The permanent scandal of the Vatican
May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The scandal has two parts, which need to be distinguished. The first part—the more evil, disgusting part—is over, thank God. Every sufficiently large group has a small percentage of members with sick sexual desires. By their very calling, Christian ministers ought to have a lower percentage. For a variety of reasons, however, Catholics suffered through a corruption of their priests, centered around 1975, with the clergy’s percentage of sexual predators reaching new and vile levels.
The Church now has in place stringent child-protection procedures, and even with obsession over the scandals raging in Europe, almost all the cover-ups now being discussed, real and imagined, are more than a decade old. Besides, the younger priests, formed in the light of John Paul II’s papacy, seem vastly more faithful to Catholic spiritual practice and moral teaching.
Still, the second part of the scandal remains, for it involves not the mostly dead criminals but the living institution. The bishops who ruled over those corrupt priests in the 1970s and 1980s catastrophically failed to act when they needed to.
Some of this came from the short-sighted and anti-theological advice that dominated Catholic institutional thinking in that era. The lawyers told the bishops, as lawyers do, never to admit anything, and the psychologists told them not to be so medieval. There’s an irony when the 2009 Murphy Report, the official Irish investigation, noted, “The Church authorities failed to implement most of their own canon-law rules” on defrocking and trying priests. From the 1950s through the 1970s, those same Church authorities were blamed for having the old canon-law rules, which lacked compassion and didn’t recognize the psychiatric profession’s supposed advances in curing pedophilia. And so, instead of being defrocked, guilty priests were often sent off to treatment facilities and, once pronounced cured, were reassigned.
The bishops of the time don’t get off that easy, however. Lawyers and psychologists contributed to the mess, but the much larger portion of the failures came simply from the bishops’ desire to avoid bad publicity and, like military officers, to protect the men in their unit when those men get themselves into trouble. For these episcopal failures, every Catholic is now paying—in nearly $3 billion of American donations lost in court judgments, in suspicion of their pastors, and in deep shame.
The general figures of child abuse in the world today are shocking. One widely reported study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence suggested the United States has 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse. It’s a little hard to believe. More than 12 percent of the population were abused at least once as children? But Charol Shakeshaft’s respected study insists that 6 to 10 percent of recent public-school students have been molested. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, claims 10 percent is a conservative estimate. John Jay College’s Margaret Leland Smith says her numbers come closer to 20 percent.
All this, while (as the papal biographer George Weigel points out) the most recent audit found six credible cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in 2009, in an American church of 68 million members, with all the perpetrators reported to the police and stripped of priestly faculties by their bishops. “The only hard data that has been made public by any denomination comes from John Jay College’s study of Catholic priests,” an April 8 Newsweek story noted.
“I don’t like it when Catholic leaders fall back on the ‘child abuse happens everywhere’ defense,” Ross Douthat observed on the New York Times website. “I do like it, however, when mainstream media outlets do their job and report that there’s no evidence that the rate of sex abuse is higher among the Catholic clergy than among any other group.” In fact, it’s lower. If the John Jay study is right, the rate of clerical abuse over the past 50 years, including the peak of the crimes around 1975, was considerably lower by Allen’s figures, and much lower by Smith’s figures, than the abuse rate of the general male population.
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