Catholic theology facilitated the child abuse

This article was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been hauling the Vatican over the coals regarding its record of systematically covering up the sexual abuse of children by its priests. Hearings in Geneva this week are the first time that senior Vatican officials have been confronted in public about the ongoing scandal. Despite UN requests, the Vatican still refuses to open its archives containing records of every instance of abuse reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long presided over by Cardinal (later Pope) Ratzinger. It also tried to argue that it was responsible only for abuse that took place in the tiny enclave of the Vatican City, not by Catholic priests worldwide.

The story is now all too familiar. Time after time priestly child abuse was hushed up by the Church, the victims sworn to secrecy, the files sealed in the Vatican vaults, and the priest not turned over to secular authorities but instead quietly moved to a new parish. There the abuse would continue with a new set of victims. If the Church did apply “punishments” they tended to be a requirement for “penitence and prayer”.

The pattern was worldwide, from Ireland to Australia to Germany to Mexico and the US and … we still don’t know about many Third World countries where the Catholic Church is still powerful enough to continue its cover-up. Power corrupts, and the fact that the Catholic Church regarded itself as morally answerable only to itself, coupled with the excessive deference paid to it by others, enabled the ongoing corruption that has now shredded the Vatican’s claim to any moral authority.

There is a tendency among the non-religious to regard theology as rather abstract and inconsequential, but when people really believe their theology it can have direct and harmful consequences. It seems to me that the world-wide Catholic child-abuse scandal is a direct consequence of Catholic theology. Of course all large organisations will contain some men who might sexually abuse others, but the most significant aspect of the Catholic scandal is the cover-up, the way the Catholic hierarchy dealt with those crimes.

Pope Ratzinger with children

To a Catholic sexual misconduct is a sin. That means it is a rebellion against God, often caused by the Devil trying to tempt people into that rebellion (yes, the Catholic hierarchy do actually believe in both God and the Devil). The Devil can tempt anyone into sin, and thus a repentant sinner is no more likely to sin again than anyone else.

Perhaps I am being too charitable, but I suspect that many in the Catholic hierarchy weren’t quite corrupt enough to knowingly expose a new set of defenceless kids to a recidivist paedophile priest. I can imagine an elderly, celibate Cardinal consulting his theology, which told him that such sins were the result of the Devil’s temptations, and thus genuinely believing that a repentant priest was no more a threat than anyone else.

In the words that Pope Ratzinger directed to abusing priests: “Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment”, while “offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged” would “atone personally” for the crimes (yes, that does mean that Ratzinger thinks that private prayers and penances are sufficient to make amends for hushed-up crimes). That theology, together with the overriding desire to protect the Church, was sufficient to convince the cardinals that simply shuffling priests around was an adequate remedy.

When Ratzinger issued his “apology” to Irish victims of priestly sex abuse, he tried — bizarrely — to blame secularism, saying that it was the “rapid transformation and secularization” of society that had led priests to “adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel”. He claimed that the recidivist nature of paedophilia hadn’t been understood by “secular society” which had tolerated moral relativism and that “conflicting expert advice” had been responsible for the Catholic Church simply moving criminal priests to new parishes.

This unrepentant buck-passing is of course total nonsense. Everyone except the Catholic hierarchy understood what should have been done because everyone except the Catholic hierarchy understands human sexuality. Our sexuality and orientation are part of our nature, something we are born with. Hushing things up and quietly moving the culprit to a new parish were not remedies suggested by “secular society” but ones deriving from an over-powerful Church and an utterly flawed theology.

Priest With Rosary and Bible

Among “concrete initiatives to address the situation” Ratzinger offered “your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture”, along with a year’s-worth of “Friday penances” and plenty of “Eucharistic adoration” (yes, those really were his “concrete initiatives to address the situation”). We now have a new Pope, who is supposedly better than the last one. Here are my suggestions for some rather more effective initiatives.

First, the Catholic Church will always get sex wrong until it realises that sexuality is not a “choice”, not about rebellion against God, but an aspect of the biology that we are born with. Second, no-one is going to believe that the Vatican is sincerely repentant and reformed until it releases its archives of sexual-abuse cases. That means all of them, the ones diligently gathered by Ratzinger over decades (despite his later using an excuse about “how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem”), and not just the ones that the authorities already know about.

As recently as 1997 the Vatican wrote to Irish Catholic Bishops telling them to cancel their proposal to report abusive priests to the police because doing so “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature”. The Vatican has admitted that several hundred priests have been defrocked since 2011, yet that does not mean that the names of the guilty parties have been passed to secular authorities.

Third, this scandal could surely only have been presided over by a men-only hierarchy. Any institution nurturing children should have women involved at all levels, including the most senior. My last suggestion, that no-one should any longer be deferential towards the Catholic Church or regard it as any sort of moral authority, has, thanks to the scandal, already been largely achieved.

12 thoughts on “Catholic theology facilitated the child abuse

  1. gbjames

    Well said. I wish, though, that your final sentence were more true than it is. There are far to many people still who remain Catholic and grant deference to the “moral” yammering of the priesthood, at least here in the US. The same is true in many parts of Africa.

  2. Duncan

    I’m very, very interested in references for the last paragraph, which for me marrs an otherwise fair piece. While perpetrators of sexual violence are significantly more likely to be male, there are no shortage of examples of female perpetrators, and even more instances of female collusion or turning a blind eye.

    1. Coel Post author

      Yes, I don’t mean to imply that no women would be abusers or complicit, but I think it’s fair to say that they would be significantly less likely to be, and thus that involving women in leading roles is one measure to protect children.


    Here is another oblique way to decrease the harm done by the Catholic Church: its loss of staff as a result of the new gay marriage laws. Few people foresaw that correlation when the debate about gay marriages was raging on.

    As the NY Times report: “Gay Marriages Confront Catholic School Rules
    Gay men and lesbians have been fired or forced to resign recently from Roman Catholic institutions around the country, in most cases because they decided to get married.

  4. Pingback: rants: Can the Pope Block the UN’s Child Abuse Investigation? | The Christian Noob (n00b)

  5. trueandreasonable

    “First, the Catholic Church will always get sex wrong until it realizes that sexuality is not a “choice”, not about rebellion against God, but an aspect of the biology that we are born with.”

    Didn’t those priests have a choice not to commit their crimes? If they had no control then they are not culpable right?

    1. gbjames

      I don’t think it matters whether they had a choice or not. The Catholic Church provides an environment tailored to be prime habitat for pedophiles and sex abusers. As long as the environment exists, it these guys will be drawn to it like iron shavings to a magnet.

    2. trueandreasonable

      I’m curious how the author differs from the Catholic Church’s views on this issue. The Catholic Church does not believe its a choice to be inclined to pedophilia it is accepted that the inclination to desire certain things for sexual pleasure can be something you are born with – or at least beyond your control. Being born inclined to take sexual pleasure in certain things and not others is not considered a sin. It is the behavior that acts on those desires that can be a sin.

      Why does the author think this view is “wrong”?

    3. Coel Post author

      I think that official Catholic Church doctrine on this has changed quite a bit over the decades. In the past it was been much as I described in the article; more recently the Church has come round to the idea of a range of different innate sexualities. However, its easy to still find Catholic statements such as: “certain behaviors are wrong because they are unnatural. […] The natural sex partner for a man is a woman, and the natural sex partner for a woman is a man. […] homosexuality is … not part of the natural design of humanity.”

    4. trueandreasonable

      Well that is talking about behavior. And sure the Church still views such behavior as sinful. They view any pursuit of lustful thoughts that are not open to the possibility of procreation as sinful. This includes premarital sex, masturbation, and even continuing to think lustful thoughts. Even when married, couples shouldn’t have oral sex or use contraception.

      I doubt you would not agree with any of those things. But I am not sure what that has to do with pedophiles abusing kids.

      I wonder if you would agree with the church’s position that to the extent what a person finds sexually arousing is beyond their control, it is not wrong. But once someone like a pedophile starts acting on their inclinations that is where the culpability starts.

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