Pope Francis: “Stop Using Church as Sexual Abuse Scapegoat”

Pope Francis has now once again (though to judge by the so far sparse coverage, you’d think he’d never said or done anything before) expressed his abhorrence of clerical sex abuse. Previous popes—indeed most senior clergy—are normally too reticent, however, to do what he has now done as well, that is to say, he has defended the Catholic Church’s record on tackling the sexual abuse of children by priests, by declaring what is now the simple truth: that “no one else has done more” than the Church to root out pedophilia.

The Catholic Church, he said in an interview with Corriere della Sera published March 5, “is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked. The statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are shocking, but they also clearly show that the great majority of abuses are carried out in family or neighborhood environments.”

He’s not in fact the first pope to point out that child sex abuse is a problem for society as a whole, and not just for the Church. Pope Benedict, having acknowledged that clerical sexual abuse has “profoundly wounded people in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime,” was quoted by Dr Pravin Thevathasan, in his booklet The Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis (CTS, 2010), as saying that “‘the crimes of priests, while reprehensible, should be seen in the context of the times in which these events took place.’ Citing the rise of child pornography and sexual tourism, he concludes that moral standards in society at large have broken down.”

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We are not the only ones, Benedict XVI was rightly saying then, and Pope Francis is in effect saying now. This does not mean that the Pope is saying that we don’t have a real problem: just one priest child abuser would be a scandal. But this is principally, tragically (and to me incomprehensibly) a major problem for society as a whole. The percentage of priests accused of this unspeakable crime is in fact lower than that of males in the population at large. It ought to be a lot lower than it is: it ought to be non-existent. But as long as the Church is singled out in the scandalous way it was recently by the UN as the major sex abuse scapegoat, so long will a profound problem for society at large not be taken seriously.

I will of course (as I know from weary experience) be intemperately attacked for this post whatever I say. All the same, let’s be rid early on of the nonsense that this Pope doesn’t take clerical sex abuse seriously. He said in the interview that the abuse cases “are terrible because they leave very deep wounds.” Pope Francis praised his predecessor Benedict XVI—the first pope to apologize directly to abuse victims—saying he had been “very courageous and opened up a path” to changing the Church’s attitude towards predatory priests. Francis himself has said that Catholics should feel “shame” for such abuse. In December he created a commission to investigate sex crimes, enforce prevention and concentrate on care for victims. According to Cardinal Seán O’Malley, whose particular concern the new commission will be, the Vatican’s focus so far had been on legal procedures. The new body, he said, would represent a more pastoral approach. The cardinal said the commission would study a number of areas, including programs to educate pastoral workers in signs of abuse, psychological testing and other ways of screening candidates for the priesthood, and also, and not least, the Church’s “cooperation with the civil authorities, the reporting of crimes.”

Whatever was the case 25 years ago (on which the UN’s intemperate attack seems largely based) the Church has learned its lessons and has acted on them, unlike many other institutions in modern society in which the same problem (with its attendant cover-ups) is still endemic. The facts are clear enough: but the media, and institutionally Left-wing organizations like the UN, refuse to acknowledge this, or even indeed that this is a problem for our whole society. This is now a long-standing problem for us. “When,” asked the Catholic blog La Salette Journey four years ago, “will the media acknowledge that the sexual abuse of children is not a ‘Catholic problem’?” The fact is, suggests the writer, Paul Anthony Melanson, that “the media are not so much concerned with the welfare of children as they are with unfairly portraying the abuse of children as a ‘crisis in the Church.’”

For example, the American state school system has a considerably higher rate of sexual abuse than the Catholic Church: according to a report prepared for the US Department of Education entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, “9.6 percent of all students in grades 8 to 11 report … educator sexual misconduct that was unwanted.” This report was virtually ignored by the media.

Around the same time, an article by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times reported that the New York state legislature was addressing the fact that child abuse was not only a problem for the Church, but for the whole of society. Should it be possible, asked Dwyer “to sue the city of New York for sexual abuse by public school teachers that happened decades ago? How about doctors or hospital attendants? Police officers? Welfare workers? Playground attendants? … there is little evidence to show there is more sexual abuse among Catholic priests than among clergy from other denominations, or, for that matter, among people from other walks of life.”

There is, indeed, almost certainly less. Dr Thevathasan is not inclined to deploy this fact to get the Church off the hook. As he concludes his booklet: “It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large. We are called by our Holy Father [Pope Benedict] to enter a period of purification and repentance.” But as he also says: “One of the immense dangers of focusing unduly on clergy abuse is that we might fail to protect vulnerable children in the wider society.”

That is what being a scapegoat means. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest of Israel took two goats: one of them was to be the “Azazel” scapegoat, who was to be sent away into the wilderness. The High Priest confessed the sins of the Israelites to Yahweh placing them figuratively on the head of the scapegoat, who then “took them away” never to be seen again. The Church has been designated to bear the sins of our culture: and that indicates the nature not only of an important part of our problem as a Church but more importantly a vital part of society’s sex abuse crisis too. The trouble with scapegoats is that they are designed to make society feel better about itself without actually addressing its problems. As Pope Francis says, “the great majority of abuses are carried out in family or neighborhood environments.” And that’s the real difficulty which needs urgently to be addressed. But will it be?

 Editor’s note: This column first appeared March 7, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: AP / Domenico Stinellis)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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