Ethics & Public Policy Center

Church Gets an Unfair Rap

Published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 4, 2010



Whether the victim is a kidnapped sex slave in Thailand, a trafficked child camel jockey in the Persian Gulf states, or a fifth grader assaulted in an American elementary school, the fact that children and young people throughout the world are regularly subjected to sexual and physical abuse is a horror that ought to shock the conscience of humanity.

In the United States alone, there are reportedly tens of millions of victims of childhood sexual abuse. In the years between 1991 and 2000, according to Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Charol Shakeshaft, 290,000 students were sexually abused in American public schools. Worse yet, studies indicate that 40 percent to 60 percent of sexual abuse takes place within families – often at the hands of second husbands or live-in boyfriends.

Throughout the world, children seem to be the principal victims of lawlessness, wanton cruelty, the sexual revolution, and the hookup culture that treats sex as a contact sport: one in which everyone, of any age, is a potential player.

Yet amid this global squalor, one institution has begun to come to grips with its past failures to protect the young people in its care. One institution has acknowledged its grave failures in the past. One institution has brought perpetrators of abuse to book. That institution is the Catholic Church.

Far more than the public schools, far more than the teachers’ unions, far more than other organizations that regularly work with young people, and far more than countries that turn a blind eye on sex trafficking and childhood prostitution, the Catholic Church has addressed what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “filth” in its own house.

Catholicism has cleaned house in America, where the church is likely the country’s safest environment for young people today (there were six credible cases of abuse reported in 2009: six too many, but remarkably low in a community of some 68 million members). Now, the church has begun to scour the Augean stables of Irish Catholicism. A March 20 letter to Irish Catholics from Benedict unsparingly condemned abusers and sharply rebuked bishops who failed to take these problems in hand decades ago and who covered up abuse; no one should doubt that a major shake-up of Catholic leadership in Ireland is coming.

Yet the global story line of the last several weeks is that the Catholic Church is an ongoing global criminal conspiracy of sexual abusers and their enablers, centered in the Vatican.

That the church has too often failed to address past problems of abusive clergy has been frankly admitted by everyone from Popes John Paul II and Benedict to the U.S. bishops in 2002. In 2001, the Vatican put in place new measures that enabled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI) to deal more swiftly and decisively with clerical abusers. Those procedures are fully operational, and Benedict is determined to make them work – and to change any remaining sectors of the church that resist dealing with the church’s “filth.”

Recent reporting on Catholic sexual-abuse problems, however, has frequently been factually inaccurate and irresponsible.

It is charged that the church threatens whistle-blowers with excommunication; that is not true.

Prominent news organizations report that Cardinal Ratzinger blocked sanctions against a Milwaukee priest who abused deaf children in his care; that is not true.

Contingent-fee lawyers with a direct, financial stake in abuse cases (and in bringing the Vatican’s resource within firing range of U.S. liability law) are cited as credible sources by newspapers that once knew what a disqualified source was.

Vicious editorial cartoons, some perilously reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Catholic cartooning, abound.

Meanwhile, there is precious little investigative reporting on (much less cartooning about) sexual abuse in public schools, which is demonstrably far greater than in the Catholic Church.

To be sure, the Catholic Church ought to hold itself to a higher moral standard than other similarly situated institutions. But after too long a period of denial, the Catholic Church is now at the forefront of combating the sexual abuse of the young in the United States. And no one in the church has done more, over the last decade, to compel the sclerotic institutional culture of the Vatican to face these problems than Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

These are the facts. Thus the concern naturally arises, on this Easter, that those who continue to portray Catholicism as a global conspiracy of sexual predators are indulging in the last acceptable prejudice, anti-Catholicism, while aiming at nothing less than the destruction of the Catholic Church’s credibility as a global moral teacher.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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