A public service announcement regarding a certain religious organization

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of the book.

It is tempting, but probably pointless, to begin the last section of this chapter by spinning a hypothetical story about a hypothetical religious organization with a long history of covering up and enabling child sexual abuse. Everyone would instantly know who I was really talking about: the Catholic Church.

Yet in spite of the fact that almost everyone has heard about the scandals, I’m not sure how many people know the full details. Another excellent part of William Lobdell’s book Losing My Religion is his account of what it was like to be involved in breaking the Catholic sexual abuse scandal while he was, at the same time, in the process of converting to Catholicism. He describes how he struggled with the dissonance at first, until the scandals ultimately became a key factor in his leaving religion for good.

As a journalist who spent a long time covering the story, Lobdell became quite familiar with the details. Here’s his description of how the cover-ups typically happened:

The clergy had been trained in a hierarchical culture that valued obedience and loyalty and disdained scandal and secular interference. The priests also had been taught about the power of redemption. So when faced with a priest who had raped a boy, anyone with knowledge of the incident knew to keep quiet. The victim and his family were dealt with in a manner that would avoid scandal—sometimes they were lied to, and other times shamed or threatened into silence. If those tactics didn’t work, a secret financial settlement was offered. Never did the church officials voluntarily report the crime to civil authorities. Sometimes, they transferred the offending priest to an unsuspecting parish, relying on his word that he had repented and wouldn’t sin again. Other times, the priest was sent secretly to a Catholic treatment center, where psychiatrists and psychologists would eventually assure the priest’s bishop that the pedophile was no longer a danger to children. Then the cleric would be quietly put back in ministry [16].

Even more importantly, Lobdell recounts details that very few people may be aware of even today, thanks to the euphemistic way the media chose to cover the story:

During my time covering the Catholic sex scandal, I tried in vain to get my editors to use more accurate and graphic descriptions: “child rape” and “sodomy,” to begin with. The more descriptive words in my copy were always changed. They were considered too graphic for a family newspaper. I thought our readers were grown-up enough to handle the more precise description. Molestation or sexual abuse could refer to a child being fondled through layers of clothing. That was bad, but it didn’t compare to violent sex acts performed on children. I always thought there would be less loyalty and more outrage if the laity knew exactly what their molesting priests had done [17].

Lobdell also notes that the media had no problem being explicit about the allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor of California:

I don’t think there’s any conspiracy here; I just think that the very idea of priests sodomizing a boy on an altar until he defecates, or plunging an aspersorium, used to sprinkle holy water, into a girl’s vagina, or a little boy hiding his bloody underwear from his mother was too much for even jaded journalists to consider [18].

The bishops involved in covering up these crimes are mostly still in office; some have even been promoted [19]. One of them, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is now Pope Benedict XVI.

In one case, Ratzinger approved sending a priest into psychiatric therapy without notifying the authorities after the priest abused three boys. The priest was allowed to return to his duties within days of being sent to therapy, and went on to abuse other children [20].

In another case, Ratzinger worked to delay the defrocking of a priest who had been convicted of tying up and abusing two boys, even though in this case the priest himself was asking to be defrocked. Ratzinger signed a letter regarding the case which cited the “good of the Universal Church” as a reason to delay the decision [21].

Finally, in 2001, Ratzinger sent out a letter to every bishop in the world informing them that child sex abuse cases involving priests are subject to “pontifical secret.” That meant that anyone who turned an offending priest in to the authorities could face excommunication [22].

If you are a Catholic in spite of knowing all of this, I have one simple question for you: what would you think if any other organization behaved this way? If a smaller, more recently founded religious organization acted this way, say the Unification Church (“Moonies”), I suspect it would be all the evidence most people would need to conclude that the organization was a dangerous cult. Or, heck, as Greta Christina once asked, if your softball league acted that way, would you still be a member? If your children’s school acted that way, would you keep sending them? [23]

If you are Catholic, but your answer to those last two questions is “no,” then you should leave your church. Get out. Just go. If you’re not ready to give up on Christianity, then find a nice Episcopalian church or something. Whatever you get out of being Catholic, can’t be that hard to find in another religious organization. Certainly not hard enough to justify continuing to support an organization with a history of enabling child rape.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I liked this section a lot. That is all.

  • MNb

    Good segment. I have only one minor quibble. It needs a lot of stretching, but I can think of a sort of defense: those catholic authorities didn’t know better, at least they tried something, times were different with all the taboos on sex. Or something.
    The RCC is worse. It has actively kidnapped babies in at least three countries: USA, Spain and Australia.

    The Guardian, 19 sept 2009
    The Telegraph, 25 july 2011
    Mail Online 16 oct 2011
    NY Daily News 12 apr 2012

    The RCC is guilty of organized crime.

  • Anna Thompson

    I appreciate this article.

    However, coming from the _leadership_ of *Protestant* “Ministry”, I experienced a full-out shunning for telling 2 elder and 2 pastors of a serial gang rapist. The guy was allowed to work in the community with 5th grade girls, and, he’s currently working at a theological seminary. It honestly is just as sick in Protestantism (and I experienced something INTENSE as an adult, but also much abuse as a child).

    Oh, there’s heirarchy. Oh, there are secrets! The whole thing you wrote can be word-for-word for what I saw.

    I think …that if ….christianity… is to “survive” as a tool for good, the organized structure of religion in the organized church needs to just end, completely. From there, something new can be formed based on the bible…kind of a ‘modern day 99 thesis’…. either way, just the structure of the church itself is seeming to be a harmful entity at this point in our world-history. ….i don’t know…. as someone who used to believe in jesus, I don’t see anything LIKE jesus in church—doesn’t make it for people to want to go there if they have a brain….

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      The question that must be asked AND ANSWERED is whether or not Christianity is in any way, shape or form a tool for good. Historically, this has not been so, and there is so much vile crap in the Bible, NT just as much as OT, that I’m not really sure another church based on the Bible would really do any better.

    • J

      Not all Christian groups are hierachical. The society of friends (Quakers) , for example, is not.

      Any organisation where loyalty to the hierachy is more important than justice for victims of abuse is an orginisation in trouble.

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  • J

    I agree, the details make it sound much worse. I mean, molestation is bad, but the descriptions you quote just make me cringe.

    I don’t understand how anyone can think Ratzinger could be a loving, all-knowing God’s representation on Earth. Why would God call an unrepentant pedophile-enabler? Should the priests who desecrated his altars not have been smited by now? Or smote? He was keen on that in the old days. Maybe his aim’s getting worse.

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