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The dark side of leadership and its links to sexual abuse

Christian tradition often associates the manifestation of the dark side with the so-called seven deadly sins

 Father Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, Manila

Father Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, Manila

Updated: July 01, 2019 04:54 AM GMT
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The dark side of leadership and its links to sexual abuse

Pope Francis prays during the opening of a global child protection summit for reflections on the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, at the Vatican in this Feb. 21 file photo. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

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This is the second part of a three part series from Redemptorist Father Amado Picardal on the clerical sex abuse crisis.


Pope Francis has issued a motu proprio, or edict, titled "Vos Estis Lux Mundi," which provides procedures and norms in reporting and investigating clerical sexual abuse in the Church.

The focus is on the responsibility of each bishop to come up with a diocesan mechanism or system on receiving complaints and on the investigation of sexual abuse complaints.

The covering-up of such abuses will also be subject to investigation. Protection for whistle-blowers and victims are to be assured.

As an initial step, this is laudable. But it is not enough. More has to be done to address the root cause of clerical sex abuse.

While many blame clericalism and homosexuality amongst the clergy for the sexual abuse, its deeper root can be traced to the "dark side" that seeks to dominate all of us — especially those in positions of leadership.

From a psychological perspective, the dark side is often associated with personality disorders and abnormal behavior, which have roots in the subconscious.

Among the manifestations are narcissism, insecurity, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsions, despotic behavior, aggression, uncontrolled anger or intermittent explosive disorder, addictive behavior, sexual abuse, etc.

More often, the underlying causes of such disorders are complex — some involve childhood psychological trauma, abuse, rejection, etc.

Christian tradition often associates the manifestation of the dark side with the so-called seven deadly sins, or cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

Every human being, including priests, is prone to these "capital vices."

The dark side is associated with the four cravings, or basic temptations that try to dominate the life of each human being, especially those in leadership positions:

(1) Sensual pleasure
(2) Material possession
(3) Power and influence
(4) Popularity, fame and glory.

We can be vulnerable to one of these and even all of the above.

One basic temptation for a leader is to gratify one’s sensual desire. The leader has at his disposal whatever he wants and he can easily indulge in addictive behavior — whether it be food, alcohol, gambling, drugs or sex.

Another temptation is to indulge in illicit sexual behavior/misconduct (whether heterosexual or homosexual) — keeping a mistress/or concubine, the abuse of minors.

A leader has access to a huge amount of money. The big temptation is to use the position to accumulate wealth and material possessions.

The dark side of leadership becomes evident when it becomes his main motivation. His heart is full of greed and avarice. He needs more to maintain a luxurious lifestyle — a palatial home, the latest models of cars, clothes, gadgets, etc.

This is also necessary to maintain his vices and addiction — to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or seducing minors.

When a person occupies a position of authority and leadership, he often feels powerful. Traditionally, this power is associated with the capacity to impose his will and dominate others.

He makes decisions and expects to be obeyed. He can threaten and coerce others to do his bidding, to demand respect and even fear. He can even have the power of life and death over others.

This power comes with perks and privileges. He has at his disposal the wealth and resources that comes with the office. Power tends to be an aphrodisiac.

Sexual abuse can be an assertion of power. It is an abuse of power.

The dark side is part of the fallen, sinful nature of human beings. At the core of all these is selfishness, greed and pride.

The dark side is associated with ignoring or breaking God’s commandment and falling into sin. When he does this, the leader makes himself a god — failing to recognize that he is only a creature and there is someone greater than himself to whom he is accountable.

He thinks that he is above the law and does not have to follow or observe the law — whether it be divine law or the laws of society. He does not respect the dignity and rights of others. He does not listen to his conscience or has a dull conscience. He lacks a moral compass and becomes immoral.

Sexual misconduct or abuse comes easy. He lacks a sense of remorse and guilt. Having a hardened heart, he does not care if others suffer as a consequence of his acts and decisions. All he cares about is himself.

The temptation to succumb to the dark side becomes greater in a society and culture where those in a position of authority and leadership are placed on a pedestal. Thus, in such a societal culture, one is treated with deference and privilege.

There is a high regard and respect for the leader. Leadership is a position of power. He is above the rest. Everybody looks up to him and bows to him and kisses his hand or ring (if he is a bishop) and address him with honorific titles that can reinforce this superiority complex.

Feeling powerful, the leader feels that he is above the law and can do anything he likes — including committing sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, there have been periods in the history of the Church when the dark side dominated those who occupied positions of leadership — priests, bishops, cardinals and even popes.

This was prevalent in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Although nowadays the Church no longer has temporal power and less wealth, the dark side can still dominate some members of the clergy — including bishops and cardinals.

The Church is weakened not by the external enemies or despots who seek to destroy her. The leaders who are dominated by the dark side are the ones who are doing more damage.

Immoral behavior by the clergy creates a credibility gap. The priest or bishop loses credibility, trust and respect when people perceive him as selfish, greedy, power-hungry, materialistic, ego-driven.

When those he ministers to do not believe in him, do not trust him, and do not respect him, he can no longer minister effectively. All his preaching will be in vain because what he says is opposite to how he lives.

Pastoral leadership is moral/ethical leadership. Moral leadership demands that the clergy live up to the standards of morality. They are called to be exemplars or models of Christian moral values. When they do not live up to this, they become like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned.

The worst that could happen to a priest or bishop is not just to fall into sin or violate his vows and commitment. It is the loss of moral conscience — of having a dull conscience, of failing to acknowledge his mistakes, his sinfulness — as if everything is alright and there is nothing wrong with him or his behavior.


To read the first part of the series on the clerical sex abuse crisis click here

Father Amado Picardal is a 64-year old Filipino Redemptorist priest who holds a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He now lives a life of solitude, silence and writing after an active life as a missionary, professor, promoter of Basic Ecclesial Communities and peace and human rights advocate.

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