Lessons from a Catholic scandal


Like Lucy, the Catholic Church has some ‘splainin to do.

This year, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report that found that in six of the eight Roman Catholic dioceses there were over 1,000 identifiable child victims of sexual abuse. It guessed that there were thousands more. It found that over 300 priests abused the children. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Gambacorta, this included a ring of priests who raped children, shared intelligence on potential victims, and made child pornography on church property.

The John Jay Report found that in the U.S. from 1950-2002, there were over 11,000 allegations made against 4,392 priests. This was roughly 4 percent of the priests who served during this time. The Huffington Post’s Eoin Blackwell and the BBC report that in Australia from 1950 to 2010, 7 percent of all priests were alleged to have engaged in child sexual abuse and that the average victim was pre-teen.

This report found the abuse was largely male on male with roughly four out of five victims being boys. Also, much of the sex involved teenage boys, many not so young. The report found that 27 percent were 15-17 when first abused. 51 percent of the victims were 11-14 and 22 percent were 10 or younger. Thus, much of the sex likely involved ephebophilia (sexual interest in mid- to late-adolescents, generally ages 15-19) and hebephilia (sexual interest in early adolescents) and not pedophilia (sexual interest in a pre-pubescent child).

In many cases, the words “abuse” and “children” are highly misleading in that, as a moral matter, a priest who has sex with a willing 17 year-old male does not commit rape and his act is far less wrong, if it is wrong at all, than that done by a priest who forces himself on an unwilling 10-year-old boy. The same is true, for example, when an archbishop “molested” seminarians. It would helpful here to have an account of how the data on sex with mid- and late-adolescents relates to the general pattern of sex in the gay male community.

The grand jury found a common pattern in how the dioceses handled these matters. Their overall finding was that the church focused on avoiding scandal, not protecting its members. The dioceses used misleading language (never say “rape”), didn’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel, sent priests to get church-run (and likely half-assed) diagnoses, removed problematic priests without explaining why, transferred problematic priests to new locations, and didn’t tell the police.

The Pope, archbishops, bishops, and priests from around the world have been accused of committing or covering up sexual abuse. According to BishopAccountability.org the church has paid out more than $3 billion in settlements. This includes Boston ($85 million), Los Angeles ($660 million), Portland ($75 million), and San Diego ($198 million). From 2004-2011, settlements bankrupted eight Catholic dioceses.

A couple of lessons can be drawn from this. First, the pattern is evidence that Catholicism is deeply flawed. Consider if a diet organization found that 4 percent to 7 percent of its full-time dietary experts became morbidly obese after they started working for the organization. The organization would conclude that its dieting method or way of selecting experts is defective.

Here we have 4 to 7 percent of priests engaged in sexual abuse and arch-bishops, bishops, and other priests sweeping it under the rug. Unlike overeating, sexual abuse of unwilling children (again, not sex with willing mid- to late-teens) is a serious moral wrong and harshly punished by the criminal law. When this vast moral failing is added to the logically incoherent doctrines (consider, for example, Atonement, original sin, trinity, and transubstantiation) and empirically impossible ones (consider, for example, virgin birth and multiplying bread and fish), the likelihood of Catholicism being true becomes infinitesimally small.

Second, the scandal makes the moral lessons of the Church become ever more dependent on arguments that are independent of its religious premises. A church whose most committed practitioners are too often sexual predators has no business lecturing people on abortion, capitalism, divorce, gay marriage, and immigration, except to the extent that it has good arguments that are independent of its religious and moral doctrines. Lessons based on papal infallibility and sacred tradition are less convincing to the extent we discover that the people putting forth these doctrines are not particularly reliable.

For example, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion, desecrating the Eucharist, and renouncing one’s faith are mortal sins that result in the sinner going straight to hell. Here I am assuming that the person who does these things is sane, has sufficient knowledge of what he was doing and the consequences of doing so, acted voluntarily, and so on. It is less clear whether other acts (divorce, masturbation, and premarital sex) are mortal or venial (forgivable) sins. It is hard to see why someone would accept these claims unless they viewed the church as a moral authority.

The specific stories tell us that some of the priests warrant our sympathy rather than hatred. One priest from Scranton allegedly raped a girl and then helped arrange for her to have an abortion. A ring of priests marked their favorite boys with telltale gold cross necklaces. If the priests really believed Catholic doctrine and yet performed these acts, they are so deeply troubled as to merit our pity rather than blame.

A defender of Catholicism might argue that all groups have members who bad, ignorant, or weak and it is unfair to criticize the church for the general failings of humanity, specifically, the failings of adult men with their intense sexual desires. Still, the church puts forth its bishops, pope, and priests as being experts on God and morality and, in some cases, as having special access to what God believes people ought to do. Under these conditions, one would expect that its vanguard would perform better.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com