A new study has uncovered a link between high levels of Catholic collective narcissism and acceptance of myths about child sexual abuse. The findings, which were published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, could help inform efforts to combat prejudice against underaged victims of sexual abuse.
“Even though sexual relations between priests and minors have taken place inside the Catholic Church for centuries, the Catholic hierarchy was not always prone to fight against pedophilia in an official way,” said study author Marta Marchlewska, an associate professor and the head of the Political Cognition Lab at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
“In contrast, they put a lot of effort into keeping the existence of such activities hidden from public view to cover up the scandal and protect the positive image of their in-group. Some of the religious officials even suggested that the children are partly to blame for being sexually abused by priests. For example, Polish Archbishop Józef Michalik suggested that a pedophile act manifested itself ‘when a child is looking for love (…) it clings, it searches. It gets lost itself and then draws another person into this’ (Daily Mail Reporter, 2013, para. 9).”
“In our research project we aimed to understand why people adopt such beliefs,” Marchlewska explained. “Specifically, we aimed to explore the role of narcissistic versus secure in-group identity in accepting pedophilia myths that shift the blame from the perpetrator to the survivor. We refer to acceptance (vs. rejection) of those myths as to an understudied defensive mechanism that is aimed at protecting the in-group’s image in the eyes of others.”
The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,300 Polish Catholics in which they were asked the extent to which they agreed with various pedophilia myths, such as “Usually, children who say they were sexually abused by a priest are not telling the truth” and “When children get sexually harassed by a priest, it is often because the way they said ‘no’ was unclear.” After six months, the participants were asked to complete the survey again. The final sample consisted of 719 Catholic participants aged between 18 and 91.
Marchlewska and her colleagues found that Catholic collective narcissism was positively associated with pedophilia myth acceptance. But identification with Catholics was negatively associated with pedophilia myth acceptance.
“We found that Catholic collective narcissism (i.e., a grandiose image of the in-group that is contingent upon external recognition of its worth) may be responsible for adopting pedophilia myths,” Marchlewska told PsyPost. “In other words, Catholics who identified with their religious in-group in a narcissistic way were more prone to adopt beliefs that justify sexual violence against children committed by in-group members (i.e., Catholic priests).”
“On the other hand, we found that secure identification with Catholics (i.e., an unpretentious investment in the in-group, independent of the recognition of the group in the eyes of others) was linked to rejecting pedophilia myths. This suggests that securely identified Catholics might be more prone to accept and admit the fact that some of their in-group members are not nor free from sin.”
Those with a high degree of Catholic collective narcissism agreed with statements such as “Catholics deserve special treatment,” “It really makes me angry when others criticize the Catholics,” and “If Catholics had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place.” Those with a high degree of identification with Catholics, in contrast, agreed with statements such as “I feel strong ties to other Catholics” and “Being a Catholic is an important part of my self-image.”
The researchers also examined the role of siege mentality in a second study of 357 Catholic respondents.
In line with their previous research, they again found that Catholic collective narcissism linked to increased pedophilia myth acceptance, while identification with Catholics was linked to decreased pedophilia myth acceptance. Importantly, siege mentality partially accounted for the relationship between Catholic collective narcissism and pedophilia myth acceptance. In other words, those high in Catholic collective narcissism were more likely to agree with statements such as “There is no place for internal criticism in Catholic Church in times of danger” and “The whole world is against Catholic Church,” which in turn made them more likely to accept pedophilia myths.
“We also found that while the narcissistic form of in-group identity is destructive both for intra- and intergroup relations, the secure identity seems to promote values that have been proclaimed by the Catholic Church for years (e.g., readiness to confess faults and make amends),” Marchlewska said.
“We found that the association between Catholic collective narcissism and pedophilia myth acceptance was reciprocal which suggests that not only narcissistic identity may boost pedophilia myths but also adopting pedophilia myths may boost collective narcissism. In line with this logic, messages priming denial of faults committed by in-group members may further lead to narcissistic identity which is not good either for outgroups or the mere ingroup.”
“Previous research showed that collective narcissists are egocentric and do not invest individual effort to benefit the group,” Marchlewska explained. “For example, Molenda et al. (2022) found that they could be even prone to conspire against their group to manipulate others for selfish goals.”
The researchers only studied Catholic participants. But they believe their findings extend to other groups as well.
“Though we focused on Catholic collective narcissism and secure identification with Catholics, we believe the results could refer also to many other groups,” Marchlewska said. “For example, those who identify with their nation in a secure way may be more willing to admit mistakes made by their in-group members. As being aware of your flaws is essential to true progress, future research would do well to better explore ways of boosting secure in-group identity.”
The study, “The fear of confession? High Catholic collective narcissism and low secure identification with Catholics predict increased pedophilia myth acceptance“, was authored by Marta Marchlewska, Paulina Górska, Zuzanna Molenda, Katarzyna Lipowska, and Katarzyna Malinowska.