Los Angeles Bishop Gabino Zavala is one clergy who led a double life, fathering two children. Experts say narcissism can partially explain such behaviour. CNS photo

"Narcissism" cited in double lives some clergy lead

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  • January 19, 2012

OTTAWA - Despite the many cases in recent years of unfaithful priests, an expert on sexual abuse and pornography predicts a future with a “much healthier Church and healthier priests.”

Peter Kleponis is a Pennsylvania psychologist who has counselled priests who sexually abused minors as well as men addicted to pornography, his specialty. He says the Church has gone through a painful phase and, although “it’s not over yet,” there is reason for optimism.

“There is hope. There is change,” said Kleponis. But, he adds, “there is still more purification and purging that needs to be done.”

Kleponis made his remarks while discussing the case of Bishop Raymond Lahey, who received a 15-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to importing child pornography. At his sentencing hearing, a forensic psychiatrist testified that Lahey had been involved in a “number of one-night stands” before entering a 10-year relationship with a man. Kleponis and other experts who have worked with troubled priests believe the double lives they lead might partly be explained by narcissism.  

“What causes a man to maintain this kind of double life for so long is basic narcissism, the idea that I’m entitled to this, I can do whatever I want; if I want to lead a double life I’ll have a double life,” said  Kleponis.    

Narcissism can grow as priests climb the ladder and become bishops, regarding themselves as a Prince of the Church who is above everything, he said.

“Narcissism is very common in addicts, because even though they know what they are doing is bad, and know it is wrong, they decide, ‘I’m going to do it anyway,’ ” Kleponis said from his office at the Institute for Marital Healing, a private Catholic practice, in West Conshohocken, Penn., where he works with colleague Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who is a consulter to the Congregation for Clergy in the Vatican.

“Our clinical experience in treating large numbers of seminarians, priests and religious for over 35 years has demonstrated a direct link between unresolved anger from childhood and later rebellion against the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and sexual acting out,” wrote Kleponis and Fitzgibbons in the August 2011 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, the journal of the Catholic Medical Association in the United States

“Some men are more susceptible to sexual temptations because they suffer from psychological conflicts of loneliness and sadness, weaknesses in male confidence, excessive anger, anxiety, selfishness and/or having a history of childhood sexual abuse,” they wrote.

Fitzgibbons, who wrote an open letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 at the height of that country’s sexual abuse crisis, said at the time that those treating priests who engaged in pedophilia or ephebophilia observed they “almost without exception suffered from a denial of sin in their lives.”

“They were also unwilling to admit and address the profound emotional pain they experienced in childhood of loneliness, often in the father relationship, peer rejection, lack of male confidence, poor body image, sadness and anger,” Fitzgibbons wrote, noting the anger was often directed at the Church, the Holy Father and religious authorities.

Richard Sipe, who spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest and has authored eight books on clerical celibacy and/or the clerical sexual abuse crisis, said cases such as Lahey’s did not surprise him.

“It’s very easy for priests as they move up in administrative levels to establish a sexual life,” Sipe said from his office in La Jolla, Calif.

Those double lives can be either homosexual or heterosexual, he stressed, noting the recent resignation of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala after revelations he had fathered two children.

A myth has been perpetrated that priests and bishops do not have sexual lives, Sipe said.

“There are volumes of case histories that record this kind of behaviour,” he said.

“Sometimes it lasts for a long period of time, even a lifetime of the priest or bishop, sometimes it’s a serial monogamy that a priest or a bishop will have a relationship with a woman or a man for three to five years and go to someone else.”

During the 1970s and earlier, before being “out of the closet” was socially acceptable, some men went into the priesthood so no one would ever ask them why they never married, said Kleponis. In the 1970s, there was more homosexual activity going on in seminaries than there is now, and some men who became sexually active with other men in seminary continued to remain so after ordination. Some became seminary rectors, he said.

As for the future, Kleponis is not finding this tendency to run away from or hide one’s sexuality is as prevalent in priests 50 and younger, he said.

“Younger seminarians are there because they feel it’s a vocation, they are not there to hide their sexuality and have no intent of leading a double-life.” This is true both of men with heterosexual orientation as well as those who struggle with same-sex attraction.

Sipe said more needs to be done to train priests on how to live out their celibate vows successfully. Though he received a dispensation to marry, he said celibacy is a wonderful gift to the Church, but secrecy and cover-up over failures needs to be replaced with a full understanding of human sexuality and ways to live a celibate lifestyle in a spiritually fruitful and successful way.

Canon lawyer Fr. Francis Morrisey, who has advised the Catholic Church in Canada on the sexual abuse crisis, when asked if Lahey’s kind of double life is common, answered: “I certainly hope not.”

“Oftentimes, provincials or superlaiors are the last persons to know what’s going on,” he said. “Normally, let’s say somebody’s leading a double life, he is not going to tell his boss what he’s doing.

“We’re probably dealing with a psychological issue,” Morrisey said, adding that he hoped Lahey would get the assistance he needs to “address his issues.”

Morrisey said that most Catholics were shocked by the revelations. 

“I’m just hoping the Holy See will be able to address this situation rather quickly so it’s not left hanging and Bishop Lahey will be able to get on with his life.”  

Lahey applied for laicization a year ago, his lawyer told the court, and removal from the clerical state is one of the penalties the Holy See can impose on him.

In the last sexual abuse case involving a priest where Sipe served as an expert witness, the priest received 3,000 signed testimonies in his favour, even though he had “savagely abused this youngster.”

“People will always defend the perpetrator,” he said.

Lahey was hailed for the compassionate and generous settlement he brokered for clerical sexual abuse victims in the Antigonish diocese.

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