The destructive power of unjustified guilt in sex abuse cases has been demonstrated again and again. Last month we saw yet another example when a former priest, Patrick McCabe, was convicted of sexually abusing two boys in the 1970s.One of the telling aspects of the case was a statement by one of the victims, now 50, who said that in the aftermath of the abuse he felt he had failed his family.
I think it is of great importance for those who are abused and for their relatives to understand that inappropriate guilt is a feature of these acts of criminality both for abused children and for adults who are sexually abused by other adults. The destructive effects of such emotions are mentioned again and again in the aftermath of abuse cases. It may be that sense of guilt and shame that drives some abused people towards suicide or other self-destructive behaviours.
Sexual abuse is a shameful act and there is something in us as humans that feels tainted even though we have been the unwilling objects of a shameful act by another. This may be due to our psychological defensive system. Imagine that you provide security for a building and that the building is robbed. The guilt for this act belongs to those who have planned and carried out the robbery. But a focus of the inquiry that immediately begins will be, why didn’t the defences work? One could even imagine the person who was in charge of the security system feeling a certain amount of inappropriate guilt about the robbery. This is an example of how being the victim of abuse could actually lead a person to feel a sense of inappropriate guilt.
The other possible culprit for this sense of inappropriate guilt is that part of the mind which is so quick to go on the attack when anything goes wrong.
Notice some of the really harsh things you say to yourself over the smallest mistakes or stumbles in your day. Most of us, if we really listen to these things and reflect on them can be astonished by the harshness of these self judgements. In my opinion, these harsh self judgements play a role in depression and suicide – and indeed we very often hear of suicidal thinking and suicidal behaviour as a feature of the damage done by sexual abusers. That harsh critic in the mind will attack the person who has been subjected to sexual abuse. This critic has nothing to do with conscience or indeed with logic. It can be irrational and cruel and all the more distressing for all of that. And because sexuality is at the very depth of our being that voice of guilt and of shame can be astonishingly deep.
One of the victims of McCabe said he had “experienced every emotion associated with self-loathing”. Even worse than that, perhaps, this man feels guilt for the deaths of his parents when they were only in their 50s and who seem to have suffered from that same poisonous, inappropriate guilt. “They had tried to give me a good foundation for my future and instead they felt responsible for sending me into a lion’s den,” he told the court in his victim impact statement. The part of the mind would attack you in this way was called by Freud “the superego”. It is terribly important to understand that the superego is an irrational, malfunctioning and dangerous part of the mind.
What is worth taking out of all this is the realisation that persons subjected to abuse, assault and especially sexual exploitation suffer enormously from inappropriate guilt and shame. It is important that the persons feeling this guilt and shame understand that it is inappropriate and that they should not allow this to stop them from seeking help. It is also very important that those who seek to support such persons be aware of this very destructive and very painful feature of abuse.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living book is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email