Except in a dream, I didn’t really have a meeting with the pope. But in my dream I was terrific. I helped Pope Francis launch the Vatican’s new suicide prevention program and thus changed the course Western civilization. Then I woke up.
The pope’s response to the pedophile priest problem is all over the news. Associated Press headline: “UN scolds Vatican on abuse.” AP headline: “Pope Criticized for Lack of Action on Sex Abuse.” Last week he apologized to still-living victims, and this week the UN committee is testing the Vatican on whether sexual abuse is torture.
Not a great time to be pope.
The apology to victims is fine, but it won’t be enough. When the true downstream results of childhood sexual assault are revealed, even successful lawsuits can’t right all the wrongs.
Why? Because even the pope can’t apologize to the dead. On this side of the veil, nobody can. But he could make amends to the families. And he could step up to the suicide prevention movement.
Here’s why. Multiple research studies show that early childhood sexual abuse and its associated adverse psychological trauma are leading risk factors for eventual death by suicide.
The impact of child sexual abuse on psychological wellbeing and suicidal behavior is clear. In 2005 Dr. Finklehor and his colleagues from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center reported victims experienced fear, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, aggression, and sexually inappropriate behavior, as well self-destructive behavior, feelings of isolation and stigma, poor self-esteem, difficulty in trusting others, a tendency toward re-victimization, substance abuse, and sexual maladjustment. These researchers added, “the kinds of abuse that appear to be most damaging are experiences involving father figures.” (Emphasis mine.)
Father figures? As in Father Murphy, Father John, Father What’s-His-Name?
Consider new research published on the contributing causes of suicide conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Army. Both found that childhood sexual abuse was the single greatest risk factor among soldiers who were otherwise physically healthy, brave, and proud to serve. This sexual “torture” tripled their lifetime risk.
In a 10-year follow-up of Marine recruits researchers found that, yes, boot camp was tough; yes, advanced combat training was tough; yes combat was tougher still; and yes, managing relationships and deployments were tough. But among the five types of childhood trauma victims experienced by these Marines, sexual abuse emerged as the signature root cause for eventual suicidal self-directed violence.
In both the Canadian and the U.S. studies, it seems childhood sexual trauma creates a chink in these soldiers’ otherwise bullet-proof psychological armor. We call these early life traumas “distal events” which can create life-long vulnerabilities. Just imagine these early-wounded warriors trying to find safe havens when passing rough times later in life. Where do they turn for comfort?
To Father What’s-His-Name? Not likely.
Suicidal people are in a desperate search for buffers against death, reasons to live, and compassionate others who understand them. They need powerful arguments to keep living, and while multiple studies have shown that faith communities provide all of these and can serve as a kind a protective shield against suicide, I am unaware of any research on what happens when a victim has been taught to believe that suicide is a mortal sin – as the Catholic church has taught for centuries.
Seems to me that for victims of a pedophile priest, the road to the rescue and recovery is twice blocked; once by betrayal and once by doctrine.
I had one suicidal Catholic patient explain it to me thus… “In the end, I figured that Jesus, if not my church, would forgive me if I killed myself.” On this fine point, he and his church agree.
Question: How many sex abuse victims have killed themselves?
Answer: GOK (God only knows).
Consider one small dot on the great Catholic global map. The church recently acknowledged its contribution to the suffering of as many as 20,000 children in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years.
To my knowledge, the church has yet to link its sexual abuse of victims to any deaths by suicide. I could have missed this confession, and if I did, I’d be delighted to be corrected.
But in the meantime this appears to be the church’s stand on suicide from the current edition of the Catholic Digest – “The Church teaches that suicide is wrong; is contrary to the Fifth Commandment. It is an action that runs counter to the proper love of self, as well as love for God, the giver of life. We are stewards of our lives, not owners. The person who takes his or her own life also wrongs others – those who remain experience loss, bewilderment, and grief. You won’t find anything in that teaching about going to hell.”
The quote goes on to say of those who end their own lives, “Pity, not condemnation, is the response of the church. Prayers are offered for the deceased. Mass is celebrated. Burial with dignity, in consecrated ground, is provided for one who dies this way. Not that long ago, Christian burial was denied to those who took their own lives.”
Burial in consecrated ground now? Let’s see, the practice of punishing suicide victims and their families by burying them any old place except next to good Christians started in 4th century and continued until, let’s see, 1997.
By my calculations, that’s 17 centuries. I don’t like it, but I can accept the barbaric treatment of suicidal people since the time of St. Augustine, but not now.
I have no idea how many of these otherwise wonderful souls ended up in unhallowed ground over these eons, but it must run into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
I also found this Catholic Digest quote from Father Bryon about suicide particularly disturbing, “It seems to me that there has to be some mysterious insulation enveloping those who commit suicide. Tragically, their minds cannot be read by those around them, nor can they reach out and ask for help.”
“Mysterious insulation?” “Commit suicide?” “Can’t reach out and ask for help?”
Mysterious insulation suggests fundamental ignorance about the published research from the brain sciences, modern psychiatry, and suicidology.
Commit suicide perpetuates the stigma and Medieval dictum that suicide is a crime.
Can’t reach out and ask for help suggests a help-seeking deficit in the tortured.
Let me translate. The full line… Their minds cannot be read by those around them, nor can they reach out and ask for help completes the blame-the-victim dodge and can be redrafted as, “How can you expect us to do anything to prevent suicide since we can’t read their frigging minds and they won’t ask for help?”
Question: if such exists, what about the state of the immortal Christian souls who ended their own lives? Where did they go?
The current view – as I read it – is that suicide is still wrong (I think “wrong” is pretty close to “sin”), and that after they have killed themselves, God sorts them out, sending some to heaven and some to, well, wherever pedophile priests go.
My guess is we will all wait a long time to celebrate either of these headlines:
1. The Vatican Acknowledges the Role of Sexual Torture as a Leading Cause of Suicide
2. Pope Francis Appoints Committee to Explore the Church’s Emerging Role in Suicide Prevention.
I like the new pope. Who doesn’t?
So I wish I could feel sorry for him. But I don’t. Which is why I’m piling on right now. Because every second that immediate action to remove pedophile priests is delayed, suicide risk is added to lives of living victims, and if there is anything those of us working to prevent suicide cannot tolerate, it is inaction.
Some years ago after conducting a suicide prevention training in a Christian church, a little 90-year-old lady waited for me at the door after everyone had left. The pastor was with me when she stopped us.
“I need to ask you both a question, ” she began. “My only son killed himself when he was 15. I was an unmarried mother and when I asked my priest what would become of him, I was told that because he had committed a mortal sin he would burn in hell forever. I have been living with this pain for 60 years. Can either of you tell me it isn’t so?”
Fortunately, I had on the wrong kind the collar and redirected her question to the pastor (not a priest). A good soul, the pastor assured the woman her son was not in hell, but in the embrace of Jesus and always had been.
I don’t know if her son was sexually abused by a priest, and I don’t care. Enough damage was done with the explanation of Catholic policy on suicide. Mind you, I love the work of the Church has done and have long admired its many great contributions. But when I drive by cemeteries I look to the edges, just beyond the formal boundaries.
Why? Because that’s where those who took their own lives were buried by otherwise good Christians. The dead-by-suicide are not among the neat community-like rows of headstones that stand beside the old churches. No, the suicide victims of child sexual abuse were buried alone; in the very psychological state they most feared.
If there is redemption for the church in this matter, it lies in correcting its catechisms and embracing the science of trauma-caused psychological injury and trauma-informed care. You didn’t ask, but here are my modest proposals for a fix:
1. Acknowledge that historical church attitudes toward suicidal people and their families have been hurtful and have contributed to the problem of suicide, not helped prevent it.
2. Review the records of known victims of those abused, and for those who died by suicide, and publically apologize to their families.
3. Search church records for those who died by suicide (you will never know if they were sex abuse victims, but then you don’t need to), find the ground they are buried in, and consecrate that ground as “hallowed.” If Mormons can baptize the dead and give them a second chance, surely the Catholic church can release all these souls from the hell it condemned them to.
4. Instruct your clergy worldwide to study the scientific literature on suicide and its prevention and oblige them to take training in how to prevent suicide. Terms like “mysterious insulation” just don’t cut it. The church began to back scientific learning after Galileo caused all that trouble, and it helped get us to the moon, so this is an excellent time to open a journal and start reading.
5. Step up and join local, state, national and international groups trying to prevent suicide. (I’ve been going to meetings for 30 years, and I can count the number of Catholic priests who attended these meetings on one hand with three fingers left over.)
While I would never presume to suggest Christian clergy re-read the Holy Bible with an eye to early scripture and suicide, I would suggest they read, What Does the Bible Say about Suicide? by my now deceased friend and colleague, Reverend James T Clemons. Ignorance of your own scriptures is no blessing.
Finally, Pope Francis, you have great power. Whatever else you do with it, do not embarrass the church further by showing up with too little too late or making a nickel payment on million dollar debt. Suicide is a monstrous and crushing public health problem, and for the thousands of Catholics and Christians who will end their own lives this year, you can either get in the way, get out of the way, or show us the way.
– Impact of child sexual abuse: A review of the research. Browne, Angela; Finkelhor, David. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 99(1), 66-77. 1986,
– Relation between traumatic events in suicide attempts and Canadian military personnel. Belick, et. al., Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54, 93–104. 2009
– Suicide Attempts and Suicide among Marines: a Decade of Follow-up. Gradus, et. al., Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 43 (1) 2013.