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The Infamy of Clerical Sexual Abuse of Children
(February 10, 2008)
It has been no more than three decades since a scandal of repulsive proportions has emerged into the public eye, though it has no doubt been hidden for centuries: the sexual abuse of children, mostly young boys, by "men of the cloth," principally of the Catholic Church and related organizations. Reaction in the media and elsewhere has often been one of shock and anger, but still nowhere near the extent it deserves. This reprint is from a major Canadian newspaper known editorially for its Catholic sympathies and even conservative religious leanings, though this particular columnist, a regular contributor, does not seem to share in that outlook. But while hard-hitting, such articles as this nevertheless stop short of blaming religion itself, the culture of association in our society which gives such insidious power over our minds and bodies, from birth to death, to organizations which have nothing to do with the governing or guiding of our fortunes and well-being in this world, but rather with the indoctrination of fantasies and fears about otherworldly dimensions which have neither evidence nor reason to support them. And they stop well short of condemning the very idea behind this entrenched system of fantasy and indoctrination. Apologists would be hard-pressed to justify any Deity who could allow his ministers to wreak such havoc on the lives of the innocent entrusted to their care. The argument that such a God must permit the exercise of free will (on the part of the perpetrator) cannot hold water, unless it be admitted that he cares nothing for the fate of the victim, never answers prayers for the protection of the weak, is never moved to mercy or repugnance, or by the need to confer divine guidance on the "true" religion upon which he has made salvation depend. By all rights, the scandal of priestly sexual abuse of children ought to discredit everything human beings have claimed in their invention of gods and religion. As this article suggests, it may well have undermined "spiritual foundations." But we have yet to see the ultimate perpetrator Himself called to account—or relegated to the dustbin of irrational and discredited ideas.
(As an addendum following this reprint, my brief review of Peter de Rosa's 20-year-old book
"Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy")
The Ottawa Citizen: Sunday, February 3, 2008
By Janice Kennedy
"If Dante had given his inferno another level, it would be for priests who prey on kids. Their breach of trust strikes to the very soul, not only of the child, but of the entire community."
On Sunday morning, the traditional mind used to drift to images of stained glass, wooden pews, earnest young servers and saintly ministers of God. Nowadays, it's as likely to drift, unbidden, through the same scene to images that horrify and repel.
No, not every Catholic priest is a sexual criminal. But there have been too many such criminals, for too long now, for ordinary people not to be disturbed.
The latest in our area is Monsignor Bernard Prince, the 72-year-old retired priest recently handed a four-year prison term for molesting 13 young boys. Once a highly respected priest who worked in this region at the parish level and was rewarded with a promotion to the
, Prince was even a personal friend of the late John Paul II. Vatican
In court, with his written statement in hand, he read out his pro forma regret for the "legal and moral" wrongdoing. "I wish to sincerely apologize to everyone concerned," he said, "for the harm that I have caused, directly or indirectly."
And that was it, that cool, clinical acknowledgement wrapping up his act of public contrition. There appeared to be scant awareness of how monumental his crime was, and not just in Criminal Code terms.
In that, he was following the lead of his church. It has now become apparent that the sexual abuse of young people by priests has been going on a long, long time in many, many places.
Like the countless other abusive priests who have been caught, Prince simply parroted the party-line apology and accepted his punishment. As far as the church is concerned, too-bad-so-sad, and there's an end to it.
They don't get it. They don't have a clue.
There's the crime, the sin itself. And there's the killing breach of trust.
All breaches of trust wallop their victims, but some are worse than others. Those involving children and such adult victimizers as teachers, coaches and choirmasters are, for any human being not yet a saint, beyond the realm of forgiveness. Dante fittingly reserved the ninth circle of his hell for those who betray.
But if he'd given his inferno another level, it could have belonged to priests who prey on kids. Their breach of trust strikes to the very soul, not only of the child, but of the entire community.
In this area, Prince is only the latest criminal in clerical collar to hit the sordid headlines and only one of God knows how many similar court cases around the world this winter of 2008. And the tales of his abuse are sickeningly familiar.
Who knows what comforting self-justifications he, or any other priest who's abused kids, used to silence that irritating little voice that kept nagging him to stop?
Did he tell himself that he was really just showing them love? If they seemed emotionally needy, did he tell himself he was giving them what they were missing elsewhere?
Did he believe that his younger victims would somehow forget what had been done to them as they grew older and that his teenaged victims were somehow mature enough to be his sexual partners? That there was an implicit consensual nature to his victimization, despite the gross age disparity?
Did he think, finally, "Oh, come on. Where's the harm?"
And where was the harm?
Medical, psychological and sociological experts predict a depressing variety of likely outcomes for people bowled over by sexual abuse during childhood, during their crucial period of development. (That includes adolescence, when bodies seem adult while hearts and minds are still fragile, growing and vulnerable.)
Leaving aside the very real possibility of physical damage (almost too tough to even think about), abused kids and teens face much higher than average odds of developing depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, various neuroses, variations on post-traumatic stress disorder and pathological symptoms of dissociation.
Any of these can pave the way toward school difficulties, criminal activity, addictions, problems with relationships and suicide.
Our professionals understand the fallout much better now than they used to, and there is help available for victims. But it doesn't always work. And the going is always long, slow and tough.
In short, the sexual abuse of kids is a poison, a slow-seeping toxin that slips slowly into kids' psychic bloodstream, relentlessly sickening them, eventually destroying what was healthy and hopeful.
Where's the harm, Father? Right there, in that bruised and bleeding chunk of human life.
But the victimization runs even deeper. Every pedophilic priest breaks the faith not just of his victims, but of the community, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It's worse for the former, of course.
And it's made worse again by the fact that the church itself, in its hollow and inadequate response, has broken faith with its own members. Apart from relying on a process of case-by-case damage control (which has historically often involved just moving an abuser around), the institution has latterly decided to be more proactive in screening candidates for the priesthood. They also offer the standard apology to victims and shell out mightily in legal settlements.
But there have been no apologies to the faithful—the waning faithful—for what these cases have done to their belief in God, in the church, in religion generally. And there have been no credible attempts to address the heart of the problem, which, given the numbers, is clearly endemic to the institutional organism.
Church leaders keep on condemning the crime while continuing to think inside the crime's cozy little box, never questioning if fundamental changes might not be the answer. Would there be fewer pedophilic priests if the priesthood were more normalized? Would there be fewer if, say, Catholic women were ordained or if marriage were permitted, as it was centuries ago?
These questions are not being asked in the blinkered conservative church of today. But they should be.
You have only to look at contemporary
to glimpse the depth of the damage. The nation that used to be one of the most Catholic in the world—and which has also suffered through its share of priestly sex scandals—is now marked by a powerful and vehement stream of anti-clericalism. Ireland
In his 2006 novel, Priest, Irish mystery writer Ken Bruen is savage in his denunciation of clerical abuse and the church's implicit collusion in the face of it. An elderly nun in the book had "known about Father Joyce's little temptations and had seen the altar boys crying, in obvious distress, but she had never told a soul. ... She couldn't go up against a priest."
And when someone asks the main character, "Did you hear about the priest?" he thinks, "You hear about priests now, it ain't going to be good, it's not going to be a heartwarming tale. ... No, it's going to be bad, and scandalous. ... The clergy will always hold a special place in our psyche, it's pure history, but their unassailable position of trust, respect and yes, fear, was over. ... Was it ever."
That's for Catholics. Out in the larger world, the stream of scandals has made the phrase "priests and altar boys" a gag-line classic, something so mainstream that the jokes are only barely naughty.
A few years ago, the cover of the popular humour magazine National Lampoon depicted
's Cardinal Law (who had been shamefully protective of pedophile priests) sitting in his jockey shorts reading a copy of "Altar Boys' Life." Boston
Even more mainstream, network television's David Letterman and Jay Leno have minced few words in directing righteous indignation, cloaked in laughter, at the church. In one of his monologues, Letterman referred to the priest shortage in
: "To give you an idea how bad it is, earlier today in New York Brooklynan altar boy had to grope himself." He has also taken sharp jabs at the institution, describing the Vatican's new "tough stand" as "three strikes and you're transferred," and a big conference of Catholic bishops as "great for the city—it brings in about $12 million in hush money."
Leno's comic anger has been balder: "The House Transportation Committee is now considering a bill that would allow pilots to carry guns for protection. I've got a better idea. Why not give guns to altar boys—give them a fighting chance."
When the criminal abuse of kids by men of God becomes so commonplace as to become joke material—so painful that jokes may be the only way to deal with it—you know that the last bond of sacred trust has been broken.
We all break the faith from time to time, in big ways and small. We don't behave as we should, we disappoint, we erode a loved one's trust. That's the nature of our divine tragicomedy. We try to do better, occasionally succeed and, when lucky, are forgiven.
But not many of us manage to breach trust on so monumental a scale as abusive priests. That's when forgiveness, which we're told is divine, looks a lot more elusive.
All those men who have preyed on kids, destroying them and their families—all those men who have helped crumble the spiritual foundations of untold millions—they're going to have to hope for forgiveness from their God.Because it will be in short supply everywhere else.
(For further views on this topic, including a short story I wrote several years ago,
see my Comment No. 12 in this series: "Deliver Us To Evil")
As an Addendum to this Reprint, I will recommend to the reader a 20-year old bestseller I have just gotten around to reading: "Vicars of Christ" by Peter de Rosa. The author is a former priest who calls his book "the work of a friend not an enemy." As a fearless expose of the 2,000-year-old sordid history of the papacy, it is unsurpassed. It details not only the better-known venality and immorality of the medieval and Renaissance popes and the Church under them, but the long history of reactionary and irrational behavior, the doctrines and policies put forward by all popes and imposed upon millions of gullible souls. De Rosa gives compelling accounts of so many corrupt and hypocritical papal careers, the church's anti-sexual (in all but clerical practice), anti-science and anti-enlightenment (continuing to this day) outlook, its misogyny and anti-Semitism. He examines the shifting moral ground on many issues that continue to be touted as eternal truths: from celibacy to abortion to contraception to papal authority and infallibility (the latter declared only in 1870). His account of the church's treatment of heretics, especially its ruthless Inquisition and associated witchhunts, and even later of freethinkers, not to mention its own biblical scholars, is profoundly disturbing—a lesson, relevant even today, in what religious fanaticism and absolute power, especially psychological power, can produce.
In light of this exhaustive study of two millennia of the world's most powerful organization, it is difficult not to conclude that the Catholic Church with the pope at its head has for a good portion of its history been rotten to the core—an illustration of the axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely, regardless of, or more likely because of, alleged divine authority and direction. The general immorality of the clergy before modern times, the blatant sale of ecclesiastical offices (from priests, bishops and cardinals to the papacy itself), the selling of indulgences for forgiveness of sin and salvation (it would seem that Purgatory was the 'philosophical' invention of the Church in the 15th century, serving to sell to relatives of the dearly departed their rescue from the sufferings of this new penal way-station on the route to heaven—motivated by the vast sums required for the building of the modern Vatican) led directly to the Reformation, which produced not penitent reform within the Catholic hierarchy but religious wars which decimated much of Europe for over a century.
De Rosa also examines the Church's long history of reprehensible attitudes and treatment toward the Jews, including pope Pius XII's complicit silence during the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. In some ways, the most disturbing account of all—because it has the most relevance to our own times and is proving critical to the very survival of the planet—is his examination of the decision by Paul VI in 1968 that artificial birth control was to be outlawed. The bizarre, almost laughable, behind-the-scenes process by which that papal mandate was issued reveals the folly of entrusting ultimate power and morality to a single, isolated mind or group mentality convinced of his/their own pipeline to a Divine Will. On this particular piece of folly, with the Vatican continuing even today to challenge all efforts at world population control (if only to defend the principle of papal infallibility), the world will suffer for at least decades to come, if indeed it ever recovers.
History has the power to teach, but only if we have the courage to learn.