Catholicism’s Sex Abuse Scandal Goes Global

February 5, 2014

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child savaged the Vatican today, in a report that accused the worldwide Roman Catholic Church of “systematically” allowing priests to rape and otherwise sexually abuse tens of thousands of children — and then to evade responsibility for their acts — over multiple decades. In one sense, this is only a capstone for a scandal that’s been erupting in country after country for almost three decades. But freethinkers shouldn’t allow the fact that this scandal has been grinding on for so long to blind them to the sheer fact of what a huge, even extraordinary development it represents.

What makes the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal so deeply strange? It’s the only instance I know of, ever, in which a nineteenth- and twentieth-story conspiracy theory nurtured among nativist bigots has turned out to be, um, factual.

The fact that this scandal has unfolded over 29 years — yes, the first mainstream media exposé appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in 1985 — should not blind us to how deeply peculiar it is. Catholic priests all over the world have been raping and molesting children for decades, protected by a global network of bishops and cardinals that reaches straight into the Vatican? Finding that out all at once would be like opening your newsfeed and discovering that a small cabal of Jewish bankers really has been running the world since, say, the 1850s!

Child molestation stories used to be the stuff of anti-Catholic nativist propaganda in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I alluded to this way back in Summer 2002 a Free Inquiry editorial starkly titled, “We Knew” (available online to Free Inquiry subscribers only). The essay began with a reprinted cartoon (now, sadly, missing from the online article) that coyly hinted at the possibility of sexual abuse of teenage boys by a priest:

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. …

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….

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.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we ought to re-examine all the other nut-job conspiracy theories advanced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century nativists. Far from it! But just because the story’s been bubbling for almost 30 years, we should never lose sight of the fact that in the matter of priest sexual abuse, the anti-Catholic ranters of old had the facts exactly right. Presumably, that was so only accidentally. But still, it seems likely that one of the factors that made revelations of priest sex abuse emerge so slowly (aside, of course, from the church hierarchy’s frantic and lavishly-resourced efforts to keep the lid on) was that the facts so resembled charges that had been leveled by bigots of generations past. Decent people spent far too long chuckling and shaking their heads and saying, “Well, it can’t possibly be like that!”

This one time, it was exactly like that.