The Long View 2002-04-30: Stop Worrying About the Church Scandals

Maybe you do have a purpose in lifeThe more things change the more they stay the same. Now, at least we have the public spectacle of a prominent bishop having an affair with an adult woman. Is that progress?

John was a voice of calm and reason when the scandal broke in 2002. In retrospect, he was clearly right. The scandal caused by men having sex with teenagers seemed like a perfect opportunity to allow Catholic dissidents to seize control of traditionally Catholic institutions. However, once the details came out it very much implicated the dissidents and their ideas in what had transpired. Then Pope Benedict was elected, and the whole attempt to seize control conclusively unraveled.

Time has shown that the incidence of this kind of thing was no more common in Catholic churches than other churches, or indeed than in public or private schools, or any other situation where adults supervise children. Which doesn't make it less horrible, it just makes it not uniquely horrible.

 

Stop Worrying about the Church Scandals

Okay, we have had several months of revelations and exposés about sexual misconduct in the Roman Catholic Church. Now I think we can get a handle on the subject. There are four significant points:

(1) We are talking about this because a papal election is coming up.

At any rate, the journalists and Catholic liberals who chose to break the story believe one is coming up. The conviction of a notorious pedophile priest in the Boston Archdiocese was just a news hook. Almost all the incidents being reported and litigated happened more than a decade ago, most of them much longer ago. In fact, reforms aimed at preventing the abuse of children were put in place then and seem to have worked.

(2) The point of the exercise is to wrest control of the educational and social-service apparatus of the Catholic Church in America from the hierarchy.

The people who want control are frustrated heterodox academics and bureaucrats with political agendas. They hope to secure the kind of independence from Rome that Episcopalian dioceses have from Canterbury. The strategy is to make the American Catholic Church appear so ungovernable that the next pope will be too intimidated even to try. None of this is a conspiracy, of course. These people are upfront about what they want to do. Just read the National Catholic Reporter.

(3) The chief sin of the Church authorities in dealing with the quite real abuses that did occur was in behaving like a secular institution.

Despite a reputation for being out of touch, the Church has always taken on the coloration of its cultural environment. Thus, since the 1960s, the Church has increasingly treated moral issues as therapeutic ones. The experts the bishops consulted in the 1970s and '80s said pedophilia was treatable. The model seems to have been treatment for alcoholism. In any case, their legal strategy of keeping the abuses secret was unremarkable. An institution run entirely by laity would almost certainly have done much the same thing at that time.

(4) The scandal campaign has backfired.

Pedophilia was not a good choice for an issue. It had the advantage that normal rules of evidence do not apply in contexts where crimes against children may be involved; allegations of Satanic ritual abuse, remember, occasioned literal witchhunts in the 1980s. It is, however, too rare to be systemically significant. The important point is its similarity to the distinct issue of the homosexual abuse of minors and young men in schools and seminaries. Those abuses are what the public, the hierarchy and the conservative press are focusing on. Thus, a campaign intended to remove the largest remaining public exponent of traditional morality has had the effect of making it possible, for the first time in 20 years, to criticize homosexual ideology in public.


The model for the sacking of the Church in America was no doubt supposed to be what happened to the Anglican Church in Canada. That well-meaning institution responded to wildly overblown accusations of abuse of Amerindian students in church-affiliated schools by confessing guilt and seeking dialogue. There will be little left of the institutional Anglican Church, once the lawyers are finished with it. The Catholic Church in Quebec has had similar problems, but not to the same degree.

Things are likely to be different in the case of the Catholic Church in America. Important institutions can be sacked by lawyers and journalists only when those in control of the institutions agree to be sacked. That is what happened to the tobacco companies. It is not what happened to Microsoft. Bill Gates and Innocent III would have seen eye-to-eye about the preservation of institutional integrity.


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