walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 28, 2011
The Catholic Abuse Scandals, Inside and Out

The issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has been festering now for about two decades. It shows no signs of going away. The issue is based on real facts, more of which keep coming out. At the same time, the issue is fanned by a secular media culture which relishes it with a good deal of Schadenfreude. An animus against the Catholic Church is one of rather few prejudices deemed acceptable in politically correct circles. Be this as it may, the crisis has escalated recently, calling for further reflection about what it is and what its implications are, not just for Catholics but for religion in contemporary society in general.

In July of this year Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister (whose title is commonly given in Gaelic which hardly anyone can pronounce), made an unprecedented attack on the Vatican in a speech in parliament. This followed the publication of a judicial inquiry into clergy abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, which accused the local bishop of having given false information to the government and described the Vatican itself as having been “entirely unhelpful” to the inquiry. Kenny used stronger language. He said that the Cloyne inquiry “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago. . . . And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” This from the leader of a state whose 1937 constitution, while guaranteeing freedom of religion, stated the “special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”! That position had indeed been paramount from the beginning of the independent Irish state—in political influence (on such matters as divorce, abortion and contraception), in education, and in the institutions of the welfare system.

The crisis in Ireland began in the 1990s with a series of prosecutions against priests for the sexual abuse of minors. There followed a government report on the cruel treatment of children in state-supported institutions, most if not all run by priests and nuns—institutions containing not only orphans, but young unwed mothers, juvenile delinquents and children from allegedly dysfunctional families. The details were shocking. Brutal physical punishments, sexual molestation and rape were found to be common. More recently there was a series of television documentaries showing not only the role of clergy in many of these abuses, but also widespread efforts at coverup by the hierarchy. The Church in Ireland and the Vatican did try to react constructively to this avalanche of bad news. The Irish bishops issued strong rules against child abuse by the clergy and in Catholic-run institutions. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI summoned all Irish bishops to Rome in order to discuss the crisis. He subsequently released a letter to the Catholics of Ireland, expressing sorrow over the harm that had been done. What has happened since suggests that none of this was enough to stem a massive loss of confidence in the Church in what had been the most Catholic country in Western Europe.

It gets worse, and not only in Ireland. Early in September 2011 an international organization, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, calling for the prosecution of Pope Benedict XVI and three other high Vatican officials (including the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) for crimes against humanity. The complaint charges these individuals of “direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world.” Pam Spees, a lawyer associated with SNAP, said in a separate statement: “Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. . . . In this case, all roads really lead to Rome.” Representatives of SNAP from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United States came to The Hague to lodge the complaint, submitting 20,000 pages of supporting material. Given its statutes, it is very unlikely that the ICC will accept the case. But just the fact itself of charging the Pope with a crime against humanity represents yet another escalating step in this crisis.

The above incidents involve attacks against the Catholic Church from the outside. But the crisis extends inside as well. In August 2011 a so-called Priests’ Initiative, supported by more than 300 Catholic priests in Austria, openly stated their intention to disobey the Church on a series of matters—the ordination of women to the priesthood, the right of priests to carry out their vocation even if they are married and have children, the admission to communion of divorced people who have remarried, and the right of lay people to preach and lead services. This open rebellion by priests against the hierarchy is unprecedented, not only in Austria but in most other countries. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, has threatened the rebellious priests with excommunication. If he proceeds with this, a significant schism may occur and spread beyond the borders of Austria.

What is one to make of this gathering storm? Looking at it empirically, it raises a number of interesting questions.

Is the sexual abuse crisis based on facts? Needless to say, I have not read the 20,000 pages deposited on the doorstep of the ICC. But there is little doubt that a large number of Catholic priests have committed acts of sexual abuse against minors, and that Church authorities in many places have been reluctant to act on them. At the same time, a degree of skepticism is indicated: Many of the acts in question took place years or even decades ago, which makes it very difficult to determine the facts. Many of the accusers have strong material incentives to go after an institution believed to have “deep pockets.” (The “pockets” have become much less deep as a result of financial settlements with the accusers.) And, as mentioned before, there has been a media frenzy in this matter. This does not mean that every serious charge should not be investigated for possible criminal prosecution, but there should be no rush to judgment which violates due process for the accused. (This has happened before in cases of alleged child abuse, in cases having nothing to do with Catholic clergy.)

Is this type of sexual behavior peculiar to Catholic priests? Certainly not. There has been a comparably escalating crisis involving alleged sexual abuse by teachers of pupils at the Odenwald School in Germany, an elite progressive institution with not a whiff of Catholicism. However, compared with Protestant clergy (the most plausible group for the purpose of comparison), more Catholic clergy have been abusers.

Has most of the behavior been homosexual in character? Yes. But an important point: There is no evidence that homosexuals are more inclined to be pedophiles than heterosexuals. The causes of the predominance of homosexuals among pedophile priests are likely to be sought in their priesthood rather than their homosexuality. The most likely reason, I tend to think, is that Catholic priesthood has created an exclusively male subculture, which attracts homosexuals and which socializes into homosexuality individuals who would otherwise not be so inclined.

Is celibacy a factor? Very probably yes, for the reason just mentioned. It is interesting how liberal and conservative Catholics have explained the crisis. Liberals have attributed it to the allegedly repressive and misogynist ethics of traditional Catholicism; doing away with celibacy would thus go a long way toward solving the problem (they would also, of course, be in favor of ordaining women). Conservatives have argued that the problem is not celibacy but fidelity to the vows of ordination, which is put under great pressure because of the culture of permissiveness engendered by the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Based on their respective explanations, liberals argue for a loosening of hierarchical control, conservatives for its tightening. But it seems to me that the two explanations are not contradictory: Celibacy necessarily creates severe frustrations, which are more difficult to manage in a society that flaunts sexual freedom.

How can the Church overcome the crisis? A conservative papacy, at least since John XXIII, has tried to contain the explosive (and unintended) consequences of the Second Vatican Council. This has not been easy. Once the aggiornamento “opened the windows” to the modern world, it has been difficult to control what flies in. The attraction of the new sexual freedom is powerful. The Church could indeed hunker down in a Catholic counterculture, but such a fortress is very difficult to maintain. The forces of pluralism keep beating against the cognitive defenses of the fortress. Sociologically speaking, what is required is a balance between compromise and resistance. Ultimately the theological self-understanding of the Church will have to decide where compromise is possible and where resistance is called for.

The crisis has led to far-reaching reflection among Catholics about the situation of their faith in the contemporary world. The larger context of this reflection is different in highly secularized Europe, much less secularized America, and a Global South marked by robust supernaturalism. Outside observers, however sympathetic, cannot be part of the needed theological enterprise. They will wish the Catholic Church well, especially in view of its significant contributions to human rights and democracy in recent decades.

show comments
  • Patrick OMalley

    Pope Benedict runs the world’s largest pedophile protection program. Thousands of priests raped tens of thousands of children, and Catholic bishops all hid it, consistently, world-wide. Now the ICC is suing them, as they should, for international crimes against children. Benedict was in charge of the cover-up since the 1980s, when he handled that specific duty for John Paul II.

    He should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Imagine if he were CEO of a Chucky Cheese Restaurant, and employees were raping thousands of children worldwide, and the management knew about it. Management hid it, and that knowledge went all the way up to the CEO, and he concealed the truth about it and moved those pedophiles around to rape others.

    Customers would boycott Chucky Cheese and have every manager thrown in jail.

    We can’t expect the Catholic church to rise to the standards of Chucky Cheese, but they should at least have to follow the basic laws of humanity and the laws of the land.

  • Jim.

    Christians are supposed to be countercultural, Peter. Would you burn incense to Caesar?

    The lesson that the Catholic Church needs to learn from this is that there is no “benefit of clergy” to shield them from the powers of temporal justice that God has, in fact, vested in the governments of this world.

    The fact is that this spirit of “compromise” is misguided in the extreme. The guidance that is needed is in the portions of the Bible that this age has been ignoring, not in the “wisdom” of the world.

    In the meantime, perhaps the forces of darkness get to play modern-day Vikings and sack churches. It was ever thus. The faithful will pick up the pieces and rebuild. It was ever thus, as well.

  • Michael

    I’m less inclined to blame homosexuality, theology or celibacy than a bureaucratic mindset among specific church officials. I’m not Catholic, but it seems to me that someone who’s more concerned with butt-covering than with caring for vulnerable parishioners and mentally-ill clergy needs removed from his office regardless of the church he’s in.

  • Amos

    Celibate bachelor theologians have always seen Jesus as a sexually listless and lust hating Redeemer. This ideology has had lifelong and lethal consequences for many who came under the dominion of their corrupt belief.

  • http://na g. sullivan

    The crisis is that the Roman Catholic Church throughout the World has allowed this evil to continue for how many millenium(s)???..But we never knew about it. AND…..

    We know NOW, through Instant Communication(Internet) what many thought were just local problems, with just a problem priest in the local parish. It is “A Global EVIL that has more tentacles than the biggest evil, sick, monster ever thought of by most normal church going people.

    It’s hard to believe that the clergy( priests, nuns and brothers) could ever sexually abuse the weakest of the weak in this world. Our precious childern, the handicapped, the marginalized, the illegal immigrants, the childhood felons,the orphans, the divorced, the unstable mentally.

    This must be erradicated! How?? By the faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ!!!(and not faithful to a man made institution) There is a Great Difference. GET OUT!

    The International Crininal Court is where they should be prosecuted by all Freedom Loving People. The Truth will st YOU Free,of the EVIL>!

  • Bill Donohue

    I am a sociologist who greatly admires Peter Berger, but I am also the president of the Catholic League. While I very much appreciate his tone, there are several areas of contention in his piece. Please let me know where to mail him some material that challenges some of his assumptions. Thanks.

    Bill Donohue

  • el donaldo

    By saying he is “president of the Catholic League,” Mr. Donohue is apparently claiming that he has a fax machine and preprinted cover sheet. This isn’t news, but I hadn’t realized that he claimed to be a sociologist as well. That he is an apologist for child rapists is all anybody really needs to now.

  • Mary

    The implication of this article is that the Church should change its self understanding. I find that stupid, even from a Sociological perspective. The Church’s self-understanding is that it was created by Jesus Christ. To change its self-understanding would mean that we ignore Scripture and that we ignore our identity. Berger puts forth that celibacy is a problem at the same time he argues that others also abuse. Many, many of these others are in other sexual relationships. One also wonders whether John XXIII was as liberal as people claim him to be. Comparing his “liberal” writings to the Popes that follow really show him to be the same “conservative”. A little imagination, sociologically speaking, might have further informed Peter Berger, meaning that there is a God and perhaps there really are fundamental tenents of our paradigm that we call faith that just really cannot be blown out of the open window.

  • Kenny

    The homoified clergy (and probably hirearchy, too) has done great damage to the Catholic Church. Not only is it responsible for the sexual scandals and cover-ups, but also for the watering down of traditional Church teaching across an entire spectrum of issues & beliefs.

    To excuse their perversion, the modernistic clergy has subtly introduced its new thinking into the Church that there is no sin (with the exception, perhaps, of political incorrectness) and no damnation.

    All this is rather transparently self-serving, don’t you think?

  • R. Smith

    Interesting, however I would like to know where Mr. Berger gets his stats regarding instances of abuse in Catholic vs. Protestant clergy. I have seen evidence which proports the opposite.
    Also, on what do you base your opinion of celibacy? Is it anecdotal…because numerous studies indicate that there is no link to celibacy and child abuse (the obvious fact is that that overwhelming incidents of child abuse are from parents).
    Thank you.

  • Garret

    It seems like Patrick O’Malley is fixated on imprisoning pope Benedict XV1 with evidence very much to the contrary, for enabling and covering up global cases of abuse. This present pope since his days as cardinal head of the CDF has been part of a reforming movement within the Church to expedite the penalization of proven abusers and justice for the abused. For example, he battled against internal resistance within Vatican congregations in 2005, to punish Fr Macial, the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, for proven abuse of seminarians and minors. He has considerably tightened up canon law to remove loopholes that pedophiles within priestly ranks can use to escape penalties.
    What sources did Peter Berger use in respect of his claim that there are more abusers within the ranks of the Catholic Church than protestant faith communities? I have read surveys which suggest that on average there are more abusers within the latter churches than the former. For example,Insurance companies in the US that cover Protestant churches say that collectively they handle about 260 cases every year. This far exceeds the number of cases that have occurred in the Catholic Church.

  • Sean

    I am with Bill Donohue here. Peter Berger has tried to be fair minded but seems to have important facts wrong. First, there is no evidence that Catholic clergy are more prone to sexually abuse children than other clergy. In fact, there are higher instances of it among Protestant clergy. Second, it is homosexuality rather than celibacy that seems to be one of the most important factors. Third, the Catholic Church is now one of the safest places for children.

  • Joe R

    In my opinion the Catholic Church is an easy target for it’s transgressions because of it’s teachings of moral and responsible sexual behavior and the obvious hypocrisy that has been uncovered. The media frenzy over this story has made it seem as though priests are nothing more than sexually depraved perverts. This, of course, couldn’t be any further from the truth. I have been Catholic all my 51 years, gone through Catholic school, been an alter boy, have associated and befriended many priests, even spent two years in the seminary and never once was I ever approached. I am certainly not discounting or downplaying anyone’s claim of molestation, I’m just saying we all have our own experiences. With that said this whole ordeal has nothing to do with being a priest (or any clergy) or a lay person. It has nothing to do with being celibate or active. It has nothing to do with being single or married. It has nothing to do with being homo or heterosexual. It all has to do with opportunity and gaining the trust of teens and preteens, the most trusting and vulnerable of people, in order to fulfill some sick fantasy. Children will do and believe practically anything we (adults) tell them. And many adults are very manipulating and can rationalize and mask the most evil intentions. This is not only found in priests, but teachers, coaches, moms, dads, aunts, uncles anyone who comes in contact with children. The responsible adults now have to be more vigilant than ever before and then take action immediately. It is very hard, next to impossible, to determine who has these tendencies until it is usually too late.

  • Tamquam

    I am a priest who resigned from the active ministry right before the scandal broke. While in the seminary I was aware that there was a problem and was horrified and infuriated that the spineless bishops did *nothing* to clean it up prior to the scandal becoming public. Personally I have never found children sexually attractive (other than the odd 16 year old hottie). I kept my hands off of their mommies, aunties and big sisters, much to the latter’s disappointment, because I understood very well the kind of damage those kinds of relationships can cause, for which I would be required to render an account on a day not of my choosing. Fortunately no one I worked with ever caused any suspicion that such wickedness was going on.

    What I did discover was an astounding degree of child abuse in the general population which neither the Catholic nor virtually any other church was prepared to address. I was and did, which, I am fairly certain (no one tells you these things, you have to read between the silences), prompted a marginalization which was one cause of my resignation. Until the Church gets this mess cleaned up there is little hope that they will be able to effectively address sexual abuse in the larger culture.

    It is true that the all-male clergy fosters and conceals homosexual behavior among the minority so inclined, it is not the cause of it. Many, I suspect, enter the priesthood precisely to excise those troubled parts of themselves that only grace can remedy. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Some, I fear, enter to avail themselves of the opportunities available to a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

    Responsibility must ultimately be laid at the feet of the bishops who so sordidly and spectacularly failed their charge. I am sure that there are still some who are operating in the the old ‘see no evil’ way. May God quickly deliver us from them. Since new guidelines have been issued there are many courageous bishops who are acting forcefully and effectively to remove predators from the ranks of their clergy and heal the wounds as best as may be. I am also sure that there are those in halls of the Vatican who failed their duty; these men should be removed form their office and be remanded to the civil authorities to face judgement for their crimes. Based on the information available to me I have no reason to think that Ratzinger was among them, quite the contrary.

    Unfortunately the whole approach to the scandal, both from the media who seek to use it to discredit the Church’s opposition to the ‘Progressive’ agenda, and within the Church which wants to look at the ‘Priest’ issue, a larger truth is lost. Neither punishment of the guilty nor monetary compensation, however emotionally satisfying, heals the wounds of the victim. Sadly, I don’t see this being adquately addressed by anyone. It is as if we’re saying, “OK, we got the perp, here’s your dough, now get lost.” Much more than this is needed if justice is to be done.

  • Gerald Owens

    Oh my, there is utterly NO discussion of the obvious elephant in the room: the massive failure of these “versions” of Christianity to effectively transform people into moral beings. Simply put, if it isn’t working for some of the “professionals”, then what are the people involved willing to change to get it to work?

  • Jane Doe

    The people who froth at the mouth over pedophile priests are completely indifferent to the welfare of children. If they cared even a tiny bit, they would be demanding that nearly all teachers in the Western hemisphere be barred forever from working with children. But in fact, they do not care in the slightest if every child in the world is raped, just so long as they can attack religion. This is summed up in Ann Coulter’s Godless:

    “In her report for the U.S. Department of Education, Shakeshaft says that about one in every ten American children has been sexually abused in some way at school.

    Compare that with Catholic priests. A study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sai that 10,667 allegations of sexual abuse of children had been made between 1950 and 2002. Multiply that by four to account – generously – for unreported cases and it comes to 821 children abused by priests per year. Priests: 820 abused children per year; educators: 32,000 abused children per year. For those of you who went to public schools, 32,000 is greater than 820.”

  • Kris

    In August 2011 a so-called Priests’ Initiative, supported by more than 300 Catholic priests in Austria, openly stated their intention to disobey the Church on a series of matters—the ordination of women to the priesthood, the right of priests to carry out their vocation even if they are married and have children, the admission to communion of divorced people who have remarried, and the right of lay people to preach and lead services.

    I am reminded of the following passage on J. Robert Oppenheimer from James Gleick’s Genius : “Presiding over a committee dinner at a steakhouse, he expected his companions to follow his lead in specifying rare meat; when one man tried to order well-done, Oppenheimer turned and said considerately, “Why don’t you have fish?”

  • TMLutas

    As a Byzantine Catholic layman who has had to deal with married clergy, I confidently say that, at least in the US, the Church is entirely unprepared for it were the discipline to be relaxed to permit it in the Roman Rite. The rectories aren’t set up for it for one. A building set up with small apartments for four celibate priests and a common kitchen in a large urban parish are going to have issues when 4 wives are added to the mix, each with their own ideas on how to organize said kitchen. Remember, the wives didn’t take a vow.

    Even the people who are pushing this change have entirely left the role of the priest’s wife unconsidered. And let’s not forget the large numbers of children (and their inevitable misbehaviors) generated by a parish priesthood that does not use birth control. Costs will rise as each parish will have to support more people and the Romans will have to develop their own accommodation for what to do when a priest’s immediate family member steps out of bounds.

    Another issue is the increase in influence of the monastic orders as the diocesan bishops will be exclusively picked from the monastics going forward which is exactly how it’s been done for the last millenium in the Eastern Rites. This isn’t necessarily bad or good, just one more thing that most anti-celibacy advocates have not considered.

    It can be made to work. My Church and the rest of the Eastern Catholic Churches are living proof of it. But there are a lot of unconsidered changes to go along with the positives and it saddens me to see the proposals to change the Roman Rite’s celibacy rule done in such a haphazard, poorly considered way.

  • HGP

    The report on the American abuse of minors said over 80% of the abused were pubescent BOYS. Homosexuals went into the priesthood because they did not have to explain why they were single and not married, it gave them access to prey (young boys) and they gave up nothing because they were not attracted to women. The Catholic Church has said that sodomites should not be ordained but there are some still being ordained and some of them have been moved up to bishop and even cardinal level.There needs to be more psychological testing to weed them out. Sodomy is a sociopathic sexual deviancy. Abuse of children is more prevalent in the United States in public schools by teachers than in the Catholic Church.

  • roc scssrs

    Why do bishops cover up? It’s not to protect a bureaucracy– they really do believe the Catholic Church is the way to salvation. So, if publicizing an episode of predatory behavior serves only to scandalize and weaken the faith of others, why would they want to publicize it? The situation is bad enough as it is, and it’s their natural desire to limit the damage. Also, everyone tiptoes around the issue of homosexuality. Something like 80% of the abused are male. The same people who want the church to be more proactive in preventing sexual abuse would never, say, commend the Boy Scouts for banning gay scoutmasters.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service