A startling sexual abuse scandal recently broke out in Great Britain. The villain was the late Sir Jimmy Savile, a celebrated (if talent-free) BBC disc jockey and children’s TV-show host who, it turns out, serially abused young women for four decades—perhaps as many as a thousand girls, according to investigators from Scotland Yard, one of the fourteen police jurisdictions digging into his crimes. Yet Savile’s demonic behavior, according to Mark Steyn, made a chilling kind of sense, given our cultural moment:
For an ice-cold loner of limited social skills, Savile networked very efficiently. If celebrity is being famous for being famous, he took it to the next reductio: He was celebrated for being celebrated, a friend of policemen and politicians. . . . There’s a particularly cringe-worthy photo from the Highland Games of the Prince of Wales beaming with delight as he spots his pal approaching. His Royal Highness is wearing a kilt, Sir Jimmy a tartan version of his trademark tracksuit. What 12-year-old staggering from the dressing room would want to take on a confidant of palace and police?
Wherever he is now, I doubt the yodeling grotesque cares about his exposure. It seems to me he was a man who lived principally for sex—prodigious amounts of anonymous, aberrant sex—and he concluded very rationally that contemporary celebrity in an infantilized culture was the perfect cover.
As police investigations into this predatory goon intensified, another controversy emerged: What did the BBC know about Sir Jimmy Savile, sexual abuser, and when did it know it? The current Director General of the BBC, testifying before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, had this to say about one of his network’s former stars and his crimes:
So far as I have been able to tell, Mr. Savile prosecuted his disgusting activities in a manner that was very successfully and skillfully concealed. Experts in pedophile behavior have pointed out that this is often the case. . . . People build long-range plans to put them in contact with their targets. These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with.
Now imagine what the New York Times (and indeed every other newspaper in America) would have written in 2002, or since, if an American bishop had said that about a serial sex abuser in his presbyterate.
While the Savile case was breaking, reports of large-scale sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops were being released by court order. Those crimes, plus the extensive (if largely ignored) research on sexual abuse in U.S. public schools, plus heart-rending accounts of children sold into sex slavery around the world, make clear that sexual assault on the young is a universal plague, not a disorder peculiar to any profession or institution.
That hard fact does not in any way excuse clerical sexual predation; nor do the facts about this plague absolve bishops who were malfeasant in their responsibilities as shepherds, or who trusted to psychology more than moral theology in making their decisions. But the facts—and the selective way they are dealt with in too much of the mainstream media—do suggest that the story line declaring the Catholic Church a uniquely perverse institution is a lie; those who perpetrate it are either ignorant bigots, or people with agendas other than the protection of young people, or both.
The Church, however, must always hold itself to a stricter standard. That is why the failure to make a full public accounting of the depredations of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, is a grave mistake on the part of both the Legion and the Holy See—as is the failure of both the Legion and the Vatican to ask a very hard question: Is the community Maciel founded, and manipulated to facilitate his crimes, a work of God? No one can or should doubt that individual Legionary vocations to the priesthood are gifts of God; the fruits of those vocations testify to their authenticity. But the Legion itself? Surely a religious community, and the Holy See, should be more self-critical and transparent than the BBC.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.