The ongoing scandal of Catholic pedophile priests has exposed the privileged position organized religion undeservedly retains in the twenty-first century. Despite the glar-ing hypocrisy of presumptive moral exemplars violating the most vulnerable of victims, the Catholic Church’s misdeeds have not met the level of outrage, and the demands for action, that would be expected if a less-established religion (i.e., a cult) or a secular body had been the perpetrator. If it were revealed that any other institution entrusted with the care of children had harbored child abusers, and that its high officials were fully aware of the crimes that were frequently being perpetrated but protected those who committed the illegal acts by shifting them from one location to another, leaving them free to continue their predation, it would not have received the “pass” that the church enjoyed. It certainly would not have been left free to deal with the corruption itself.
Much media coverage has treat-ed revelations of abuse as a “Crisis in the Church,” as if the institution’s tarnished image and potential legal liability—rather than systemic criminal behavior by priests and collusion by church officials—were the important story. Imagine if a secular entity such as a public school system were discovered to have knowingly suppressed evidence that teachers were engaged in torture and abuse of children and moved the active pedophiles from one school district to another when exposure was threatened. In such a scenario, no school commissioner could behave as if he or she were the victim of unwanted publicity. Nor could school officials—the very ones involved or at the very least complicit in the exploitation of children—simply convene in order to decide how to respond to the crisis confronting their institution. Yet Cardinal Bernard Law—who probably should have been charged with colluding in criminal behavior and suppressing evidence—was allowed to retire and suffer no punishment. When bishops organized a conference in Rome, news coverage largely reported the event as if it were the responsible reaction of a corporation trying to deal with a newly discovered but basically internal affair. In effect, Law and the bishops were effectively asking a foreign potentate—the pope—“if it’s OK to obey the laws of the United States,” as church critic Christopher Hitchens wryly put it.
If child abuse were exposed as frequently occurring in any other organization, reporters would not have been as concerned with the organization’s efforts to protect its assets from potential civil suits, or with whether certain policies should be changed so that the outfit could continue to thrive and revitalize its image. It would not be treated as a public relations issue. Yet the church received such special treatment. If a government agency or corporation consistently engaged in-excusable behavior and sought to conceal, and thus continue, its criminal pursuits, those engaged in the crimes would not have been permitted to devise their own plan for dealing with the crisis of their exposure. There is already a system in place to deal with child rapists and those who shield them: the criminal justice system.
As this scandal should have made quite obvious, religious belief does not necessarily result in ethical behavior. Nevertheless, the priests, bishops, and cardinals involved were treated as if they warranted special consideration that no nonreligious figures would receive, or even pretend to deserve. They don’t deserve it. They do deserve to be prosecuted, just as anyone else would be. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that those accused of criminal behavior, including representatives of religious faiths, should be tried and, if found guilty, jailed. Churches and affiliated individuals war-rant no special treatment; a collar shouldn’t come with a get-out-of-jail-free card.