Thoughts on the Unthinkable: The Catholic Church Scandal

The latest Catholic Church rape scandal has been compared to the British “grooming gangs” stories. They're both equally horrible, equally evil.

There's a big difference, though. The priests who have raped kids, and the bishops and popes who have protected them, have betrayed the spirit of Christianity -- the spirit of the gospels -- even if the engineers of the cover-ups have, technically, acted in accordance with the precepts and priorities of their own Church. Indeed, nothing could be a more thorough betrayal of the spirit of the gospels than the sexual abuse of a helpless child.

By contrast, the grooming gangs have not betrayed Islam. Their sexual abuse of infidel children is thoroughly in line with the teachings of the Koran and the lesson of their religion's founder. First, sex with a child? No big deal. The Prophet himself wed a six-year-old girl, although he waited until she was nine to consummate the marriage. Second, rape? “The seizure of Infidel girls and their use as sex slaves,” Robert Spencer has noted, “is sanctioned in the Qur’an.”

There are other differences. The grooming gangs, while obeying their holy books, operate independently from any central authority. Islam has no Vatican, no Pope, no Magisterium. By contrast, the priests and bishops and pope are part of a human institution that makes the most monumental claim imaginable: it purports to be the only true Church of the only true God. In reality, the Catholic Church has proven to be a deeply corrupt institution. And its corruption is deeply intertwined with its extraordinary claims for itself.

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When a child is raped by an ordinary citizen, the situation is simple. A monstrous crime has been committed. Period. When a child is raped by a priest, the situation, in the eyes of the leaders of the Church, is equally simple. Yes, a child has been harmed. That's unfortunate. But to acknowledge it publicly would be to bring disrepute upon God's Own Church. And bringing the Church into disrepute is, in their eyes, a far greater calamity than the abuse of a single child. Or, for that matter, ten children. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. Or ten thousand.

Because the Church, which you or I may see as just another human institution, is in their eyes something infinitely greater. It is eternal. It is mystical. It is the sole link between God and his Creation. It is -- and this is the heart of the whole business -- every human being's only hope for salvation. And nothing that happens on this earth is as important as salvation. Earthly life is finite. Salvation is forever. The view of bishops and priests who are authentic believers is that if you truly care about children who have been sexually abused by priests, you'll support efforts -- however insensitive and even wicked they may seem -- to cover up these abuses in order to protect the Church from scandal. For the more the Church is touched by scandal, the more that scandal will drive the faithful away -- and rob them of eternity.

And that includes those abused children. The orthodox view is that if you care about them, you'll hope and pray that they forgive the Church, are reconciled to it, and remain trusting and obedient members of it -- so that when they come to the end of their lives, however filled those lives may have been with suffering, they'll rise to Heaven and spend eternity in glory (along with their forgiven abusers and those who assiduously covered up the abuse). That's the kind of thing you either believe or don't believe. If you believe it, then you can readily forgive churchmen for actions that the secular world would consider villainous. If you don't believe it, then you have to view every clergyman who has been complicit in these abuses and cover-ups as a common criminal who deserves to go to prison for a very long time.

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Whenever one of these scandals erupts, there is talk of reform. But as long as the Catholic Church claims to have the power to forgive sins, it can't be reformed. The Church preaches that you can burn in Hell for any one of a thousand-odd actions that you or I would consider trivial, or for expressing doubt about any one of the Church's thousand-odd official tenets (for example, the doctrine, pronounced by Pope Pius XII in 1950, that the Virgin Mary, on her death, rose bodily into Heaven). Yet if you're a priest who rapes a kid and then owns up to it in the confessional and gets absolution, prepare to say hello to St. Peter.

That twisted morality -- the idea that the vilest sin committed by a priest can be washed away with the wave of another priest's hand -- needs to be scrubbed. But of course there's virtually no chance of that happening. Take away the purported power of priests to forgive sins, and the Catholic Church becomes just another religious institution.

Do the rapist priests themselves, and the bishops, archbishops, and popes who protect them, truly believe that they occupy a special place in the cosmos, above the rest of humankind and subordinate only to God and his saints? I think it is clear that a great many of them truly do. The breathtaking documents, unearthed by the Pennsylvania grand jury, in which bishops express more sympathy for predatory priests than their innocent underage victims, seem solid evidence that these clerics see one another as members of a sacred confraternity that is, quite simply, closer to God, and more precious to Him, than the rest of us. No matter how much they may have strayed, their membership in that brotherhood is indissoluble and their virtue easily restorable -- for, as a consequence of their ordination, they all wield the power to absolve one another entirely of even the most savage of sins.

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Some critics suggest that rampant child sexual abuse by priests is a phenomenon that arose in modern times and that it has something to do with the rise of gay rights and open homosexuality. That argument makes no sense: covert homosexual activity is a phenomenon that occurs in a closeted society, not a society in which homosexuality is increasingly open and accepted and in which same-sex marriage is legal. Yes, I know that a disproportionate nunber of gays used to become priests or monks because their sexual orientation was socially unacceptable and, in many places, illegal. Back in the day, some churches and monasteries were as gay as a West Hollywood bar. But with the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, gay Catholics have better options than living a lie -- a life of furtive carnality and fake piety.

In any event, a habit of child rape has nothing to do with normal adult sexuality or consensual adult intercourse, whether hetero or homo. Plus a fact, one of the surprises of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- for me, it's the only real surprise -- is just how many of the priests in question raped girls, not boys. My own suspicion has always been that many men who enter the Catholic priesthood do so in good faith but are emotionally immature and are therefore sexually drawn to children. Others may actually be aware that they're pedophiles and go into the priesthood precisely so that they can use their position to abuse kids – or, perhaps, pathetically, because they think that, if only they pray enough, God will cure them of their disorder. It would be interesting to know what the percentages are.

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Whenever the subject of clerical sex abuse comes up, knee-jerk defenders of the Church are always quick to say: what about teachers? Or Boy Scout leaders? Or doctors? Members of all kinds of professions sexually abuse kids placed in their charge. But there's no comparison. Priests don't just have access to kids. They have something that child abusers in other professions don't have -- a claim to be God's representatives on Earth. They claim to be holding the Keys to the Kingdom. Kids believe that. Many of their parents believe it (although, fortunately, American Catholic parents aren't anywhere near as credulous in this regard as they used to be). Hence priests who rape kids don't just abuse them physically -- they abuse them spiritually. For the rest of those kids' lives, the idea of God, which they should identify with love and goodness, will be associated in their minds with the most painful and malignant images of their childhoods.

Yes, Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and clergy of other Western faiths rape kids, too. But none of them -- except in a few small local cults and fanatical sects -- make the kind of extraordinary claims for themselves that Catholic clergy do. And the plain fact is that extraordinary claims bring with them extraordinary responsibilities. Time and again, the Church has failed utterly to demonstrate its willingness to exercise those responsibilities. Instead, it has been found guilty of extraordinary abuses and systematic cover-ups thereof. Any other human institution guilty of such abuses and cover-ups would rightfully be shunned by all decent people and brought down, felon by felon, by the force of law. Should the Catholic Church be exempt from that rule? That's the question facing all of us now.