Legacy of sex abuse denial can be traced back to Freud

Rite and Reason: With one million Irish people said to have been sexually abused as children, why has the issue not surfaced…

Rite and Reason: With one million Irish people said to have been sexually abused as children, why has the issue not surfaced before now? Father Jim Cogley suggests why

There are many misunderstandings at present around the disclosure of sexual abuse and how it was dealt with. Why is it that something which has been with us at least since the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt has only come to the fore in recent time? Why is it that so many victims of abuse, who reported horrific stories, felt abused all over again by simply not being heard or believed?

The word "victim" of abuse, as opposed to "survivor", is used because at the disclosure stage every person is a victim. Such a distinction is alluded to by Robert Grant PhD in his book Healing the Soul of the Church, which also contains much valuable information around the history of disclosure. (Another useful source is A Tragic Grace: The Catholic Church and Child Sex Abuse, Liturgical Press, 1966).

The difference between victims and survivors is that while both have experienced a traumatic event, the victim is still immobilised and traumatised, still controlled by what happened. Survivors, on the other hand, have overcome the traumatic memories and become mobile. They have been able to make peace with their memories and are now able to experience what it means to be back in charge of their lives once again.

The father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was the first to recognise and explore the phenomenon of sexual abuse. In the early days of its discovery he likened it to having "discovered the source of the Nile". So destructive was it that, untreated, it had the potential to warp every aspect of the individual's development and capacity to express him or herself. Not only did it destroy the will, but it murdered the soul. When asked what happened to her when she was sexually abused, one woman replied: "I died." (She was referring, not to the Ego but to her Real Self).

Freud uncovered an enormous body of evidence, personal, clinical and legal, which demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that huge numbers of children were being abused, most often by their fathers. Freud had his clinical practice in Vienna in the Europe of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can only imagine the backlash he received when he began to disturb that particular hornet's nest.

Many of his closest friends and contemporaries were the biggest offenders. They lashed out at him with the strength of indignation which only the guilty can muster. He was even accused of being insane, which for any psychiatrist is a bitter pill to swallow.

The pressure was so great that he had to retract what he had been saying and express a view that the traumatic memories, which he was constantly hearing, were only the fabrication of the mind, grounded on frustrated Oedipal desires. In effect, he said that the revelations of sexual abuse had no foundation in reality, but were expressions of the patients' repressed sexual desires.

This became the ghost which haunted the psychoanalytical legacy until recent times. There are still psychologists, products of the old school, who would much prefer to ignore not only the effects of childhood abuse, but also its existence.

The legacy of denial was so strong that in the 1950s, the expressed view of psychiatry was that "even if actual sexual abuse did take place, provided that the child had a normal upbringing prior to that age, it is unlikely that there would be any long-term consequences". In the late 1980s, when so many revelations about sexual abuse were beginning to break, the psychiatric view had not changed to any remarkable extent in the intervening 30 years. For so long, the Freudian legacy of "false memory" has prevailed and permeated every strata of society.

The medical professions, the police, teachers, parents, church authorities and even social workers were unable to hear the reality of what was so often being disclosed to them. They were consequently blocked from appropriate action.

Back in 1987, while doing some voluntary work with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, I attended an information day for social workers in the Dublin region, hosted by the centre. At the end of the session, a senior social worker, due to retire the following year, said that in all her years working in the inner city, she had only come across one case of sexual abuse. But now she could see clearly that every day of her life she had been meeting it, but did not have the ability to recognise it.

Without ever being aware of it ourselves, we have probably all been affected by the culture of denial which has surrounded child sexual abuse. We may even have evoked the issue of "false memory" when we found it difficult to face just how prevalent this issue is within our own ranks and within the wider church. We would have liked to think that when disclosures started, people were imagining things rather than believe the painful reality.

Where there existed a culture of secrecy, abuse could and did flourish. The odds were stacked firmly in favour of the perpetrator and the victim had little or no chance of being heard. Thankfully, this is changing fast and there never has been a better climate for people to tell their story. Many who thought they would have to bring their dark secrets to the grave are finding their voice and starting to speak out. We live in a time when we see fulfilment of Jesus's words: "There is nothing now hidden in the dark which will not be brought to the light."

In the US it has been estimated that 98 per cent of allegations are true and only 2 per cent are false. It would be nice to think that 98 per cent were false and only 2 per cent true, but that would only indicate the extent of our own denial.

Society in general still has great difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that one person in four being a victim is a realistic estimate. Not only that, but the majority of those who are victims still choose to think it didn't happen to them. Many continue to live lives of "quiet desperation", believing everything, except the real problem, to be the source of their unhappiness.

Father Jim Cogley is a psychotherapist and a priest of Kilmore Quay parish, Co Wexford. He presented the above paper to the priests of Ferns diocese earlier this year. It also appears in the current issue of Intercom magazine.