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Psychiatric Stations of the Cross

We should all know by now that our culture is awash in psychobabble, such that Robert Coles has noted that “a Woody Allen movie strikes one not as exaggeration, caricature, or satire, but as documentary realism” (New Oxford Review, June 1984). Of course, “psychobabble” is a dismissive term, but that put-down hasn’t in the least impeded the long march of psychology through the institutions of Western society, even the Catholic Church.

We once saw a cartoon showing a psychiatrist and a patient on the couch, with the patient exclaiming, Oh, that’s just psychobabble! The shrink replied calmly: Actually, psychobabble has been known to help people. We would add that placebos have also been known to help people. But if you take a placebo and things don’t go well, you can hardly blame the placebo. If, however, you swallow the psychobabble and things turn out badly, you can blame the psychobabble.

And sure enough, one way some in the Church have tried to deflect responsibility for priestly “sex abuse” has been to blame psychiatry. And since psychiatry is such a soft science — softer even than sociology and weather forecasting — it isn’t too hard to find a shrink to run interference for you. As we all know, defense lawyers are adept at finding shrinks to testify that the accused did it under “psychological duress” — a favorite one being “temporary” insanity (if it’s temporary, it’s hard to falsify the claim, which is most convenient).

Well, some apparatchik at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has come up with a congenial shrink, Dr. Frederick S. Berlin, who has been a consultant to the USCCB on “sex abuse.” Said apparatchik apparently found an interview with Dr. Berlin from 1997 and provided it to The Catholic Voice, the paper of the Diocese of Oakland. As printed in the June 17 Voice of this year, Dr. Berlin says: “There’s no cure for pedophilia. There is, however, effective and successful treatment. As with alcoholism, where there are many similarities, we can talk about successful treatment but not cures…. Years back, the Church, very sadly, was misled by mental health professionals…. Unfortunately, back in the ’40s and ’50s, and even the ’60s, psychiatrists, who didn’t understand what we do now, thought that these people could be cured…. The fault there was not the Church’s.”

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