The reaction to the paedophile priest scandal is as guilty of scaremongering, illiberalism and elitism as the Catholic Church has ever been.
With all the newspaper headlines about predatory paedophiles in smocks, terrified altar boys and cover-ups by officials at the Vatican, it is hard to think of anything worse right now than a sexually abusive priest. Yet today’s reaction to those allegations of sexual abuse is also deeply problematic. For it is a reaction informed more by prejudice and illiberalism than by anything resembling a principled secularism, and one which also threatens to harm individuals, families, society and liberty.
When considering the problem of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, it is important to distinguish between the incidents themselves, some of which were of course horrific, and the way in which those incidents are understood in today’s political and cultural climate. The acts of sexual abuse themselves were no doubt a product of various problematic factors: the Catholic Church’s culture of celibacy, its strange views on sex, the fact that in some institutions priests were given ultimate authority over young boys and girls. But the way in which those acts are understood today – as supremely damaging to individuals and the inevitable consequence of people ‘deciding it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’ – is powerfully informed by two problematic contemporary trends: the backward cult of victimhood and the dominant ‘new atheist’ prejudice against any institution with strong beliefs.
With all the current claims about Pope Benedict XVI himself being involved in a cover-up of child abuse by an American priest and a German priest, and newspaper reports using terms like ‘stuff of nightmares’, the ‘stench of evil’, and ‘systematic rape and torture’, anyone who tries to inject a bit of perspective into this debate is unlikely to be thanked. But perspective is what we need. Someone has to point out that for all the problems with the Catholic Church’s doctrines and style of organisation – and I experienced some of those problems, having been raised a Catholic before becoming an atheist at 17 – the fact is that sexual abuse by priests is a relatively rare phenomenon.
Even in Ireland, whose image as a craic [fun]-loving nation has been replaced by the far-worse idea that it was actually a nation of priest rape, incidents of sexual abuse by priests were fairly rare. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was launched by the Irish government in 1999 and delivered its report last year, intensively invited Irish-born people around the world to report on incidents of abuse in Irish religious-educational reform schools, where the majority of clerical abuse is said to have occurred, between the period 1914 to 1999. For that 85-year period, 253 claims of sexual abuse were made by males and 128 by females. It is important – surely? – to note that these are claims of sexual abuse rather than proven incidents, since the vast majority of them did not go to trial.
The number of sexual abuse claims in these institutions fell for the more recent period: for males, there were 88 claims from the pre-1960s, 119 from 1960 to 1969, 37 from 1970 to 1979, and nine from 1980 to 1989. The alleged sexual-abuse incidents ranged in seriousness from boys being ‘questioned and interrogated about their sexual activity’ to being raped: there were 68 claims of anal rape in reform institutions for boys from 1914 to 1999. Not all of the sexual abuse was carried out by priests. Around 65 per cent of the claims pertain to religious workers, and 35 per cent to lay staff, care workers, and fellow pupils.
Of course, one incident of child sexual abuse by a priest is one too many. But given the findings of Ireland’s investigation into abuse in religious-educational institutions, is there really a justification for talking about a ‘clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel’? As Ireland is redefined as a country in recovery from child sexual abuse, and the ‘scandal of child rape’ spreads further through Europe into Germany and Italy, it might be unfashionable to say the following but it is true nonetheless: very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.
The discussion of a relatively rare phenomenon as a ‘great evil’ of our age shows that child abuse in Catholic churches has been turned into a morality tale – about the dangers of belief and of hierarchical institutions and the need for more state and other forms of intervention into religious institutions and even religious families. The first contemporary trend that has turned incidences of sexual abuse into a powerful symbol of evil is the cult of the victim, where today individuals are invited not only to reveal every misfortune that has befallen them – which of course is a sensible thing to do if you have been raped – but also to define themselves by those misfortunes, to look upon themselves as the end-products of having being emotionally, physically or sexually abused. This is why very public revelations of Catholic abuse started in America and Ireland before more recently spreading to other parts of Western Europe: because the politics of victimhood, the cult of revelation and redefinition of the self as survivor, is more pronounced and developed in America and Ireland than it is in continental Europe.
In Ireland, for example, the state has explicitly invited its citizens to redefine themselves as victims of authority rather than as active agents capable of moving on and making choices. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse discusses at length the ‘debilitating’ impact that abuse can have on individuals, to the extent that many of Ireland’s social problems – including unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and heavy drinking – are now discussed as the products of Ireland’s earlier era of abuse rather than as failings of the contemporary social system.
This, I believe, is why claims of sexual abuse in Ireland’s religious-educational institutions were so much higher for the period of 1960 to 1969 (nearly half of all claims of sexual abuse against boys during the period of 1914 to 1989 were made for that decade). It is not because priests suddenly became more abusive in the 1960s than they had been in the far harsher Ireland of the 1940s and 50s, but because the people who attended the institutions during that period were in many ways the main targets of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. They would have been in their mid-40s to mid-50s when the commission began in 1999 and many of them had suffered long-term unemployment, health problems, and other disappointments. Reporting their misfortunes to the commission offered them the chance, not only of getting financial compensation, but also of validating their difficult life experiences as a consequence of their having been abused. In a grotesquely convenient marriage, the state redefined social problems as consequences of Catholic abuse and the individual redefined himself as a sufferer from low self-esteem who did not bear full responsibility for the course of his adult life. In such a climate, not only are incidents of abuse by priests more likely to surface, but they are also more likely to be heavily politicised, turned from undoubtedly distressing and possibly criminal acts into modern-day examples of evil capable of distorting society itself. Thus did the contemporary cult of victimhood ensure that Catholic abuse was blown out of proportion.
The second contemporary trend that has elevated something quite rare into a social disaster is the rise of the ‘new atheism’. [Remember, the author of this article is himself an atheist!] Now the dominant liberal outlook of our age – in particular in the media outlets that have most keenly focused on the Catholic abuse scandals: the New York Times, the Irish Times, and the UK Guardian – the new atheism differs from the atheism of earlier free-thinking humanists in that its main aim is not to enlighten, but to scaremonger about the impact of religion on society. For these thinkers and opinion-formers, the drip-drip of revelations of abuse in Catholic institutions offers an opportunity to demonise the religious as backward and people who possess strong beliefs as suspect.
Many contemporary opinion-formers are not concerned with getting to the truth of how widespread Catholic sexual abuse was, or what were the specific circumstances in which it occurred; rather they want to milk incidents of abuse and make them into an indictment of religion itself. They frequently flit between discussing priests who abuse children and the profound stupidity of people who believe in God. One commentator wildly refers to the Vatican’s ‘international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists’ and says most ordinary Catholics turn a blind eye to this because ‘people behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’.
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, unwittingly reveals what draws the new atheists towards the Catholic-abuse story: their belief that religion is itself a form of abuse. ‘Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place’, he argues. He admits that physical abuse by priests is rare, but only to flag up what he sees as a more serious form of abuse: ‘Only a minority of priests abuse the bodies of the children in their care. But how many priests abuse their minds?’ In this spectacularly crude critique of religion, no moral distinction is made between being educated by a priest and raped by one – indeed, the former is considered worse than the latter, since as one Observer columnist recently darkly warned: ‘We have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms…’
If ‘bringing a child up Catholic’ is itself abuse, there can only be one solution: external authorities must protect children not only from religious institutions but from their own religious parents, too. One new atheist has proposed an age of consent for joining a religion: 14. In an Oxford Amnesty Lecture popular amongst new atheists, a liberal academic argued that children ‘have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas’, and parents ‘have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose’. Here, a simplistic leap is made from protecting children from paedophile priests to protecting them from their own parents, since in the new-atheist view strong beliefs and freedom of religion – which, yes, includes the freedom of parents to bring up their children as they see fit – are the real problem. They exaggerate the extent of Catholic sexual abuse in order to strengthen their prejudicial arguments.
Whatever you think of the Catholic Church, you should be concerned about today’s abuse-obsession. Events of the (sometimes distant) past which nobody can change are being used to justify dangerous trends in the present. A new kind of society is being solidified on the back of exposing abusive priests, one in which scaremongering supersedes facts, where people redefine themselves as permanently damaged victims, where freedom of thought is problematised, and where parents are considered suspect for not adhering to the superior values of the atheistic elite. Seriously, radical humanists should fight back against this.