This is one of the cases that pushes so many of us from being mere atheists into becoming angry atheists. It’s a case of unadulterated religious abuse — the kind that wouldn’t be possible if we taught our children critical thinking instead of unsubstantiated faith and unthinking respect for authority. This is the kind of thing that lends credence to the argument that “religion poisons everything.”
Like so many others before him, and doubtless many more to come, Belfast priest James Martin Donaghy has been convicted of sexual assault — a total of seventeen offenses against three boys, though he has since admitted to the existence of other victims. These were boys he found and groomed through his work as a parish priest. Tragic, infuriating, but hardly unusual.
The devil, you might say, is in the details.
In one particular case, prosecutor Ken McMahon revealed to the court, Donaghy encountered a particular seven-year-old boy preparing for his upcoming First Confession and First Communion. The child expressed concern about the teaching on Purgatory — the place where those not destined for eternal torment in Hell must undergo a torturous period of purification to be fit for entry into Heaven. He was distressed to think that his deceased grandfather might be in that place, suffering.
Donaghy convinced the child to perform sexual acts on him by telling him the encounters would “get his grandfather into heaven” — and, naturally, “if he told anyone, it would not work.”
The child went along with the plan, but he clearly experienced misgivings; a few days later, he came to confession to speak to a priest about the experience. He found his abuser on the other side of the confessional screen. How trapped the poor boy must have felt! If he turned to his family, though, he might be putting his grandfather’s soul back in torment.
There are all kinds of ways to manipulate children into tolerating and accepting their own exploitation, and abusers are often fiendishly creative. We can’t know exactly what went on in the mind of this unnamed child or hundreds of others who suffered at the hands of pedophile priests.
But this particular story is notable because of the particular way the priest manipulated his young victim. Sadly, it fits neatly into the framework of Roman Catholicism as it’s too often lived and taught, particularly in strict Catholic communities (like, for instance, late-twentieth-century Belfast).
After all, if acts of penance, prayer, fasting, and charitable giving can get Grandpa out of purgatory more quickly (as the Church has always taught), why not sex acts the priest deems pleasing? Don’t forget, a small child has yet to absorb the Church’s negativity on sexual matters; he may not grasp much about human sexuality at all and would not understand that the Church classifies this sort of act as a sin. Thus, it’s hard to see the abuse for what it really is. There are all kinds of weird, unnatural things people do to try to get Grandpa into heaven. (Try kneeling on a hard floor saying the rosary sometime if you don’t believe me.)
Sure, it’s a bit different from some of the more mundane ways we help Grandpa. It might be uncomfortable, painful, scary… but this is a religion built on the idea that Jesus suffered and died as a sacrifice for your salvation. Enduring abuse for the sake of the hereafter fits the underlying logic. In fact, the extra burden makes you special. Catholic children hear plenty of stories of the pain and privation suffered by history’s saints and martyrs, the very best Catholics and also the ones most loved by God. If God has given you the chance to be like those saints, taking on a bit of extra suffering for the sake of a beloved relative, how can you really say no?
Add to that the unquestioned authority of Catholic priests, who say a lot of frankly outlandish things that children are taught to believe absolutely. Add, too, the cultural and historical circumstances of the time. Diversity and pluralism were not exactly community buzzwords at the time; a Northern Irish child might never be exposed to any possible alternative to the Catholic/Protestant binary. Disbelieving a priest might not even occur to a child in this environment as a possibility. It would be like deciding dogs were fairy-tale creatures even though your family had worked for generations breeding terriers.
Religious pedophilia is a perfect storm.
Many Catholics will complain about the focus we place on pedophile priests, especially when we don’t spotlight pedophile teachers or soccer coaches or pediatricians in the same way. There are plenty of reasons for the distinction.
But surely one of them has to be the unique nature of the religious manipulation that takes place, where children are taught to accept authority, embrace redemptive suffering, and unquestioningly obey commands that don’t make a lot of sense when they’re issued in the name of God.
It’s what makes the difference between a harmless worldview that provides comfort to the afflicted and a manipulative belief system that rationalizes abuse and poisons lives.