Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before…

Tom Flynn

Pedophilia among Catholic priests—and the stonewalling of same among church prelates—is back in the headlines. Now the allegations come not just from North America or Ireland but from across the first world. And now the pope himself is under scrutiny for his possible role (back in his salad days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in derailing Vatican investigation of a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting as many as two hundred deaf boys.

Aside from those details, the story has a dreadfully familiar ring: a minority among priests who can’t resist venting their frustrated sexuality on innocent children. A seeming majority among church higher-ups who care less for the victims than for preserving the reputation of the Church and try to cover everything up. We’ve heard all this before.

Priestly pedophilia scandals bubbled into headlines as early as the mid-1980s. With the January 2002 conviction of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, any remaining media taboo regarding sex abuse by priests was shattered. However belatedly, it became common knowledge among Americans that sex abuse within the Roman Catholic Church was an endemic problem—as was church hierarchs’ consistently tone-deaf way of handling it.

During those years, we got to hear all the arguments conservative pundits could offer in their efforts to spin the crisis. Foremost among these was an effort to fasten blame for the scandal on progressive developments in the life of the church. The usual strategy was to concede that pedophilia among priests was a terrible problem but one that had developed abruptly, emerging almost exclusively among a troubled generation of priests influenced by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, and perhaps for good measure American culture’s excessive regard for psychotherapy.

Want proof that bad arguments never die? Here’s Ross Douthat, reigning conservative of the New York Times op-ed page, commenting on the priest pedophilia scandal in its current global incarnation: “The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy.”* Implicit in this argument is the conviction that Catholic priests simply didn’t abuse boys in any significant numbers in the days before (oh, pick a random milestone) American priests started saying Mass in English. It’s a safe argument to make: all of the social and institutional obstacles that kept decent people from talking about priest sex abuse in, say, the 1950s were in place in the 1920s too. And the 1870s. And the 1630s. And . . . you get the idea.

Solid records concerning priest sex abuse barely exist until the later years of the twentieth century—that’s how thoroughly the subject was suppressed. Given that level of official concealment, it may never be possible to establish for certain whether pedophilia erupted among a minority of priests in the folk-Mass era . . . or whether Catholic priests have been engaging in pedophilia at a fairly constant rate for decades or even centuries, the only relevant change being society’s newfound willingness to talk about it.

But such anecdotal evidence as there is surely suggests that we shouldn’t be too quick to accept conservative assurances that priestly pedophilia is a recent phenomenon. As further demonstration that when it comes to priest sex-abuse scandals, everything old is new again, permit me to quote at some length from an op-ed I wrote in these pages eight years ago (“We Knew,” FI, Summer 2002).

Before the scandals broke widely in the early 2000s, I wrote:

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 had known all along: Charges of child sex abuse by priests were no anti-Catholic slurs. They were the truth.

. . . 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 first-hand stories of abuse. Victims came from every region; some had been abused the year before, some fifty years ago or more.

. . . 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” column 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. [Emphasis added.]

. . . In 1985, New Orleans reporter Jason Berry wrote the first major exposé of priest sex abuse in an national liberal Catholic newspaper [the National Catholic Reporter]. That opened the topic for public discourse. By 1992, most Americans knew that some 400 priests faced abuse charges and that about $400 million had 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, like a mouse running under the carpet. While I was going on radio and TV 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 my 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.

That threshold has been crossed. . . . [S]ometimes 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, thousands of children may have suffered abuse that could perhaps have been prevented.

Today the rest of the first world has boarded an unmerry merry-go-round of discovery and rhetoric about priest sex-abuse that weary Americans, religious and otherwise, know far too well. While certainty may be impossible, there seems to me little reason to presume that sex abuse within the Catholic Church is a consequence of the sexual revolution and much better reason to presume that it’s a consequence of priestly celibacy and the Church’s traditions of unchallenged clerical authority and institutional secrecy. If that’s true, it’s a centuries-old problem. How remarkable that we may live at the first time in history that this sordid topic receives the public attention it so desperately requires.

As I wrote in 2002, “It’s tempting for secular humanists to fee
l 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.” I’m still waiting. Aren’t we all?


* Ross Douthat, “A Time for Contrition,” New York Times, March 28, 2010.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Pedophilia among Catholic priests—and the stonewalling of same among church prelates—is back in the headlines. Now the allegations come not just from North America or Ireland but from across the first world. And now the pope himself is under scrutiny for his possible role (back in his salad days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in derailing …

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