The Privilege of Predators: Church Sexual Abuse And Society’s Deference to Religion

August 15, 2018

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Yesterday a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was released, detailing credible accusations of sexual abuse against over 300 priests in just six dioceses. Over 1,000 child victims were identified.

The report can be found here.

Read it. If you can stomach it, read all 1,356 pages. You probably can’t, and I couldn’t. Page after page of reports of vile sexual abuse on teenage and pre-teenage boys and girls is not easy reading. But at the very least, read the introduction.

The report is damning to say the very least:

Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

As the report notes, the overwhelming majority of these crimes occurred outside of the statute of limitations, and so cannot be prosecuted. The priests will never face legal consequences for their abuse.

The victims will never receive whatever small amount of justice and closure a prosecution could provide. But it also acknowledges that, despite changes purportedly implemented by the Catholic Church at various levels of its hierarchy, the abuse is an ongoing crisis.

While the reports against individual priests shock the conscience, the descriptions of institutional knowledge, cover-ups, and complicity are perhaps more despicable.

“While each church district had its idiosyncrasies,” writes the Grand Jury, “the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal.’”

FBI agents who testified to the Grand Jury “identified a series of practices that regularly appeared, in various configurations, in the diocesan files they had analyzed. It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth.

Children who reported abuse were belittled and disbelieved. Incontrovertible evidence was ignored. Rapist priests were treated with compassion and understanding by their employer, left in place to continue violating children, or moved to new hunting grounds without any warning given to the next crop of potential prey. Teenage victims were accused of seducing their abusers, the sort of blame shifting that is common amongst pedophiles and sex offenders.

The Church hierarchy was (and is?) rotten to the core. “[D]espite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” states the report. The betrayal of trust in this situation cannot be overstated. Families and individuals looked to the church for solace and salvation. Instead, the rape of their children was swept under the carpet as an inconvenient occurrence that threatened the reputation and assets of the organization. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.

This report, with its hundreds of rapist priests, and its over 1000 victims, details the horrors that took place in just one state out of fifty.

There’s nothing to suggest that this situation is any different in the 49 other states of the Union, or indeed in any other country, as investigations such as those in Ireland and Australia have shown.

What is even more disturbing is that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Evangelicals, and Presbyterians have had their own scandals and allegations of cover ups. And this is by no means limited to Christianity. Trials are ongoing in the United Kingdom regarding ‘grooming gangs,’ and the role of Islamic fundamentalism in them, and there are reports of significant underreporting of child sex abuse in American Orthodox Jewish communities.

Our society is rife with sexual abuse. No one can read the news and be unaware of the #MeToo movement. Men in power, religious or not, use that power to prey upon and sexually exploit others. But religion can serve to facilitate such abuse, especially that of children, due to the position of trust that it fosters among its followers.

Priests, we are told, are good people. Men of God. They would not abuse children, and they wouldn’t lie about it. They are responsible for our souls and our spiritual wellbeing.

This trust from the families provides easy access to children, as can be seen throughout the report. For example, in 1964, parents allowed teenage girls to go on an unsupervised car trip with a priest, who then molested them. “Julianne’s family was comfortable with the trip since Fromholzer was a trusted priest. Fromholzer groped the girls as he encouraged them to take turns sitting next to him.”

And not only does the religious dynamic provide opportunities for abusers, the privileged position our society grants to religion enables the cover-ups of these predators. Some states grant the same privilege to conversations with religious officials as they do to conversations with therapists and spouses.

Religious organizations’ finances, including monies used to settle lawsuits regarding abuse, are shrouded in secrecy, and official investigation is hampered by congressional oversight. Churches, in many areas regarding their internal matters, are perceived to be above the law, through the doctrine of the ministerial exemption.

So read the report. Remember the victims. For many of them, especially those whose lives have been tragically cut short by the abuse, there will be no justice. But let’s work to ensure that child predators cannot hide behind legal and societal privilege simply because they claim to speak for God. The internal workings of religious groups must be as open to investigation as those of other groups. Without this, these horror stories will continue.