Clergy Sexual Abuse, Coverups, and More

Edd Doerr

Media coverage of the widespread, longstanding clergy sexual abuse and coverup scandals has been pretty good over the past year, triggered largely by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and similar actions in other states; the disgraces of Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl in the United States; the civil-court convictions of cardinals in France and Australia; and news about such scandals in Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, India, and elsewhere. The problems are much too vast for easy summary, but a hasty glance in the rearview mirror would be useful.

We have the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s 2001–2002 exposure of the abuse and coverups in that area; the 1995 and 2003 books, totaling over 800 pages, by Spanish journalist Pepe Rodriguez, The Sex Life of the Clergy and Pederasty in the Catholic Church: Sexual Crimes of the Clergy against Minors, A Drama Silenced and Covered Up by the Bishops (available only in Spanish); Catholic investigative reporter Jason Berry’s groundbreaking 1992 book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children; the Irish government reports on clergy abuse; and conservative columnist George Will’s March 14, 2019, column titled “The Greatest Crime in U.S. History?”

Looking back further, we have Pope Pius IX’s brazen public complicity in the 1857 kidnapping and forcible conversion of a six-year-old Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, which stirred up revulsion worldwide. Pius IX was the same guy who in 1864 issued the infamous Syllabus of Errors document blasting democracy, religious liberty, church-state separation, and other modern values. And from the mid-sixteenth century until 1878 (!) the Vatican approved of the castration of pre-teen boys so that with their soprano-like voices they could continue to sing in church choirs. (When Reagan sought in the early 1980s to extend diplomatic relations to the Vatican/Holy See, he had first to get Congress to repeal the mid-nineteenth-century law barring such relations. On February 9, 1984, I represented the Council for Secular Humanism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Americans for Religious Liberty, the American Ethical Union, and the American Humanist Association in testifying before the House Appropriations Committee against the bill for Reprogramming Funds for United States Mission to the Vatican. Since Reagan opened relations with the Vatican/Holy See, every ambassador has been a Catholic, which seems to run counter to the Constitution’s Article VI ban on religious tests for public office. The current ambassador is Callista [Mrs. Newt] Gingrich.)

One result of the scandals is that recent Gallup polling has shown that 37 percent of U.S. Catholics have questioned whether they should remain in the church.

But as awful and damaging as the abuse and coverups have been—and are—there are at least two other problems that are not getting adequate attention:

  1. The Vatican’s absurd ban on abortion and contraception, which not only causes untold harm to women’s health, women’s rights of conscience, and women’s religious liberty, but also fuels the overpopulation that largely drives the climate change that threatens our whole planet.
  2. The U.S. bishops’ decades-long campaign to have government compel all taxpayers to support Catholic (and other) K–12 private schools through vouchers and tax credits.

Let us note that most Catholics do not go along with the bishops and the Vatican on these issues. Over 90 percent of Catholics have no problem with contraception; two-thirds are okay with abortion, as we have seen from opinion polls and the May 2018 referendum in predominantly Catholic Ireland. One study by the National Catholic Educational Association even showed that only 60 percent of teachers in U.S. Catholic high schools agree with the Vatican’s position on abortion, though Catholic schools are supposed to be “permeated” with Vatican teachings. As for the bishops’ drive to force all taxpayers to support church schools, after the Supreme Court did away with the last vestiges of Protestantism in our public schools in the early 1960s, enrollment in Catholic schools declined from 5.5 million in 1965 to 1.8 million today. In heavily Catholic Massachusetts in 1986, voters defeated a proposal to allow tax aid to church schools by 70 percent to 30 percent.

Most American Catholics seem to agree with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 statement that supported an absolute separation of church and state. Our country has lurched from Kennedy to Trump, who has made it very clear that he has nothing but contempt for religious liberty and church-state separation. Trump and his puppet education secretary Betsy DeVos want to replace our public schools with tax-supported private schools, most of them sectarian indoctrination centers that, if not stopped, will fragment our student population along religious, ideological, socioeconomic, ethnic, and other lines while reducing funding and quality. Trump also wants to block women’s access to contraception and abortion, which plays in with his misogyny and his total disdain for the consensus of climate scientists that climate change, with all its components and concomitants, is real and threatens our whole planet.

Americans of all persuasions need to work together to extend the state statutes of limitation so that abuse victims can seek justice in the courts, to insist that abuse of minors be reported to law enforcement, to oppose the Trumpist/“fundagelical”/Vatican assaults on reproductive choice, to roll back the campaigns to divert public funds to private schools, and to counter the war against church-state separation waged by the bishops and the religious Right.

And Down Under

In covering the Cardinal George Pell conviction and Australia’s many-years-long abuse and coverup scandals, The New York Times reported on March 12 that Pell had managed to minimize church payouts to abuse victims and to keep them quiet, saving the church about AUD $62 million, and that a royal commission had found that between 1980 and 2015 nearly 4,400 people had “brought incidents of child sexual abuse to 93 church authorities.” Although Australia is about 30 percent Catholic, the Times reported that regular and even irregular church attendance had fallen to 12 percent in 2011 and appears to be declining even further. Finally, the Times noted that Catholic schools enroll about 20 percent of the country’s kids and receive about 80 percent of their funding from the government, a practice that began in the 1960s when church officials were able to persuade the governing party to ignore a constitutional ban. (By way of background, Australia was first settled by the British the year after the U.S. Constitution was written; Australia’s constitution was written in 1900.)

Nearly fifty years ago, I was involved with Australians in the Defence of Government Schools (D.O.G.S.), an organization that sought to challenge the diversion of public funds to Catholic and other private schools. The expensive lawsuit was based on Section 116 of the Australian constitution, which was clearly and intentionally based on the U.S. First Amendment. Unfortunately, the Australian High Court in its 1981 ruling chose to follow British rather than American precedent. Alone among the justices, Justice Lionel Murphy, a former Attorney General and Senator, wrote a brilliant seventeen-page dissenting opinion that explained in detail how the U.S. First Amendment was developed, then interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1980 or so, and then how the writers of Australia’s constitution clearly intended Section 116 to mean the same thing. Murphy’s dissent is reproduced in the book Lionel Murphy: The Rule of Law, edited by Jean and Richard Ely (Akron Press, Sydney, 1986). Murphy’s dissent generously quotes Jefferson, Madison, and the relevant U.S. Supreme Court rulings.


Further Reading

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Paul Elie eloquently discusses the subject of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. It can be found as the “Acts of Penance” in the April 15 hard copy or online as “What Do the Church’s Victims Deserve?”

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Media coverage of the widespread, longstanding clergy sexual abuse and coverup scandals has been pretty good over the past year, triggered largely by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and similar actions in other states; the disgraces of Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl in the United States; the civil-court convictions of cardinals in France and Australia; and …

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