30 March 2010

 

Crime, sin, and authority

I've tried to figure out why the escalating sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is making me so angry. I mean, there's the obvious stuff: some priests and other Church officials have been getting away with the rape and beating of children for decades. And much of the Church hierarchy and bureaucracy, including the man who is now Pope, has been working hard to cover it all up, often with the tacit assistance of governments and other civil authorities.

A few of my friends and acquaintances are Catholics, but as far as I know none of them have been victims of these monsters—which is a relief. And I'm not only not Catholic, I'm not Christian or religious at all, but a happy atheist. However, I'm not gloating about the Catholic scandals, in some sort of twisted "I told you so" way. I'm sad and viscerally infuriated, in a way I hope many Catholics are, and quite a few do seem to be. Occasionally, learning new details makes me want to vomit. (Then again, that's not hard to do in general these days.)

I think my fury is it's because it's been going on for so bloody long: not just the physical and sexual abuse, but public knowledge of it and Church inaction about it. More than 20 years ago, following the Mt. Cashel Orphanage sex-abuse scandal in Newfoundland, a friend of mine and his girlfriend (who weren't afraid of being a bit tasteless) came to a Halloween party dressed as a priest and an altar boy, respectively. Even in the 1980s, the concept of a molesting priest was so widespread that everyone at the party got the reference.

It's also been 12 years since the Canadian federal government began attempts to apologize for sexual and physical abuse of native students at residential schools run by the Anglican, United, and Roman Catholic churches across the country until the 1960s, and to compensate the victims financially. And that's just here in Canada.

There are, unfortunately, small proportions of sexual predators and sadists in positions of authority inside some institutions that care for children, including schools, hospitals, foster homes, summer camps, and so on—and also including churches and religious organizations outside Catholicism. And sometimes there are coverups. But once exposed, those coverups can, should, and usually do result in shame, dismissals, apologies, and criminal charges. Even decades after the events.

Many groups and individuals within the Roman Catholic Church have had integrity, trying to get the molesters fired, charged, and punished. Yet men of authority within the institution, throughout its hierarchy—from priests and bishops to archbishops, cardinals, and apparently right up to the Pope—have used its power, influence, and worldwide reach to deny, deflect, hide, obfuscate, and in many cases abet those of its members who abuse children.

Their priority seems to have been to protect their Church, and the pedophiles within it, at the expense of their victims, the most vulnerable and innocent of its billion members. When pressed by incontrovertible evidence and public pressure, those same authorities have released half-hearted and defensive apologies. The situation is abominable, and the scandal deserves to be global front-page news, as it has become in recent months.

The Catholic Church claims to be the highest possible moral authority on Earth. Of course, personally, I think that's ridiculous. The horrifying enormity of child abuse and coverup within the Church over decades—more likely centuries, if we're honest with ourselves—only reinforces my conviction.

Indeed, it's hard to think of crimes more vile. If the beating and rape of children—as well as covering up those acts and enabling them to continue—are not sins worthy of excommunication, and presumably hellfire in the afterlife, I don't understand what could be. So if Catholics intend to continue taking claims of moral authority seriously, they must demand some large-scale changes in their Church, and the Pope and his underlings must listen to and act on those demands.

Given the glacial pace of change in Rome, and the stupefying weight of dogma and doctrine and history, I'm not optimistic. But I also genuinely hope that I am wrong.

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Comments:

What especially bothered me recently was when the Pope did a sermon where he referred to the sex abuse allegations as "petty gossip". Way to show the victims that you care, bro!

Many rape and abuse victims never come forward, and if some are having their spiritual leader dismiss them as troublemakers that's hardly incentive for future victims to speak out. To me, that's one of the saddest things about all this.
 
What especially bothered me recently was when the Pope did a sermon where he referred to the sex abuse allegations as "petty gossip". Way to show the victims that you care, bro!

Many rape and abuse victims never come forward, and if some are having their spiritual leader dismiss them as troublemakers that's hardly incentive for future victims to speak out. To me, that's one of the saddest things about all this.
 
I agree with everything you say, Derek.
 
By the way, I have no idea why Gillian's comment appears twice. It did that before, and I deleted one, but then they both disappeared, so I reposted it, and then it came back twice again. I'll just leave it that way now.

Blog interference by the Holy Spirit, perhaps?
 
Andrew Sullivan (Catholic, and openly gay to boot) has an interesting take on the whole catastrophe (via Bill):

"...These men are too objectively disordered to run a church. They bask in self-denial, while they wage a culture war against gay men who have actually dealt with their sexuality, who have owned it, and celebrated it and even found ways to channel it into adult relationships and even civil marriage. We all know this game is now over..."
 
This writing expresses it so well for me, I have been feeling this rage as well....the school for deaf boys put me over the top.. that I was already over.
 
In the interest of fair play, I was an altar boy and a choir member at Catholic churches in the Baltimore area for many years (late 70's to 80's). Nothing untoward happened to me at this time. In fact, I have not heard of anything from other Catholics I know. Of course this is not to diminish any abuse or victimization by the Catholic Church, religious organizations, or secular organizations. Unfortunately the list does not end there. It includes neighbors, friends, family members, governments and more. How I got through pre to post adolescence without being victimized sometimes seems to be amazing. Based on the few friends and associates I have known for decades, I am in similar company. Not to diminish or relegate the realities for those victimized, I remind myself this is not limited to the Catholic church, or even religion. Add hidden agendas and the politics of fear/anger, and I am reminded of lynch mobs, in not so ancient times.
 
Most children or not abused, and it's also true that the abuse that does happen occurs in many contexts. But my issue here is with how the Catholic Church has addressed the problem within its ranks, which seems to have made it worse. It has, on balance, and apparently systematically, denied, avoided, rationalized, hidden, and abetted, in order to protect its power and reputation -- rather than doing what is right, which should be obvious to anyone.

I think those like you who were raised Catholic should be even angrier than those of us who were not. Some Catholics are calling for fundamental changes to the Church, and I think they are right to do so. Whether anything useful will change is an open question.
 
Interesting is Maureen Dowd's column yesterday in The New York Times: "The Church's Judas Moment."
See: http://tinyurl.com/ygl8d4o