Christianity and sexuality clergy abuse crisis

Courage and Freud: The John Jay Report

I wonder if any of the above might be connected to Fr. Harvey's views on clergy abuse.

In my first and second post, I discussed how many Catholics remain committed to dangerous neo-Freudian views of sexuality, including those Catholics who promote the organization Courage. None of what I’m saying here is meant to suggest that people who lead or participate in Courage are necessarily abusers. But I do believe that the structure and principles of Courage create conditions under which abuse, deception, and self-deception can thrive.

The report

In 2011, a group of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice published an extensive study on clerical abuse of minors. The study, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, discusses at length the conditions in which abuse occurs. It includes David Finkelhor’s four-factor model of sexual offending. The model states:

“in order to sexually abuse, an individual must: (1) have motivation to sexually abuse; (2) overcome internal inhibitions; (3) overcome external factors that may act as inhibitors to the abuse; and (4) overcome the child’s resistance to abuse.”

Following this model, the report lists two primary ways to prevent abuse. First, we can identify those who have a motivation to sexually abuse. However, because the research shows that abusers are a heterogenous group, they can be difficult to identify before the abuse. So attempts to prevent abuse by identifying potential abusers have yet to be successful as a general matter.

Second, even if we cannot always identify motivated abusers, we can prevent opportunities for abuse. The report provides a few suggestions. For example, educating seminarians on how to handle or avoid stress, loneliness, and isolation can help to prevent situations that might trigger desires to form inappropriate relationships. We can also create situational factors to prevent abuse, such as (a) increasing the effort needed to abuse through education of the community, (b) increasing the risk of abuse identification through “zero-tolerance” policies and evaluations, and (c) removing “excuses” for abuse through education about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

Certainly, identifying abusers before they abuse can be extremely difficult, and no model has proven successful at such identification. But personal and social contexts can create greater or lesser opportunity for abuse. And for this reason I worry about Courage.


Take, for example, the adoption by Courage of the Twelve Step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous [1]. As part of the Twelve Step model, Courage invites its members to reflect every meeting on step one: “We admitted that we were powerless over our homosexuality, and our lives had become unmanageable.” And then on step two: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

For those of you who have seen the TV show Scandal, consider the breakdown of Sally Langston after she commits murder. Realizing what has happened, she blames the murder on Satan, who she says overtook her in the moment. She doesn’t really believe she did it at all. She spiritualizes the moment of the murder so as to remove her culpability, so that she can remain her righteous self even while condemning the murder (by condemning the actor in the murder, Satan).

One important thing to know about sexual abusers is that they are often highly intelligent and that they use “techniques of neutralization” to excuse and justify their behavior to themselves. I worry the adoption by Courage of the Twelve Step model can feed into these techniques, by creating that narrative of “powerlessness” before one’s “homosexuality.” And even while those in Courage may seek a “cure,” they can say that their “failings” were simply their evil homosexuality and, in a way, not really themselves. They can thus fall into traps of self-delusion and cycles of promiscuity, or even abuse. [2]

Notice also how the language of powerlessness creates an opportunity for those in authority to take excessive control. The John Jay report lists the ways in which abusers use positions of power and authority to gain trust of victims (and their parents), and then create opportunities for abuse. Those who feel powerless often seek out others to provide security and a sense of identity, and abusers can take advantage of this. We have seen how the abusers during Boston’s 2002 crisis identified kids from broken homes, and groomed them by providing social security and a sense of belonging in the Church. I worry that the Twelve-Step model implemented by Courage can also facilitate this.

Sharing secrets

In addition, the 2012 Courage Handbook promotes an environment in which leaders are told to ask participants to share personal information in a context separate from holistic relationships and fragmented from the rest of life. In “Dealing with Obstacles,” which provides advice to leaders of Courage groups, the handbook writes about how it is important for members to share “deep secrets” with one another:

“If the member who is excessively quiet is too frightened and ashamed to admit same-sex difficulties before a group, she or he must be encouraged gently to say even a few words and gradually to share deep secrets and to feel absolute safety in so doing.”

In other words, one of the goals of the Courage meetings is to get members (typically strangers with no relationships with each other outside the group and no known commonalities except sexual anxieties) to divulge their deepest secrets to each other. Anyone who spent the summer watching cult and crime documentaries (like me) will immediately be concerned by this language. When abusers do this, we call it grooming.

For those struggling to understand their sexualities, these meetings can be incredibly confusing. One friend who was a virgin when he first started attending a group shared with me that it was during these meetings that he learned where and how gay men had sex with strangers. He learned more about the ins and outs of same-sex sexual encounters in those meetings than he had learned anywhere else. And while he didn’t know the other members particularly well, he knew all of their sexual activities on a regular basis. His primary knowledge of these members was their sexual activity. And while it may be freeing in one sense to finally be able to speak about these parts of one’s life, the context should raise questions.

Likewise, I have had a few friends who had gone to the Courage-backed “Journey into Manhood” retreats, which claim to “heal homosexuality.” Though most of these friends said that they found some healing in being able to speak out their experiences of sexuality for the first time, looking back some of the retreat’s activities were bizarre and even troubling. And for some, the other men on the retreats became sexual partners afterwards.

“Core to the apostolate”

The handbook also stresses the ultimate value of the group meetings. Though it encourages one-on-one counseling, it says: “Nothing, however, can replace the group experience which has proven to be the single most important factor, under God, in achieving sexual sobriety and sanity.” Though the handbook is interspersed with much advice that I found to be good and helpful, it is comments like these that make me pause. Clearly, this sort of mindset creates an environment conducive to secrecy, manipulation, and the handing over of one’s critical capacities to “the apostolate.” “The group” takes on ultimate value.

One can here make again the connection between priest-abusers and their victims. The abusers would often gain the secret confidence of their victims, eventually gaining access to their deepest secrets, and then use this knowledge to exercise control and dominance over them. And because the children could not speak about these issues of sexuality with others out of fear and shame, the abusers could take advantage of their silence as well.


The group meetings, which Courage calls “core to the apostolate,” do not encourage environments where critical capacities could be used. Rather, meetings are encouraged to follow a format in which members each go around the circle spending a few minutes sharing their secret struggles “with same-sex attraction.” The handbook states: “We only listen. If anyone is to interact with the person speaking, it has to be the leader. This is for the purpose of keeping the meeting running smoothly.” Critical response is especially looked down upon:

“Intellectualizations are discouraged since they are usually mechanisms (even unconsciously) to keep from confronting oneself.” [3]

Now, I must admit that I write this as someone who has lived with varying degrees of self-deception, and I have certainly used intellectualizations to keep from confronting myself. I do struggle at times to understand myself and to live with the openness, honesty, and integration to which my faith aspires. But even granting all this, it would be a great negligence for me to simply turn off my reasoning faculties in order to blindly conform to the expectations of others in a context where I’m sharing my deepest and darkest secrets.

Again, I should say that none of the above is meant to accuse anyone specifically of abuse. But for those who may have a motivation to abuse, we might return to the three remaining factors for Finkelhor’s model of sexual offending: overcoming internal inhibitions, overcoming external factors, and overcoming the victim’s resistance. The internal inhibitions can be overcome by giving oneself the excuse of “powerlessness.” External factors are overcome, such as the support of social structures, because the relationships in Courage are cultivated in a context of secrecy (meetings are expected to have “strict confidentiality,” with an “analogy to the seal of Confession,” as the handbook puts it) and in isolation from the rest of life. And the victim’s resistance can be overcome through the grooming technique of gaining trust and bearing the deepest and darkest (and often most shameful) secrets.

I suspect that the founder of Courage, Fr. Harvey, would view this situation differently. Certainly current leadership do. But for those willing to look at the organization critically, I wonder if any of the above might be connected to Fr. Harvey‘s views on clergy abuse. He held the view that clergy sexual misbehavior was psychologically curable and could be spiritually remedied through prayer, a common assumption in the Church prior to 1984. Many do not recall that in the 1990’s Fr. Harvey was an active figure in advising bishops on the rehabilitation of abuser-priests. It is quite possible that he transferred his “expertise” in clergy reorientation and rehabilitation into his ministry for those with same-sex attraction. However well intentioned he may have been in that former work, he was terribly, terribly wrong. [4]

In Monday’s post I will explore why, even given the above, so many Catholic leaders remain committed to Courage and its underlying anthropology.

More in this series on Courage and Freud:


[1] Though I believe the twelve-step model is extremely problematic for cultivating a healthy sexuality, I don’t at all want to deny that it can be very effective for those struggling with alcohol addition. I have friends who have benefited tremendously from the Twelve Step program. I believe, however, that such a model is inappropriate for most people responding to homosexuality.

[2] Consider also what the John Jay Report has to say on “excuses” and “denials of Responsibility” for the abuse of minors:

“Priest-abusers are similar to non clergy abusers in their cognitive distortions regarding abusive behavior. It was common for priests to proclaim that they were not responsible for their actions, but rather their ‘sick self’ was. This force beyond their control allowed them to deny full responsibility for their behavior, similar to legal claims of diminished capacity. Commonly, they used excuses of alcohol and/or drugs or the sickness of addiction associated with these substances.

Some accused priests relied on clinical or psychological explanations for their deviant behavior. A common excuse was sexual immaturity. The priests alluded to what they had lost (their active ministry), rather than recognizing the harm done to the accuser. In this explanation, they also showed a lack of victim empathy. In addition to sexual immaturity, they also expressed emotional immaturity. The priests talked about seeking excessive emotional closeness with parishioners generally… and they also explained that their emotional needs were not met by peer priests. Other priests explained that abuse is really no one person’s fault, because it is either a disease of the mind, a misunderstanding about what is appropriate, or the result of retarded psychosexual development.”

[3] To be sure, “intellectualizations” are discouraged because the primary purpose of the meetings is to share personal experiences and to open up about one’s “deep secrets,” as discussed above. Intellectual arguments are simply out of the “scope” of the meetings’ purpose. However, I am deeply skeptical of meetings where one of the supposed purposes is to come to a deep self-knowledge, while at the same time it discourages intellectual questions. And even if such questions are not raised at the meetings, the handbook does not propose intellectual formation as something to be prioritized, except when a “leader” is giving a presentation to the members (who, presumably, are primarily doing intake, rather than questioning or exploring). Thus, Courage has no external intellectual accountability other than from those it deems suitable for leadership.

[4] It is interesting to note that one of the three sponsors of the Courage conference, “Living the Truth in Love,” is the Napa Institute. The Institute was recently criticized for featuring Archbishop Neinstedt as a panelist on a discussion of the family, hiring him to edit publication proceedings, and providing him a place in which to continue public ministry after his high profile scandal-fueled resignation from being a bishop after allegations of sexual impropriety with other priests and seminarians.

Also see this piece from 2015 by Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychologist relied upon in a large amount of Courage literature. In the article, Fitzgibbons references a “prevalence of false accusations” of abuse against priests and questions the memory of accusers in general, asserting that false memories arise from poor parental relationships. He also questions the credibility of accusers who wish to remain anonymous and insists on a “responsibility” to prove that accusations are not false before we can take action (such as a break from ministry, even if temporary). I should say that I believe some of his recommendations are reasonable and may be helpful. But, as with Fr. Harvey, one should question the dispositions and anthropologies that underly Dr. Fitzgibbon’s views of clerical abuse (which are seriously flawed in this area) and how they might also manifest themselves in his views on homosexuality.

7 comments on “Courage and Freud: The John Jay Report

  1. Pingback: Courage and Freud: You can’t refute Freud – A Blog by Chris Damian

  2. Pingback: Courage and Freud: Are homosexuals just lesser men? – A Blog by Chris Damian

  3. Pingback: Courage and Freud: Why is Catholicism committed to a Freudian ministry for homosexuals? – A Blog by Chris Damian

  4. Pingback: Courage and Freud: So what can be done? – A Blog by Chris Damian

  5. My eyes are bugging out after reading that article by Fr. Harvey. I’m amazed Crisis hasn’t scrubbed it. I mean, this guy says 55 priests were returned to ministry after molesting children, 32 of them didn’t molest again (meaning 23 did) and calls it a *success*!

    Meanwhile I was recently in a Catholic group, and people were calling me to be booted because I said Courage wasn’t so great. They shouldn’t have this status as “the Catholic way to be gay”!


  6. Pingback: What do bishops want from gay Catholics? – Chris Damian

  7. Pingback: Weigel, Courage, and McCarrick: Let’s Get Real – Chris Damian

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