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We Knew

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.

"Father, your dreadful secret is out!
I heard you just love chicken."

When the above cartoon appeared in a collection of atheist humor in 1983, I imagine some freethinkers found it offensive. At that time the problem of child sex-abuse by Roman Catholic priests was dismissed. Sophisticated people thought it an urban legend, on a par with those discredited tales of pregnant nuns giving birth in sewers and the accusation that lay Catholic Americans owed their political loyalty not to Washington but to Rome. Decent folk didn't spread such slanders.

Yet even then, many in the humanist, atheist, and gay rights movements knew what churchmen and adolescents had known all along: Charges of child sex-abuse by priests were no anti-Catholic slur. They were the truth.

In the wake of the January conviction of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, the priestly pedophilia scandal has exploded. At least eighty-four priests in eleven states face new sexual-misconduct accusations. At least fifty-five have been removed from duty. In Palm Beach, Florida, two successive bishops have resigned amid abuse charges. Between $600 million and $1.3 billion has been paid out to settle (and usually, silence) sex-abuse allegations, threatening the finances of an institutional church that may be less opulently wealthy than many assumed.

For humanist, atheist, and gay activists, none of this is surprising. In 1981, I attended my first local atheist group meeting in a Midwestern city. Two ex-Catholics, one in his thirties and one well over seventy, recounted sex abuse that each had suffered as an altar boy.
As I attended more meetings, local and national, I heard more firsthand stories of abuse. Victims came from every part of the country; some had been abused the year before, some fifty years ago or more. Gay friends told me of victims sharing similar stories at gay social functions and support-group meetings—sometimes in the hearing of former or current priests. It made sense that at least some of the victims who'd left the church and wanted to talk about their experiences would wind up in humanist or atheist groups and that others would emerge in gay circles. They were willing to talk; it was just that so few, especially in the media, would listen.

In the early 1980s Annie Laurie Gaylor launched a unique project at Freethought Today, collecting priest sex-abuse stories from local papers across the country. Her "Black Collar Crimes" department confirmed what anecdotal evidence had led many activists to suspect: priest sex-abuse occurred not just in scattered parishes, but nationwide, even worldwide. It hadn't broken out after the Second Vatican Council or after people started playing guitars at Sunday mass; it had been a problem for generations-perhaps for as long as there'd been a celibate priesthood. It wasn't something most priests did, to be sure. It was the pursuit of a small minority . . . but tragically, not a tiny minority. This was a problem as deep as Catholicism's roots.

In 1985, New Orleans reporter Jason Berry wrote the first major exposŽ of priest sex-abuse in a national liberal Catholic newspaper. That opened the topic for public discourse. By 1992, most Americans knew that some four hundred priests faced abuse charges and that about $400 million had already been paid out. But the story never achieved critical mass. America seemed unready for the truth about one of its cherished institutions.

Media people knew the story was still there, rather like a mouse running under the carpet. While I was going on radio and television in the middle 1990s to plug my book The Trouble with Christmas, I lost count of how often talk-show hosts warned me: "You can say anything, with two exceptions: if you tell the kiddies there's no Santa Claus, or if you talk about priests and altar boys, I'll cut off your mike." The Santa Claus warning was fair enough, but as that book never mentioned priests and altar boys it's remarkable that I received this gratuitous advice so frequently.

Meanwhile the relentless drumbeat of accusations, confidential settlements, hushed reassignments of problem priests, and new molestations continued. The public seemed aware of it, yet always below the threshold of outrage. Catholics were surely aware of it; a March Zogby poll found that one in eleven U.S. Catholics reported personal knowledge of a priest sex-abuse incident. It's mind-boggling to think that many Catholics helped by their silence to keep so much so secret for so long.

Now that the threshold of public outrage has been crossed, it's tempting for secular humanists to feel a backhanded sense of vindication. Instead we should focus on compassion for the many victims, coupled with hope that public exposure will make abuse less likely in the future. There's a larger, bittersweet lesson to be learned, too: sometimes, with the best intentions, society makes a bad problem worse by refusing to listen to the voices from its margins. Years before the scandal started bubbling, many humanist, atheist, and gay activists knew there was a massive problem with priestly sex-abuse. In part because we weren't listened to, in part because millions of Catholics held their tongues, thousands of children may have suffered abuse that could perhaps have been prevented.

Have society's listening skills improved? It seems unlikely. Humanists and atheists continue to warn that since religion isn't true, whenever people take it too seriously, negative consequences ensue. Today we've taken up an added message: far from being what George W. Bush called "a religion of love," Islam genuinely does promote ideas and doctrines that skirt closer to violence than those of other faiths. Is anybody listening? Or will this essay simply serve as reference for someone else's "I told you so" op-ed a decade from now?

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.  His novel Galactic Rapture deals satirically with, among other things, priest sex-abuse of children.

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