That’s Men: Why sorrow of victims turns to self-loathing

Tue, Apr 16, 2013, 06:00

I wrote recently about unjustified guilt felt by victims of child abuse. From the responses I received, both in conversation and by email, it seems to me that this is a very widespread issue.

I was referring to the case of a priest, Patrick McCabe, who abused schoolboys in Kildare decades ago. One of his victims, James Moran, said in his impact statement: “I have experienced every emotion associated with self-loathing.”

I had heard of this before and I regard it as the hidden side of child abuse. Many abused children grow up to carry through life a burden of guilt that does not belong to them. The guilt may be unjustified but it is deep and insidious. It is like a worm in the soul.

Sometimes the guilt is helped along by others. One woman wrote that “as a child the blame was placed on me of course by mother – 1964 – for daring to speak truth of sexual abuse and that was worse than abuse itself . . . so I did blame myself for years – actually right up to 2005.” It appears to have been an interview with a police child abuse expert in the UK that allowed her to let go of the guilt.

But the guilt doesn’t have to be imposed by others. One man mentioned hitching a lift home as a child and the driver putting his hand on his legs in what he knew was a completely wrong way. In the rear-view mirror he saw a car driven by his aunt.

His immediate reaction was not one of relief but of anxiety that if she spotted him getting out of this car she would see him as having been involved in something wrong. Isn’t it extraordinary how quickly irrational guilt can kick in?

It was only when his aunt had turned off onto another road that he asked to be let out of the car and, luckily for him, the driver agreed.

Universal guilt

And this guilt seems to be universal. An Irishwoman working in Zimbabwe wrote to say she will use the article in her community-based work with women there. An honour for me but an indication of the seriousness of this problem of inappropriate guilt.

A priest writes that people who feel guilt, even though it is they who have been abused, might take this approach: “Rather than ask whether you feel bad about it, ask yourself: Did I in fact do something bad or wrong on purpose?

“If the failure is due to some other cause for which you are not responsible, yes, you regret deeply that the event occurred. But in fact, whatever some other person has done, you did nothing wrong.

“. . . there is no question of guilt – it is rather the recognition that something is clearly not the way you know it should be.”

He writes that he often comes across unjustified guilt feelings in the confessional.

He adds: “I knew Patrick McCabe – or rather, I knew only a very good and dedicated side of him. In his case, as with some others I knew, I was quite amazed when the facts began to be made public. As with others, it is difficult to reconcile the contradictory dimensions.”

He adds: “The inability of some people to acknowledge the wrong they have done, and the absence of accompanying feelings of guilt, is a dimension that needs significant study. Reports of what otherwise decent and admirable people can perpetrate in some situations can be deeply shocking.”

By the way, James Moran’s case was held back from the Murphy report into clerical child abuse because the case against Fr McCabe was ongoing. By the time you read this, the redacted chapter may have been released.

“The Murphy Report will reveal the truth about why my statements lay undiscovered for several decades,” he writes on his website. “During these years Patrick McCabe was allowed to travel abroad undetected and unmonitored.”

You can read his website at

Padraig O’Morain ( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.