Clergy Sex Abuse: Why Do We Still Need to Talk About This?

 

Often at the scene of a horrific accident, police will tell bystanders to “Move along. There is nothing to see here.” The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is a terrible tragedy and many laity feel they are being given this very message: “Stop talking about the priests’ sexual abuse crisis. It’s over. Move along now.” This message implies that there are no or few new cases, there is nothing more to talk about and one is a disloyal Catholic if one thinks differently. We would suggest, however, “let us not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9) and face this sad and tragic problem as a searing global spotlight is now on the Church. Only true love and a clear-eyed, rational understanding will help heal the wounded and prevent more destruction to children, adults, families, and indeed, the whole Body of Christ. Trust destroyed is not easily reestablished. Priests and faithful alike need to continue this important work. As the beloved priest Father Zosima of Dostoevsky’s profound classic The Brothers Karamazov states “. . . in truth we are each responsible to all for all . . . this knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man.”

What is the scope of this problem that affects us all? Most know of the John Jay reports which found that about 4 percent of Catholic clerics had credible or substantiated accusations of child sexual abuse of minors spanning five decades (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011). But the destruction of the often-cited “small” percentage of clergy sexual abuse grows exponentially when you consider the following contextual points:

  1. Researcher Paul Sullins (2019) reports that clergy abuse in the United States is actually recently rising after a dramatic decrease following the USCCB Charter. “The priest sexual abuse of children dropped to an all-time low just after 2002 but has since disturbingly risen, though it remains well below its peak in the 1980s.”
  2. Offending priests also engage in sexual misconduct with adults and vulnerable adults, both men and women, including trusting parishioners and seminarians (e.g., Cavadini, 2019. Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture: The First Sociological Survey of Seminarians).
  3. Women religious and other Church leaders also violate children and vulnerable adults in their care.
  4. Sexual abuse in the Church has been exposed in many Catholic Church communities all over the world.
  5. Family members, friends, and community touched by sexual abuse or misconduct by Church leaders become deeply wounded by these stories and witnessing the ongoing pain and damage their loved ones suffer. This ripple-effect is far spreading and erodes trust over generations.

In addition, let us be mindful of a vital point that much of clergy sexual misconduct is kept silent. It is reasonably speculated that most sexually violated victims never tell civil or Church authorities. So they are never counted in any category. Furthermore, research shows that sex offenders lie about the number of victims they have violated by about five times (Hindman & Peters, 2001). The Notre Dame survey of Seminarians found that about half of those who experienced some kind of unwanted sexual misconduct by fellow seminarians never reported it to anyone (Cavadini, 2019). So both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse/misconduct are under-reported.

Also, there are long reaching effects on victims’ lives that are hidden from most of the Catholic community. Many victims turn to mood-altering chemicals to cope with the pain, find it difficult to form and maintain relationships, experiment with self-injury or consider/commit suicide. We believe the conversation must continue with an unflinching and ongoing look at the far-reaching problem and what real repair looks like. To this end, we offer the following points from the perspective of three Catholic psychotherapists. First, we outline personal defenses and obstacles to confronting the truth of clergy sex abuse. Second, we discuss pathological underpinnings of clergy who sexually exploit children or engage in sexual misconduct with adults and vulnerable adults. Third, we discuss the jarring truth about severe traumatic abuse, common misunderstandings related to the behavior of trauma survivors, and the need for listening and reestablishing safety. Finally, we explore the restorative justice that is due to victims, their families, and the Church at large.

Obstacles to talking about clergy sexual abuse

“Head down, avoiding scandal has resulted in the greatest scandal in the history of the modern church.” Sr. Kenny (Betrayal: Abuse in the Catholic Church in Nova Scotia, 2010).

Who can bear the full spectrum assault of what it means that “men of God” have gotten away with exploiting thousands of children, adolescents, adults and vulnerable adults? Yet we must collectively deal with Catholic clergy who molest, rape, sodomize males and females, and do so often only after tenderly wooing their affection and securing their trust.

There are obstacles to talking about clergy sexual abuse largely because there are obstacles to even facing it. In general, it’s natural to find the horrors of sexual abuse simply too painful to deal with. At the same time, there are a variety of personal motives for turning away from these stories of abuse. In addition to lacking the virtues of love and courage, certain motives to avoid this issue may be largely unconscious or just outside of conscious awareness. Hence, some humility and capacity for self reflection are needed to bring these hidden sentiments to light. What might be some tendencies that hinder our capacity to cope more openly with clergy abuse?

Cognitive dissonance

“Cognitive dissonance” was famously dubbed by social science researchers as our automatic tendency to alter our beliefs in order to align with our values, even at the expense of reason. Hence, we turn away from clergy sex abuse reports or minimize the severity or impact on our community because cognitive dissonance won’t allow some to both love our Church and acknowledge her failures.

Misplaced loyalty to the clergy family

The clergy is very much like a family of brothers and father-figures. There is a natural love and loyalty that flows in their ranks. That very sense of loyalty and protectiveness may blind some from conducting serious investigations or sanctioning abusers. They may feel sorry for penitent priests who are accused of abuse. Out of a posture of “forgiveness” and a misapplication of absolution, priests may give offending priests a pass, hoping for true reformation.

Emotional vulnerability

Clergy may feel unduly persecuted by abuse reports over which they had no control. Some people just cannot tolerate feelings of anger, helplessness, or inadequacy in learning of these reports. Priests may shrink from stories of fellow abusive brothers out of their own unresolved guilt and shame over past or current sexual transgressions, unable to face on the outside what is too close to their own unreconciled emotional pain. Since approximately one in six males have been sexually abused in childhood, some clergy may be too wounded in this area to deal adaptively with sex abuse charges in their midst.

Idealization of clergy

Another main obstacle to facing evil behavior in our clergy is the deeply rooted need to idealize authority figures. We all start life with this need. It begins with parents, then moves to teachers, coaches, government leaders, etc. Finally, that innate wish and need lands firmly on the shoulders of our church leaders. That ordination changes priests at an ontological level complicates our thinking and may blind us to their frail humanity and especially their hidden, dark side.

Clericalism

While idealization is what laity do in their naïveté toward clergy, clericalism is what clergy do in their over-valuation of themselves. It is the largely unconscious, perhaps subtle, notion that they are owed certain privileges (outside their actual ecclesial office) not granted to laymen. Clericalism is the illusion of entitlement and leads to abuse of power such as protecting clergy who are known criminal sex offenders from legal authorities. Fr. Thomas Doyle, a devoted advocate for individuals abused by clergy, has contributed greatly to this issue (2006). He notes, “The constant obsession of the hierarchy with protecting its image, stature and power at the expense of the victims has had the opposite effect and has in fact, produced an erosion of respect and trust” (2019).

Pathology of clergy offender

Nobody can use a person as a means to an end, no human being, nor yet God the Creator.” (St. John Paul II, 1960, p. 27.)

As psychotherapists, we believe an understanding of the involved pathology is necessary. It is very perplexing that ostensibly good, sincere, and holy priests can and do sexually exploit vulnerable people in their care. These abusers may exhibit bright philosophical minds, demonstrate Scripture scholarship, pray in tongues, exude warm pastoral gifts, and even display heroic acts of charity. Yet, they can also be serial child molesters. How can they be so morally sick on the inside while putting on a show of goodness? A cardinal, when asked about the criminal charges of sexual conduct of a priest in his diocese, responded, “We’re talking about a good man.” Herein is the dilemma: Can a person be both good and evil?

It is the perverse tendency towards exploitation that defines who has the potential for evil. St. John Paul II talked about the development of sexuality in what became his opus “Theology of the Body.” He astutely indicated that the opposite of love was neither indifference nor hatred, but exploitation (Wojtyla, 1960).

Not all clergy abusers of children and those who engage in misconduct with adults are alike. Dr. Thomas Plante warns us not to become locked into sensational, seedy stereotypes of clergy sex offenders (2015). He rightly points out that it serves no one to do so and reminds us of their humanity. Further, we understand that not all clergy who are caught in sexual impropriety or abuse are beyond remorse and rehabilitation. However, without being hyperbolic, it is important to recognize that many clergy offenders do possess a pattern of traits that can be categorized as narcissistic personality disorder (or at least having strong tendencies) and are the ones who cause the most damage. In general, people who sexually abuse minors or engage in sexual misconduct with adults have three underlying features, which may differ only by degree: exploitation, lack of empathy, and a sense of entitlement. These are the hallmarks of pathological narcissism.

Clergy who engage in sexual misconduct are often socially amiable yet cunning. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder can be persuasive, charming, and accomplished. Some may even appear genuinely remorseful when they get caught, while lacking a conscience. They often violate interpersonal boundaries and are preoccupied with control.

Furthermore, offending clergy tend to display pathological levels of entitlement such that the abuser feels justified in being exploitive, hurtful, and free of regret. One pedophile priest blithely defends himself: “It was like a game. I never used force . . . I had the strong impression he didn’t object.” And another tried to defend his actions with a five-year-old girl saying, “She was flirting with me.” It is common among priest perpetrators that they will tell themselves that they were only “helping or educating” their victims or even that the abuse was divinely inspired (e.g. a Catholic nun who had sex with a young girl referred to her behavior as “God’s love”). In this defensive manner they will split off the wrongdoing in their actions. Some clergy perpetrators may experience sexual arousal from inflicting psychological and physical pain. One study demonstrated that among various personality features, sadism consistently distinguished clerics who sexually abused children from other clergy members (Amrom, Calkins, & Fargo, 2017). Extreme levels of narcissism indicate the person is untreatable. Their character formation has been bolted shut and we must give up our otherwise “charitable” fantasies that they will be cured, apart from God’s intervention.

What we know from trauma research as well as victims and their families is that this tendency towards exploitation and the corresponding sense of entitlement is manifested through the “power differential” and the process of “grooming.”

Power Differential

There is a significant power differential between clergy and their victims which narcissistic perpetrators readily exploit. Clergy represent God, and people will give more credence to what they do and say than to others. Children are especially vulnerable to a priest-abuser because they are taught that he has tremendous power and authority, which induces reverential fear. Very often, children plainly see that their parents have reverential respect for priests. An additional level of significance for clergy and religious are the very titles they have: Father, Brother, Sister, Mother. These titles enhance the power of these relationships as they imply family love and nurturance, resulting in a greater disruption of cognitive, emotional, and relational functioning secondary to clergy abuse. In the case of clergy misconduct with adults, the power is weighted heavily upon the clergy, whose duty it is to be aware of their power and not take advantage of a parishioner’s reverence, idealization/transference, or respect for them. The power differential sets the stage for the next step of abuse — grooming.

Grooming

In the context of sexual misconduct, grooming is defined as befriending or establishing an emotional connection with the individual victim, and sometimes with the whole family, to lower the individual’s inhibitions with the objective of perpetrating sexual abuse and diminishing the capacity to resist it. Grooming most certainly occurs prior to the sexual abuse itself. For example, a predator may show special attention to the child in a classroom, present the child with gifts or trips, give hugs and affection, or assign special tasks, all of which are designed to break down normative and protective boundaries. Grooming is destructive because it exploits the natural tendencies of the child to attach to a good, nurturing, loving, and safe figure. Grooming leads the child or young adult to attach to someone they usually respect, admire, and trust. The abuser then exploits this attachment and insidiously crosses a boundary into abuse, thereby using the other for selfish gratification.

The grooming process is especially destructive because it leaves victims confused and angry about their natural cravings to be loved and the body’s natural response to sexual stimulation. Furthermore, a history of grooming a “loving” relationship often leaves victims with a sickening, unshakable sense of being complicit with the abuse.

The worst betrayal: Long-term effects of traumatic sexual abuse

It is our contention that most prelates do not really grasp the severity and longevity of the damage caused by clergy sex abuse. An independent report examining sexual abuse from 1945-2010 in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, the country with the highest concentration of clergy sexual abuse in the world, shows that over half the bishops knew for decades about abusive priests (Collins, 2018). In a February, 2019 interview with Dutch Cardinal Eijk asking why church leaders failed to recognize their sizable clergy abuse record, he offered this comment: “Church leaders and other people in society were not aware of the negative effects of sexual abuse of minors.” (CBS News, 2019) .

Why should Church leaders be aware of the psychological and spiritual damage caused by abuse? Shouldn’t church leaders leave that kind of knowledge to the “pastoral” or healing ministries or professional therapists? Here’s why not: Understanding the devastating effects of this kind of abuse would better equip church leaders to know how to listen, love, protect, and prevent more harm to children. An apology is more meaningful coming from a position of true knowledge.

For those sexually violated by men and women in the Church, so much is destroyed; even God Himself, in some cases, has been stolen. Without understanding and compassion from clergy, the Church will remain a dangerous place for many. Unless clergy demonstrate some depth of knowledge about what victims are left with, they may seem aloof and uncaring, offering only a litany of mea culpas and platitudes and tone-deaf pleas to return to Church for healing. We liken it to the pro-life argument in using graphic pictures of abortion. Fr. Frank Pavonne has said that people won’t fight abortion until they see it. The deep wounds and derailed lives of victims of clergy abuse needs to move from the abstract to the real.

Here’s what we know. For those abused by clergy, the process of healing is usually a very long, nonlinear, and terrifying experience. Sexual abuse trauma that is severe enough leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a constellation of symptoms that occurs following terrifying, overwhelming psychological shock. Subsequent symptoms can include flashbacks, sleep disturbances, nightmares, intense avoidance and severe anxiety when triggered by aspects of the event. Sexual abuse trauma can also lead to significant symptoms in damaged self-concept, emotional dysregulation, and ruptures in interpersonal relatedness. The violation of sexual abuse leaves victims with overwhelming feelings of confusion, helplessness, shame, guilt, rage, and terror. There are numerous studies on clergy sex abuse that illustrate this sad reality (e.g. Easton, et. al., 2019. “I will never know the person who I could have become”: Perceived changes in self-identity among adult survivors of clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse).

Clinical experience informs us that the enormous damage of clergy abuse to the self cannot be overstated. Victims of sexual abuse report that they feel like “damaged goods” and they “will never be the same.” One victim abused by a priest said, “Everything good in me was taken out and put into a blender. How do you exist after that?” Their suffering is intense. With deep hurt there is often depression, self-loathing, self-destruction, shame, suicidality, and an inability to enjoy intimacy or give and receive love. Finally, God Himself is stolen for some victims as they forever associate God with their abuser.

Misunderstandings About Sexual Abuse Trauma

From a “layman’s” perspective, the sexually violated person’s behavior may be misunderstood. Some are left wondering why victims didn’t just get up and walk away. People are generally perplexed why victims appear to go along with the abuse. Why didn’t they tell someone? And why do some tend to get into a pattern of being sexually victimized again and again? This ignorance can lead to victim blaming.

In addition to overt threats made by the perpetrator if they tell anyone, the answer involves the autonomic nervous system’s response to this kind of relationship trauma. The nervous system is equipped with a primitive, automatic (and uncontrollable) set of survival maneuvers in the face of overwhelming trauma: fight, flight, or freeze. Because victims have been slowly groomed into a caring or even “loving” relationship, they are not prepared for “fight” or “flight.” They freeze. This freeze reaction appears like they are complying. Even victims will be perplexed and have painful guilt about why they froze. Additionally, trauma victims will tend to fawn or instinctively “go along” with the wishes of the perpetrator in order to stay safe (i.e. the Stockholm Syndrome). Some will split off their awareness during the abuse — a process known as dissociation, also an automatic survival tool. Loyalty to the abuser is another perplexing dynamic which burdens some abuse survivors (especially when there’s been a pleasurable grooming process). All these may lead to an inability to break free from the abusive relationship. Severe trauma also leads to a tragic pattern of repetition of the original abuse.

The other aspect of clergy abuse survivors that may not be well understood by many is their often extreme avoidance of anything connected to the abuse. A common example is when victims want to have nothing to do with God, priests, church buildings, Catholic music, incense, etc. And this seemingly “irrational” behavior may persist for decades after the abuse. Extreme avoidance of anything connected with the trauma is a key feature of PTSD. It is another automatic survival response. The belief that victims should be able to forgive and “move on” is not only naïve but also can be very destructive when relating to victims.

Safety and Listening

Given the repetitive and unremitting nature of PTSD, Church responses such as deflection, minimizing, politicizing, all scream one unhappy message: the Church is not safe. Any trauma-informed therapist (and hopefully clergy) knows that reestablishing a sense of safety in one’s mind and body is fundamental to healing. Further, reestablishing safety within the church and Her relationships is also fundamental to healing as a Body of Christ. Unless Church leaders can thoroughly demonstrate that they understand this essential necessity and care about the suffering of the victims more than their images, they will appear inept at protecting.

We don’t believe clergy can rely entirely on relegating the listening ministry and spiritual works of mercy to their local healing ministries or psychotherapists. As in a dysfunctional family, it’s not enough for your sister to listen to your pain about your abusive father. For a family to authentically heal, the head of the household, the one wielding the power, must be accountable and minister to the needs of his family.

While some prelates are exceptionally empathic to clergy abuse victims, far too many stories abound of victims being badly injured by reactions that invalidate or subtly accuse. It would be a simple act of kindness for those in charge of abusive priests and who deal with victims to ask the survivors, “What would give you peace? What would justice look like to you?” Not that that would necessarily obligate Church leaders to fulfill all those wishes, but merely asking and taking time to listen would go a long way toward healing. We believe that if survivors of clergy sex abuse felt seriously heard, seen, and tenderly valued by the Church, they would be less likely to act out of hurt and anger against the hierarchy.

Restorative Justice: There is a Better Way

Many sexual abuse survivors feel they can never find peace until there is justice. We all know the moral virtue of justice is giving to God and our neighbor their rightful due. What is the “rightful due” to victims of clergy sex abuse? How can we give them back what has been stolen, the damage inflicted on their minds, bodies, and spirits? Is it enough to pay for their counseling? Will a large financial settlement ease their pain?

We believe “restorative justice” better captures the complexity of the need in response to the depth of destruction of sexual abuse/misconduct of Church leaders. Restorative justice recognizes that as a community of believers, we are all bound to one another and that the “fate of all depends on the conduct of each.” We all suffer when a priest abuses someone — we lose trust in our priests and our Church; we suffer when victims suffer — whole families and communities undergo trauma when one of their members is abused. Church leaders have the complex position of understanding that their response and action/inaction reverberates far beyond the original events, manifests slowly over time and has the potential to damage the fabric of our Catholic community, leading to subsequent “collective trauma” or to “collective healing.” By dealing openly with this issue, the Church may better recover from complicity in the abuse which occurs largely through idealization and silence. Only honest group process between clergy and laity to achieve understanding and agreement can inoculate against recidivism and reestablish safety.

We would suggest that all seminarians, indeed pastors, receive training in the Church sex abuse crisis, sexual abuse dynamics, power differentials and transference in clergy/parishioner relationships, and the long-term effects of traumatic sexual abuse. Transference is a phenomenon in everyday life whereby a person can take feelings regarding an important person in their past (e.g., parents) and unconsciously redirect or transfer them onto a new person, in this case, a priest. At times, this transference can be inappropriate and needs to be both recognized and managed in a manner that does not lead to boundary violations. The goal of incorporating these lessons in seminary training would be to provide information that would serve as an additional deterrence and allow clergy to have a shared language amongst themselves when addressing potential claims of sexual abuse, especially understanding the long-term, devastating effects of trauma. Outlining this history would be a most prudent way to learn from the mistakes of the past.

To facilitate honest group process, we are also advocating for town hall meetings, viewing of documentaries (e.g., Nova Scotia Church Abuse Scandal, The Fifth Estate, 2010), and clergy interfacing/dialoguing with victim support groups (e.g., SNAP, Spirit Fire). Clergy should be cautioned that a type of institutional illness becomes apparent, however, when priest-hosted town hall meetings become public relations events to convey predetermined talking points about returning to idealizing clergy, not leaving the church, finding ready scapegoats, and looking away from the devastation and pain that was caused by clergy sexual abuse. Too swiftly focusing on related issues (i.e. homosexuality, the abuse rates in other religious groups/organizations, the sexual revolution, Satan, etc.), even as they may be entirely true, is usually experienced as a colossal failure of love and understanding toward those harmed by clergy — survivors and their family. The risk for more damage, institutional illness, and repetition is high when there ensue additional empathic failures in these gatherings. There’s a hierarchy of needs to be understood here. One needs to feel safe first before all other needs for growth and fulfillment can occur.

We would acknowledge that the McCarrick report, for the first time, displays a good deal of transparency with regard to the mistakes made within the Church which allowed long-term, unchecked abuse and McCarrick’s rise through the ranks of the Church hierarchy. We hope this portends a new trend within the Church. Bishop Barron in his thoughtful Letter to a Suffering Church (2019) made an empassioned plea for people to not leave the Church in response to this “evil masterpiece” of clergy sex abuse and engage in efforts toward restoration and improvement. Given this directive, we are strongly advocating for the need to reestablish safety and trust between laity and clergy. When we can truthfully confront, own, and grieve our destructive past and ongoing failures and reestablish our call to love and protect, people may begin to see that there is a home for them in the Catholic Church. This is giving God His due. True restoration lies here and not within negotiated financial settlements with nondisclosure agreements. Jesus I Trust in You.

 

References

Amrom, A, Calkins, C. & Fargo, J. (2017). Between the pew and the pulpit: Can personality measures help identify sexually abusive clergy? Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 31(6), 287-303.

Bishop Robert Barron (2019). Letter to a Suffering Church. A Bishop speaks on the sexual abuse crisis. Word on Fire Catholic Ministries: Parkridge, IL.

Cavadini, J. C. , et. al., (2019). Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture: The First Sociological Survey of Seminarians. University of Notre Dame, McGrath Institute for Church Life.

CBS News, (2019, February 21). Catholic bishops in the Netherlands covered up church sex abuse for decades, reports say. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/fwzW5KYFj88

Collins, C. (2018). Over half of Dutch bishops shielded priest abusers. The Crux.

https://cruxnow.com/church-in-europe/2018/09/17/over-half-of-dutch-bishops-shielded-priest-abusers-according-to-report/

Doyle, T. P. (2006). Clericalism: Enabler of Clergy Sexual Abuse. Pastoral Psychology, 54, 189-213.

Doyle, T. P. (2019, October 7). The Phenomenon of Systemic Sexual Violation by Catholic Clerics and Religious: The Reality of a Church Transformed. Talk talk presented at Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA. Retrieved from:

Dostoyevsky, F. (1950). The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Vintage Books.

Easton, SD, Leone-Sheehan, DM, & O’Leary, PJ. (2019). “I will never know the person who I could have become”: Perceived changes in self-identity among adult survivors of clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(6), 1139–1162.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2004). The nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States. NY: Author.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2011). The causes and context of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States. NY: Author.

The Fifth Estate, (2010). Betrayal: Abuse in the Catholic Church in Nova Scotia [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/_jmpu3TopHc

Hindman, J., & Peters, J. M. (2001). Polygraph testing leads to better understanding adult and juvenile sex offenders. Federal Probation, 65 (3), 8–15.

Plante, T. (2015). Four lessons learned from treating Catholic priest sex offenders. Pastoral Psychology, 64:407–412.

Sullins, P. (2019). Receding waves: Child sex abuse and homosexual priests since 2000. Ruth Institute. http://www.ruthinstitute.org/_literature_245148/Receding_Waves_Report

Wojtyla, K. (Pope John Paul II) (1960). Love and responsibility. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.

Avatar About Shasha Kleinsorge

Shasha Kleinsorge, Ph.D. is a Secular Carmelite and a private practice clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan specializing in psychodynamic therapy.

Avatar About Therese Cirner

Therese Cirner MA, LPC has a private practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan specializing in trauma recovery and life transitions.

Avatar About Karen Klein Villa

Karen Klein Villa, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist in private practice in Brighton, Michigan for the past 20 years. She specializes in integrating interpersonal neurobiology, psychoanalytic psychotherapy and development.

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