Does Religion (and Not Just Catholicism) Produce More Than Its Fair Share of Child Abusers?

I wanted to headline this post “Child Sexual Abuse: In Defense of the Catholic Church,” but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I suppose the thought of being seen as the atheist version of Bill F. Donohue (I know that F. isn’t his middle initial, but I like to imagine that it is) didn’t exactly sound appealing.

But to my point: Consider this story:

Yeshiva University chancellor Norman Lamm resigned Monday amidst growing pressure over allegations of sexual abuse at Yeshiva University High School stretching back decades, a scandal that was first reported by the Forward in December. In a letter announcing his resignation, Lamm apologized for his failure to go to police with reports of sexual abuse against high school students.

But Kevin Mulhearn, an attorney representing 22 men allegedly abused at YUHS between 1971 and 1989, said that the apology did not go far enough.

“Rabbi Lamm’s mea culpa, in admitting that he responded inappropriately to reports of sexual abuse at YUHS, is a positive first step, but only a first step,” Mulhearn told the Forward. “The conspiracy of silence at Y.U. involves many high-level administrators, not just Rabbi Lamm. It is the institution as a whole, not just one man, which needs to make amends.”

Do you know how many non-Catholic-Church stories there are exactly like that one — self-styled holy men who molest children, and other self-styled holy men who shield the abusers from judicial consequences? Volumes. In the world of Judaism alone, news reports of child abuse are so numerous that the admirably tenacious and prolific writer Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs the Failed Messiah blog, has a hard time keeping up.

There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church is up to its gilded spires in child abuse. I’m halfway through Pulitzer Prize winner Michael D’Antonio‘s Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, and I have to put the book down every five to ten pages pages when I can no longer stomach either the descriptions of abuse, or the hypocrisy (or both). To say that I have no love for the institution that does this and this and this is to say that the Sahara is sometimes sandy.

But for the past six months, I’ve been paying very close attention, every day, to reports of sex crimes by clergy — on account of my blog, Moral Compass, where I chronicle the often mind-blowing misdeeds of the faithful. And sometimes I almost feel sorry for the Catholic Church, because it’s beginning to seem to me that the abuse is widespread throughout the world of religion (and beyond). And I think it isn’t just selective perception or confirmation bias.

I tag my Moral Compass blog posts with the main perpetrators’ religion. Now, when I click the “Protestantism” tag, I get roughly as many sex-abuse-related posts as when I click the “Catholicism” tag.

“Judaism” and “Islam” yield fewer results, but that’s not hard to explain. Judaism doesn’t have nearly as many followers as Christianity (there are about 6.7 million Jews in the United States, versus roughly 245 million Christians).

The number of Muslims in the U.S. — from where I get most of my news — is only around three million. In majority-Muslim countries, sex taboos are so pervasive that I’m willing to bet that most abuse cases, if they come to light at all, are never reported in the media. Plus, remember that we’re talking about a religion whose prophet bedded a nine-year-old girl.

(Then again, when Muslims’ sex crimes against children do come to the fore, they are often characterized by a dizzying viciousness. You may need to steady yourself while reading what Saudi preacher Fayhan al-Ghamdi did to his own five-year-old daughter.)

Catholic apologists rightfully don’t get any traction when they protest that the sexual abuse of children is also rife in other quarters. It’s a no-win assertion for them: they get accused of changing the topic, and of deflecting blame, or shouted down with the true-enough response that the other-people-do-it-too defense is juvenile, unserious, and disgusting.

Still, in all fairness, they have a point. I don’t want to give them an inch of forgiveness or a soupçon of absolution, but we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the reality that religion in general is often a child-abuse breeding ground (though, of course, not exclusively so).

It has to do, I think, with a confluence of factors that are wrapped up in the nature of clergydom. Off the top of my head:

  • A patriarchal worldview.
  • A feeling of divine empowerment (“I can do anything; God is with me”).
  • Sexual repression.
  • The belief that forgiveness is but a confession or a prayer away.
  • Access to children who accept authority and expect instruction.
  • The illogical nature of faith, which, to a child, perhaps makes sexual requests no more bizarre or suspect than baptisms or religious circumcisions, or any number of other out-there rituals.
  • The unquestioning trust of the flock in its clergy.
  • Congregants’ aversion to learning the distasteful truth about a religious figurehead.
  • The attendant reluctance to go to the police / press charges / start a scandal (“Our church also does so much good”).

Due to the top-down structure of the Catholic Church, that institution does still take the cake. No other religion has a remotely similar world-wide hierarchy where robed evildoers can be shuffled to different parts of the country or the world with near-impunity. And no other religion has such copious funds, the better to lobby legislatures, pay for a phalanx of slick defense lawyers, and settle abuse cases out of court.

But it should be clear that child rapists come in all kinds of guises, and while we’d do well to keep a weary eye on the Catholic Church, true vigilance doesn’t take a break around morality peddlers of any stripe.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.