Psychologist For Priests: I Saw Abusers Reinstated For years, the Catholic Church has quietly sent priests accused of sexual transgressions to psychiatric centers, many affiliated with the church. Dr. Leslie Lothstein, who has treated more than 300 priests, tells NPR he saw some sex offenders sent "right back to working in youth ministries."

Psychologist For Priests: I Saw Abusers Reinstated

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At the Vatican today, unexpected remarks from Pope Benedict XVI.

In a homily, the pope talked about the need for Catholics to repent for sins and, in his words, recognize what is wrong in our lives. And though he did not specifically mention sex abuse by clergy, it was his most direct reference to the scandal in recent weeks.

NORRIS: For years, the Catholic Church has been quietly treating priests accused of sexual transgressions at a series of psychiatric centers.

Leslie Lothstein is director of clinical psychology at one of those centers, the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. He's treated about 300 priests, some of them for sexual problems.

Dr. LESLIE LOTHSTEIN (Director of Clinical Psychology, Institute of Living): The difficulty in treating priests who are accused of these actions is that they often don't come with any accompanying documentation, and they really don't have a narrative to talk about the sexual kinds of ways in which they identify in the world, so many of the priests tend to be very psychosexually immature.

They've never really taken a course in healthy sexuality. They haven't either dated or partnered or had a normative sexual line of development where there would be healthy narratives of engaging in sexual behavior.

If you look at the Sipe research, he was a former monk who wrote a book on celibacy in the Catholic Church, that the study he did of about well over a thousand priests was that only two percent of them were celibate. Eighteen percent tried to be celibate and 80 percent were not celibate.

So when you have people who are not being celibate, who are immature, who have not gone through the normal lines of development, some of whom went into major seminary - minor seminary at age 14, sometimes younger, and develop a sense of self without having appropriate lines of dating, meeting other people, experimenting with touch, kissing, ordinary sexuality, you're dealing with a little bit of a different person.

NORRIS: One of the big questions is whether the church would follow the directives that they would receive from the psychiatrist that was treating the priests, specifically the advice regarding whether or not the priest should go back into the ministry or be in any kind of position where they might be exposed to children.

What's your experience in dealing with that question?

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: My experience was that if it was said to one of the clergy who was in charge - the vicar of a priest, or bishop, that this person needs to have much more supervision, they would say, oh, yes. Yes, it'll be there. They'll have the supervision. But then what happened was they went back to their normal everyday work. And in going back to it, we learned much later that they didn't have that supervision.

NORRIS: It's said that pedophilia is something that cannot be treated in the traditional sense. It can be managed, but you can't just erase it altogether. Given that, should priests facing these accusations ever go back into the ministry where they might be once again exposed to children?

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: Pedophilia, as defined psychiatrically, is different from pedophilia as defined legally. As defined psychiatrically, there is no cure. It's like saying there's a cure for heterosexuality or there's a cure for having blue eyes. You can't change what's basic and instinctual.

So the treatment then focuses on being able to manage impulses, being able to develop an empathic understanding of the child's perspective and taking the child's perspective, understanding the intense harm that would be placed on the child. In the sense of cure, the treatment is to rehabilitate structures, help to develop other ways of being in the world, coping with those impulses but not acting on them.

NORRIS: So if pedophiles cannot be cured, can they be treated successfully to the point where they can be around children without risk? Is that possible?

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: You know, there's a pretty universal feeling that any time a person has had sexual activity with a child, that they should not work around children and they should not have any work that has to do with being around children.

NORRIS: Was that the advice...

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: That's the stand...

NORRIS: ...that was passed on to the church? And was that the advice that was most often followed?

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: In my experience, there were some people who were sent back and they were sent right back to work in youth ministries, and they often offended. There was also a subgroup of people that I saw in my private practice where they were sent back by their religious order to a foreign country and within that country continued to molest children. And it was just horrible.

NORRIS: In a piece in The New York Times over the weekend, you talked about healing individuals and healing a church where this problem, the problem of sexual abuse has become endemic. How do you heal a larger organization?

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: Well, I think transparency, honesty, sincerity have to be the foremost character issues to begin to make that heal. And I think that's what the public wants in every situation, whether it's local or international.

NORRIS: Dr. Lothstein, thank you very much for your time.

Dr. LOTHSTEIN: You're quite welcome.

NORRIS: Dr. Leslie Lothstein is the director of clinical psychology at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. He's treated more than 300 priests.

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