hurt us or those in our current social lives who continue
to do so.
And perhaps the reason that sexual abuse is the form of damage
that we deem most heinous—despite other childhood experiences
that might contend for this distinction—is that such abuse
is easiest to identify and involves impulses that are the
most forbidden. No rational person doubts the validity of
incest taboos, which all forms of pedophilia break. Pedophilia
represents a violation that even the harshest advocates of
an ethic of personal responsibility cannot blame on the victim.
There is no such taboo on parents being emotionally absent,
neglectful or narcissistic, even though such traits can damage
children as much as inappropriate sexual contact. Furthermore,
sexual abuse is a highly personal and direct form of trauma—the
psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold called it “soul murder”—while
the corrosive effects of rejection, neglect or guilt, as well
as such traumas as malnutrition and homelessness, seem to
be more general and abstract.
The damage wreaked by both sexual abuse and emotional neglect
and exploitation is incalculable. So is the damage done by
growing up in conditions of physical and social hardship.
Children deserve to be protected from all of these threats.
So did we when we were children. And so do we now. We shouldn’t
mute our outrage over the innocence lost to sexual abuse one
bit, but we should also broaden its scope to include the loss
of innocence in all of us.