Priest Sex Abuse: Two Questioned Assumptions

April 24, 2009

Jim Underdown’s recent post on priest sex abuse, and the comments it provoked, got me thinking about the scandal in broader terms. Most media discussion on the subject today seems to share two (usually) unspoken assumptions:

1) Priest sex abuse of boys is a bounded phenomenon whose incidence grew rapidly starting in the mid-twentieth century.

2) After all the media attention, all the shame heaped on the Church, and tougher self-policing, priest sex abuse will decline sharply or disappear in the near future.

If there’s compelling evidence for either proposition, I’m unaware of it.

Let’s start first with history. The current priest sex abuse scandal surfaced in the National Catholic Reporter in 1985, bubbled around the margins for a few years, and became an all-consuming top-tier story in the early- to mid-1990s. In short order, a subject that had been all but barred from popular discourse was for the first time common fodder for the nightly news and water-cooler conversation. Some have assumed that the enhanced visibility of sex abuse victims meant that the incidence of sex abuse had grown sharply during the childhoods of victims whose stories began to be told in the 90s. Some Catholic conservatives seized on this as “evidence” that priest sex abuse resulted from the liberalizing reforms of 1967’s Second Vatican Council.

But there’s a problem here. Since priest sex abuse of boys was so passionately excluded from public discourse and the public record before the mid-90s, it’s awfully difficult to establish what its incidence was in the early twentieth century, much less in the nineteenth century and earlier. The phenomenon we know about—an explosion in information about abuse—fits either the hypothesis that abuse rose sharply in, oh, the 1960s … or the hypothesis that it’s been occurring at roughly the same rate for decades or centuries, but now is the first time in Western history when people can discuss it openly.

In a 2004 FREE INQUIRY editorial (URL at the tail of this post), I wrote: “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.” Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but a disturbing sign that priest sex abuse was probably occuring at some consistent level long before people started strumming guitars at Sunday Mass.

Consider also that the Servants of the Paraclete, the New Mexico-based order that sought to reform pederast priests, was founded in response to what was already quietly considered a serious problem by church hierarchs … way back circa 1947.

Finally, let’s consult a really exotic source: popular Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, starting in Europe soon after the Reformation. If sex abuse was going on but discussion of it was being repressed, its twisted echoes in anti-Catholic mythmaking may be the only tracks it leaves in the record. (Recall that accusations of priest sex abuse of young boys were often dismissed as anti-Catholic propaganda until the 90s, when middle America learned to its horror how many of those accusations were true.) In centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda, some of the most persistent themes have been priests sexually abusing male and female children, priests and prelates having mistresses (a theme the current president of Paraguay knows something about), and priests taking sexual advantage of nuns. It’s an inexact measure at best, but the persistence of these themes may suggest that they were sometimes rooted in truth, and that this was the case not for years, or decades, but rather for centuries.

So let’s think about the future. Despite the shame, the ruinous cost of lawsuits, and the rhetoric of reform, if priestly sex abuse has been going on at more-or-less consistent levels for centuries—if the only real change is that nowadays society will talk about it—what are the odds that its incidence will decline sharply, or in any enduring way, tomorrow?

This is just my personal surmise, but I suspect that priestly sex abuse is inevitable whenever human males are subjected to the deeply unnatural expectation of celibacy and placed in positions of authority that involve frequent close contact with children and families. I suspect that such abuse went on in the 1670s, and the 1770s, and the 1870s … and for that matter the 1930s … much as we now know it did in the 1970s. And I suspect that it will continue to go on in the future, despite the best efforts of a great many very sincere people to stamp it out.

To my mind, ending priestly celibacy would probably do more than anything else to curb the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. Though even that won’t likely end sex abuse among priests altogether: as the examples of prominent televangelists in the Protestant tradition make clear, even being married is no sure protection against members of the clergy using their positions to facilitate adulterous liaisons with consenting adults of either gender.