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  Home :: Pre July 2006 :: The Uses of Clerical Scandal
The Uses of Clerical Scandal

Clericalabuse scandal has wrought great damage upon American churches, and above all uponthe Catholic Church, which suffered blows to its morale and prestige far moreserious than its large pecuniary losses.

Whenthe Pope visited the United States last fall, the media indulged in a predictablyfrenzied examination of the general state of “crisis” in the AmericanCatholic Church. Oddly, though, few reporters devoted space to what only a fewyears previously would have been described as the Church’s greatest crisis:the spate of cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Thoughsuch cases continue to appear, some very serious (and often demonstrating a grievousinsensitivity on the part of diocesan authorities and their lawyers), it no longerseems plausible to speak of a general collapse of clerical discipline and celibacy,or of a systematic cover-up by Catholic bishops. Clerical sex abuse is today mostoften seen as a lamentable but rare occurrence.

Some anticlerical Catholicshad hopes that the abuse scandals might be the detonator that would bring downthe whole clerical system, comparable to the sexual and financial misdeeds thatled to the Protestant Reformation. But such historical parallels now seem wildlyexaggerated; we are by no means standing at a new Wittenberg.

In fact, we arenow sufficiently removed from the perception of an “abuse crisis” thatreached its height in 1992-93 to place it in its broader context. What we findis a sobering lesson on the gap between the reality of a social problem and theways in which it is presented in public discourse. Moreover, the main culpritsin misrepresenting this issue as a specifically Catholic problem were Catholicactivists themselves, generally working in what they considered to be the bestinterests of the Church.

It seems hard to remember now that the topic of clericalsex abuse was regarded as untouchable before about 1985 and the massive attentiondevoted to a Louisiana priest named Gilbert Gauthe. The Gauthe affair set thepattern for dozens of later scandals: a priest who molested children in one parishwas repeatedly reassigned after his predilections became known, without warningthe new parish of potential danger. The attitude of Catholic authorities to victimsand parents in these cases tended to be arrogant and even hostile. Incidents ofthis sort multiplied over the next decade and culminated in 1992 with the exposureof a serial pedophile named James Porter, who had molested dozens of childrenin his southern Massachusetts parishes in the 1960s. Each new scandal fueled litigationand media reports, which in turn fueled expectations of further cases. A senseof pervasive corruption within the Church was reinforced by the appalling (andquite unfounded) charge that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had molesteda seminarian in the 1970s. The endlessly repeated orthodoxy was that Gauthe andPorter were far from isolated individuals. Perhaps 6 percent of Catholic clergywere “pedophiles,” some six thousand priests in the U.S. alone.

Throughoutthe late 1980s and early 1990s, commentators often employed the inaccurate term“pedophile priest.” “Priest” made the problem look like thepreserve of Catholics, and presumably the direct consequence of celibacy, thoughthe misbehavior was distributed across the ecclesiastical spectrum. And while“pedophiles” are men who molest prepubescent children, the vast majorityof sexually erring priests were in liaisons with teenagers or young adults. Whiletheir acts were sinful and often illegal, such behavior does not typically exhibitthe more extreme predatory and compulsive character of pedophilia.

As for thenumbers cited in these years, most derive from the kind of urban legend that transformsa vague estimate of something into a firm statistic for something completely different.“Six percent” apparently mutated from a working guess for the numberof Catholic clergy with pedophile inclinations, not practice. (Similar estimateshave been proposed for noncelibate Protestant clergy.) The most solid assessmentof clerical sexual problems is found in the Chicago study, commissioned by CardinalBernardin, that examined the personnel files of all 2,252 priests who had servedin the archdiocese between 1951 and 1991. Between 1963 and 1991, fifty-seven priestshad been accused of sexual abuse, in addition to two visiting clerics. The commissionreviewed all charges, not by the standard of criminal cases (which insists onproof beyond a reasonable doubt), but on the less stringent civil criterion ofthe preponderance of evidence, including legally inadmissible hearsay. Eighteencases were judged not to involve sexual misconduct, leaving charges against forty-onepriests, or about 1.8 percent of clergy. Only one instance probably involved true“pedophilia,” the sexual molestation of small children.

Before takingeven these modest figures as secure, it should be noted that admissible evidencewould have permitted convictions against no more than a handful of the supposedmalefactors. The number of Catholic priests convicted of criminal sexual actsis very small, and represents a minuscule proportion of the hundreds of thousandsof the men who have served as priests.

If clerical sexual misbehavior is uncommon(and pedophilia extremely rare), how did Gauthe and Porter come to be regardedas typical of Catholic priests? It is tempting to blame the media, and indeednewspapers and television indulged wholeheartedly in anti-Catholic polemics. Themedia would not have dared to offend American Catholics, however, if the pathhad not been blazed by Catholic sources themselves.

Theissue of clerical abuse emerged full-blown in a June 1985 issue of the NationalCatholic Reporter, the widely quoted source for countless later accounts and thedirect origin of the phrase “pedophile priest.” Since then, the paperhas been a continuing vehicle for coverage of the abuse issue and often givenplatforms to such reformers as Jason Berry, A. W. Richard Sipe, Eugene Kennedy,and Andrew Greeley, the group of commentators and experts who became the media’sfavorite interpreters of the burgeoning crisis.

The National Catholic Reportertook up the issue so vigorously for praiseworthy reasons, seeking to expose whatthe paper regarded as a crying abuse of power by the Church, in which ecclesiasticalself-protection took priority over the interests of victims and their families.But clerical abuse served the purpose of those for whom a general “crisis”showed the severity of problems within the Church. The exploding concern withclerical abuse in 1986 and 1987 coincided with a “Catholic civil war”in which dissidents fought the Church hierarchy over such issues as sexual ethics,academic freedom, and the role of women. Not all the commentators shared the wholereformist agenda, and Greeley remains a defender of clerical celibacy, but thecentrality of the abuse theme is evident in their books and articles.

Of course6 percent of priests are pedophiles, the Catholic reformers argued, and who knowshow many more are involved with teenagers. What else can we expect from a Churchthat keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual immaturity, that denies thespiritual gifts of women, that preserves an authoritarian system? The abuse issueillustrates (the indictment continued) the secretive workings of the hierarchy,the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy. For feminists,epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their theories would predict of a patriarchalinstitution that permits unchecked sexual exploitation.

From this perspective,the answers to abuse are obvious: the ordination of women, the end of mandatorycelibacy, the democratization of traditional hierarchies, and perhaps the reformof distinctive institutions like confession (which can offer the predatory priestthe opportunity to identify and seduce his victims). Nothing will suffice shortof the creation of an authentically American Catholic church. As so often in thepast, a sexually rooted anticlerical polemic is used to attack the Church. Inthe last two years, clerical abuse scandals have been employed in precisely thisway to undermine the legal and political position of the Church in such stronglyCatholic nations as Ireland and Austria.

Due notice should also be paid tothe traditionalist and conservative groups that publicized the pedophile issueand exaggerated its severity in order to counter what they regarded as homosexualsubversion of the Church. It was the traditionalists in 1989 and 1990 who organizeddemonstrations at national gatherings of Catholic bishops and focused media attentionon the sins of the Church — hoping to discredit liberal and modernist prelates.For both the ecclesiastical left and right, pedophile charges found audiencespredisposed to take up an issue that could be used to promote specific policyagendas. It was the enormous utility of clergy abuse that ensured the absenceof a pro-Church reaction or even criticism of the often outrageous exaggerationsof the problem.

If Catholic factional conflicts encouraged the sensationalistictreatment of priestly misdeeds, so did the Church’s organizational structure.Compared to other American denominations, the Catholic Church produced a disproportionatelyhigh level of reported scandals, for, unlike most of its Protestant counterparts,the Catholic Church is a hierarchical organization with parish clergy subordinateto episcopal authorities who observe and record their behavior. Each Catholicpriest has a diocesan dossier that records official complaints — and suchdossiers have ironically provided the material for many legal actions. Lawsuitsagainst the Catholic Church can follow established paper trails to ensure largefinancial judgments against a whole diocese. The typically more decentralizedand congregational polity of Protestant churches makes them less attractive targets.In large measure, this is why the “pedophile pastor” rarely appearsin the demonology of television talk-shows and why celibacy occupies center stagein so many analyses of priestly depredations.

Duringthe 1970s and 1980s, psychological values and assumptions permeated the religiousworld no less than the secular culture, often through the vehicle of self-helpand recovery movements. But an intellectual chasm separates the assumptions oftraditional churches from those of mainstream therapy and psychology. The medicalizationof wrongdoing sharply circumscribes the areas in which clergy can appropriatelyexercise their professional jurisdiction, and this loss of acknowledged expertiseto therapists and medical authorities at once symbolizes and accelerates a substantialdecline in the professional status of priests and ministers.

And yet, not onlywere the clerical abuse scandals generally interpreted according to therapeuticviews and policies, but the churches themselves adopted the rhetoric of the therapists.When a crisis was acknowledged in the early 1990s, most statements by the Catholichierarchy accepted the notion of the compulsive and irreformable nature of adultsexual activity with children and admitted the radical tenet that implicated priestsshould never be restored to parish ministry. They agreed that child victims urgentlyrequired therapy from secular psychologists and counselors, itself a rejectionof the means of healing offered by the Church. Catholic authorities accepted withoutqualms the expansive claims made by therapists about the massive extent and life-longconsequences of sexual abuse — both ideas that are in realityopen to seriouschallenge.

The clerical abuse scandal wrought great damage upon American churches,and above all upon the Catholic Church, which suffered blows to its morale andprestige far more serious than its large pecuniary losses. Can anything positivebe drawn from this whole mess? Chances of avoiding repetition seem slight: itis probably too much to ask that the news media will in future exercise cautionbefore making wild generalizations indulging ancient religious stereotypes. Meanwhile,the relationship between clergy and laity has been severely tested, and it willbe many years before priests are able to associate with young people on anythinglike the free and easy terms that provided opportunities for abuse. Father Portercasts a long shadow.

Yet other more favorable images emerge from the crisis,including the juries who were able to acquit some falsely accused priests andto reject demands for large financial damages. But two individuals particularlydeserve commemoration. One was Stephen Cook, the former seminarian who reportedhis falsely “recovered” memories of sexual violation by Cardinal Bernardin.His charges were instantly and widely cited by the media, which face no restrictionson quoting the most extravagant allegations once they have been lodged in a civillawsuit. While many plaintiffs would have pressed their charges ruthlessly inthe hope of gaining some compromise settlement, Cook came to realize the falsityof his supposed recollections and publicly withdrew the allegations. Bernardin,who had reacted with astonishing dignity and courage, made a heroic effort toreconcile with Cook and spoke eloquently on the occasion of Cook’s deathin 1995. Suffering, manipulation, slander, and injustice thus gave rise to charity,strength, forgiveness, and love: a lesson that the oddly matched images of Bernardinand Cook should epitomize many years after the memory of the abusive clergy haspassed into oblivion.


Jenkins, Philip. “The Uses of Clerical Scandal.” FirstThings 60 (February 1996): 13-16.

Reprinted with permission of FIRST THINGS:A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religionand Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribeto FIRST THINGS call 1-800-783-4903.


PhilipJenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies atPennsylvania State University. He is the author, most recently, of TheNew Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (2003) and TheNext Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002).

Copyright© 1996 FIRST THINGS  

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia