Over dinner with a group of good friends awhile ago, I was taken aback when during one of the many lively discussions someone offered a defense of the Catholic Church in the now-old-news sex abuse scandal. I had previously operated under the assumption that even the biggest Church apologist would hesitate to venture in that direction in any public debate in a mixed crowd no matter what justifications one might conjure up in private. Yes, my friend is a practicing Catholic who attends church every week, but I had assumed that her association would increase rather than diminish her outrage. Not so.
Her defense did not attempt to dismiss the facts of the case or diminish the horror of the crimes. Rather my friend offered a defense of relativity: the Church is a human institution and the number of sex abusers is no greater proportionally than in the general population. There was the tangential argument that the media unfairly targeted the Church and so gave the impression of a larger problem than really exists. Finally, coming soon after the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, she argued that the problem of pedophilia is perhaps even more prevalent in the world of sports, or at a minimum at least as bad. She posited that, as with the Church, in the case of Penn State plenty of people in a position of authority chose to turn a blind eye.
I had largely forgotten the discussion until yesterday. I was talking to the owner of an Indian restaurant who was lamenting her problems with vendors. She then made a comment that caught my attention: "I now try to deal mainly with Christian sellers." She herself is Buddhist. The implication clearly is that Christians bring to the table a higher degree of morality and therefore honesty. This assumption is so deeply embedded that no further explanation was offered in the statement -- it was considered self-evident.
My first reaction to that unquestioned assumption was to think of the more than 10,000 children alleged to have been violated by Catholic priests, and in contrast to that ugly reality, the dissonant claim to a higher morality. In that grating contradiction lays a central problem with the Church, and more generally, with religion: any embarrassing challenges to divine claims can be dismissed as the consequence of human frailties. The Church can claim simultaneously to be the arbiter of a morality inspired by god while offering the excuse that they can be expected to be no better than the general population when it comes to abusing children because it is a "human institution."
Rather than holding itself to a higher standard based on its own claims to divine insight, the Church offers the rather sad defense that other institutions suffer the same problem. Pope Benedict XVI said, "just as the church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards." That is a clear statement that the Church should not be held to any standard higher than any secular institution, but precisely to the same standard. He willingly surrendered any claim to a higher moral standing, an astonishing admission for the head of the Church.
In March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said in response to the damaging stream of breaking news stories about pedophilia in the Church that, "From God comes the courage not to be intimidated by petty gossip." Petty gossip. Factual news accounts of this horror are reduced to petty gossip. But the Vatican did not stop there. The attack on the media was in fact two-pronged: beyond spreading unsubstantiated rumors and gossip, the media was also said to have exaggerated the extent and depth of the problem as a means of persecuting the Church.
The second idea of unfair coverage plays into the argument my friend made that the Church is no worse than any other institution, just under greater scrutiny. But coverage of the Sandusky scandal proves that idea a bit silly. Can anybody claim the media did not cover Penn State with great zeal and excess to the point of obsession? In fact, that wall-to-wall coverage could be considered disproportionate since Penn State has a few tens of thousands of interested enthusiasts while the Church as over one billion. The media are not the problem; they are equal opportunity sensationalists. Nor is such lurid coverage new; during the 1980s the news was salivating for the McMartin preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California. The claim that the media unfairly targets the Catholic Church, or exaggerates the extent of the problem through excessive or overzealous coverage, is simply not substantiated by the facts.
Perhaps knowing the argument was weak, blaming the media for exaggeration or printing gossip was just one arrow in the quiver. Next up: society is to blame for encouraging a sexual revolution. A five-year, $1.8 million study, initiated in 2006 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's, concluded that an all-male celibate priesthood, or homosexuality, were not to blame for the sex scandal. Instead, the report concluded that priests preyed upon children because the sexual turmoil of the 1960s and '70s put priests unprepared for the cultural shift "under stress." Society, not the Church, was to blame.
At one point the Vatican floated the idea that the Church was the victim, equating the uproar over the sex scandal to the persecution of the Jews. I'll let that one speak for itself, other than to note that such a claim reeks of desperation. The logic behind that claim is evidence of a moral compass spinning out of control. More damning for the Church than disingenuous misdirection and wild claims of victimhood is the revelation of a secret Vatican edict that rejected an Irish Catholic Church proposal to report pedophile priests to local authorities. Most of us would consider the proposal reasonable and self-evidently the right course of action. Not the Vatican, which in rejecting the proposal created, according to an Irish bishop, "a mandate to conceal reported crimes of a priest." The Vatican's take on this goes back to a 1999 meeting in Rome where bishops were admonished to remember that they were "bishops first, not policemen." Official doctrine to look the other way. The Church tried to explain away this embarrassing document by noting sex solicited in confessionals had to be dealt with in secret according to church law.
Well, while no institution is above the law, let us take for a moment that argument as valid. How well did the Church police its own according to its own laws? With an amazing and callous disregard for its innocent victims. As with many crimes, the coverup became a crime in many ways as bad as the original transgression.
The great crime here is not the existence of pedophiles within its ranks of priests, although that is bad enough, but the fact that the Church as a matter of policy transferred known pedophiles to unsuspecting parishes. Allow me to list just a few cases. Father John J. Geoghan was accused in the mid-1990s of abusing 130 grammar school boys, one who was just 4-years-old. Horrifying in its own right -- but worse is that Cardinal Bernard F. Law knew about Geoghan's predatory sexual habits in 1984, yet approved his transfer to St. Julia's parish. Archdiocesan records reveal that the archdiocese did not view as "serious" the repeated abuse of seven boys in one extended family. Not surprisingly the transfer to St. Juilia's did not go well, resulting in yet more complaints of sexual abuse.
The problem is not isolated to a few rogue priests. Here is what the Boston Globe concluded in 2002:
Church documents, official testimony, and victim interviews gathered over the past year paint an extraordinary picture of secrecy and deception in the Boston Archdiocese; a culture in which top church officials coddled abusive priests and permitted them to molest again, while stonewalling or paying off the victims of that abuse.
Nor is the problem confined to Boston. The scandal spread to Canada, Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland and Germany; and continues to spread around the world to Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Kenya, Tanzania, the Philippines and Australia.
Let us look at one more specific case. Father Peter Hullerman was a known pedophile, sent to therapy by the Vatican in 1980 to treat his disease. He was returned to pastoral work within a few days of beginning his psychiatric treatment. It is hard to be shocked to learn that Father Hullerman was later convicted for molesting boys in another parish. I end with this particular example because the case has broader implications. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope, was copied on a memo that approved this specific course of action for Father Hullerman. The Vatican denies that Ratzinger ever saw the memo... Perhaps, but at a minimum the memo establishes there was in place an ugly and indefensible Vatican policy of putting known pedophiles in new parishes with no warning to the new congregation. Let us be unambiguously clear about this: the Vatican intentionally put children at risk to protect its priests. That is a fact. That is a crime. That is a subversion of moral values. Putting a child in harm's way, exposing a little boy or girl to the sick yearnings of a pedophile priest, who the child is told to trust completely as a representative of a higher power, is a crime unique to the Church, not an invention of the media and not the fault of society. Sick priests are one problem; Vatican policy is another, one not explained away by human frailty. The problem has shifted from sex abuse to the crime of covering up sex abuse; the latter a greater crime because it perpetuates the former.
But we can take a deep breath, and for the sake of argument remove from the equation the notion that the Church, as a self-proclaimed arbiter of morality, must hold itself to a higher standard than society at large. Given that, does the assertion that pedophilia in the Church is found in the same proportion as in the general populace have any merit?
The way statistics are compiled there is no way to answer that question definitively. But we can get toward an answer tangentially. Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a Web site that compiles reports on abuse cases, noted that the records show, "...there's a vast gap, a multiplier of two, three or four times, between the numbers of perpetrators that the prosecutors find and what the bishops released." There is clear evidence the problem is underreported as a matter of Vatican policy; no such organized policy exists in the general population. One could reasonably surmise therefore that the amount of underreporting is greater within the Church than in society at large. But the question itself is wrong: even if true that pedophilia was found in the Church at rates equivalent to society at large, that offers no excuse for Vatican policy of covering up the crime and transferring known pedophiles to new unsuspecting congregations. The argument itself reveals unconditional surrender to moral decay.
My dear friend is wrong; the Church cannot be defended. Even if we could explain away pedophilia in the ranks of the priests as typical of the general population; even if we could blame the media for exaggerating the problem or society for creating stress for clergymen; even if the Church need not hold itself to a higher moral standard than secular institutions based on its own claims of divine insight; nothing can defend the Vatican's practice of systematically covering up the crimes of sex abuse within its ranks or sending pedophiles to new parishes to prey anew on a fresh batch of young men.
And so too my friend the Indian restaurant owner is wrong. Being Christian does not bestow upon anybody a higher degree of moral depth or any greater propensity for honesty. After all, we are reminded that priests and laity alike are only human, and will suffer the same moral failures as the non-Christian population. That is what the Church itself argues: Christians are no better than anybody else, and cannot be expected to be so. Exacting standards must be equally applied to secular and non-secular alike. So Christians by the Church's own admission will be equally prone to crime, deceit and all the moral failures attributed to human frailty. They might be absolved of their sins through confession in the eyes of the Church, but victims still suffer the consequence of the human failings of those forgiven. The Church and its apologists can't have it both ways by making the self-contradicting and absurd claim that Christians are more honest and more moral, but no different from anybody else.