An Interview with Marianne Benkert, M.D.

February 4, 2010 by Jamie Romo

I am pleased to share an interview with Marianne Benkert, M.D. in today’s Healing and Spirituality.  Dr. Benkert has served as past president of the Baltimore County Medical Association, and chair of the Ethical and Judicial Affairs Council of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland and in the UCSD psychiatry residency training program. She co-authored “Religious Duress and its Impact of Clergy Abuse Victims” with Tom Doyle.

J.R.   As a psychiatrist, you have worked with thousands of people directly and indirectly impacted by clerical sexual abuse.  What are some of the psychological imprints or traumas related to children who are abused?

M.B.   Childhood sexual abuse always interferes with the normal tasks of child development.  The age of the child at the time of the abuse, the natural resiliency of an individual child, as well as the severity and length of time of the abuse will be important factors determining the damage to the child. The sexual abuse of a child shakes and shatters their sense of safety and trust.  The child’s natural sense of playfulness and freedom is replaced with the burden of fear, shame and guilt.  The development of a healthy self-esteem is impaired. The child is confused about what the abuse means. When the abuser is a cleric the confusion is intensified. It is important to understand that for most victims the psychological trauma is not truly appreciated until adulthood.

J.R. What are some of the big challenges you see with adults and their healing when they begin to deal with their childhood sexual abuse?

M.B.  In adulthood, reasoning, judgment, abstract thinking and ability to integrate past experiences reaches its full development.  Only in adulthood can victims of sexual abuse understand how the damage of the abuse has touched them, and impacted on all aspects of their life. Adults may have to deal with one or many of the problems associated with their sexual abuse.  Problems often encountered are sexual disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety reactions, isolation, violence, troubled marital and familial relationships, multiple physical ailments, employment problems, depression, sexual ideation, and even suicide.  One of the biggest challenges for the adult victim to deal with is the sense of shame.  They feel they should have done something to stop the abuse and blame themselves for not doing so, feeling they were in collusion with the abuser.  They need to understand that this is a common feeling and that they indeed were used and abused for the gratification of the abuser.

J.R.  I think the article you co-authored with Tom Doyle, “Religious Duress” is profound. What prompted you to write it?

M.B.   Some of us who have been involved with the sexual abuse issue have talked of the added layer of trauma placed on the victim when the abuser is a cleric. We wanted a phrase that would help explain this special layer of trauma.  We spoke of the pressure that Catholics experience in the church where the levels of authority are so stratified.  We described this pressure as religious duress.  Tom Doyle and I collaborated on an article published in Pastoral Psychology (June 2009).  We felt this concept was not fully appreciated and wanted it to become more widely understood.

J.R.  Some people might say that a religious practice that does not question is a kind of mind control.  That’s blunt.  I have seen bumper stickers and t-shirts that say “Recovering Catholic”.  Can you talk about stages of learning or psychological issues for parishioners related to Religious Duress?

M.B.  Religious duress is psychologically a specific kind of constraint and threat that affects members of the Catholic Church because of its clerical power structure.  This is a structure that fosters awe of the priest.  The priest is like no other.  He represents Christ on earth.  To a devout Catholic, the priest is conferred with a trust that he did not earn as a person but because of his special calling as a sexually celibate ordained priest, representing Christ on earth.  He is the mediator between God and man.

Although this unhealthy deference began to diminish after the 2nd Vatican Council it remained strong enough for the Church to effectively muzzle the sex abuse cases which began to surface in the mid-80’s.  By the 90’s many people began to question the Church and its priests as suspect.  It was the Boston cases in 2002 which caused the American Church to explode and shocked the faithful.  Worse than the damage inflicted by individual priests was the negligence and incompetence of their leaders.  Now it was exposed for all to see.  I believe that parishioners are now more knowledgeable about how the Church operates and are becoming more mature in the decisions they make for themselves.

J.R.  If the Catholic Church leadership/hierarchy was a patient, how would you diagnose its major issues?  What kind of treatment might be helpful for it to realize healthy relationships?

M.B.  I would classify the Catholic Church leadership/hierarchy as a dysfunctional system.  It has shown this most clearly in the reaction to the sexual abuse cases.  It is a clerical power structure and has used all its resources in protecting its clerical members rather than reaching out to its most vulnerable members. The laity are the Church also, yet when sexual abuse happens, the victims are seen as a threat against the Church.  I would ask the hierarchy to stop worrying about their image and try to emulate the humility and simplicity of Christ in order to be more like Him, rather then focusing on maintaining their power. It might then be possible for the Church to reclaim some of the credibility and moral authority it has lost.

J.R.  Do you experience spiritual depression as well as psychological depression on the part of those who come to you?  How do you understand and respond to that?

M.B.  As a psychiatrist I have treated many people with depression.  I do not distinguish between psychological and spiritual depression.  People with severe depression feel cut off from everything that had meaning to them. They are unable to feel spiritual comfort.  Loved ones who reach out to try to comfort them are dismayed when they are rebuffed. The depressed person feels totally alone, joyless, helpless and hopeless. That is the pain of depression.  Each person has their own story but with the proper treatment, the pain of depression can be alleviated.

J.R.  Regarding soul death?

M.B.   There have been articles written about soul death and soul murder.  I see both these phrases as descriptive of the terrible consequences of sexual abuse by someone who is trusted and esteemed.  In the past, there was no one held in more esteem and respect than the Catholic priest because of his role as mediator between God and man, essentially a Christ figure.  The more trusted the abuser, the greater the trauma.  The priest held power over all aspects of a person’s life, and held the power of eternal salvation or damnation in his hands. The power entrusted to the priest was all encompassing. The trauma of the abuse feels as if life has been taken away.  What more is left?  How do you describe this feeling?  The perpetrator has committed soul murder; the victim experiences this loss as soul death. But healing can take place. Victims can be empowered in many ways and for each person they must find what gives them strength.

J.R. How has your religious or spiritual identity changed over the years you have worked with victims of sexual abuse?

M.B.  As a psychiatrist I have had the privilege of sharing in the life struggles of many thousands of people.  Their struggles and suffering have deeply moved me, and I have been inspired by the courage they have shown.  In more recent years, I have been dismayed by the clerical sexual abuse crises and the way the Church has responded, causing additional trauma to the victims.

J.R.  What do you see in society that encourages you about healing related to religious authority sexual abuse?

M.B.  The most encouraging change is that the legal system has been able to penetrate the secrecy of the Church.  The Church is now forced to be accountable for the actions of its clerics.  It is the legal system that has forced the Church to hand over its documents and secret archives.  The workings of the Church are becoming part of the public record, and more will be revealed.  The Church can no longer control the media and influence the legal system as it once did.  Victims are becoming empowered and are able to tell their stories.  Society is listening and learning.


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