Sexual predation in the Catholic Church

The pope’s letter to the Irish continues the church’s long-time strategy of attending to the welfare (and self-regard) of church officials, from abusive priests up. An apology with no action in this context and for offenses this vile is about making the apologizer feel better about himself, not about the victims, just as keeping the abuse secret and passing predatory priests from parish to parish with a dose of prayer and self-reflection is about being able to pretend that they aren’t evil. As long as it goes on in that mode the church will continue to rot away from within, especially as long as church policy is to instruct priests and higherups to commit misprision of felony.

Maybe the problem is theological: if what really matters is the status of immortal souls after death, the victims are not at any special risk there and the abusers and their enablers are in good shape if they stay current with their confessions, which is more likely if they are comforted in the bosom of the church than if they are given to the cruel ministry of a penitentiary. I don’t recall anyone putting that theory forward, but there it is. If your principal reality is something no-one has ever checked out or reported back from, all sorts of sick stuff is possible.

Still, the church exists in our world, and what most surprises me about the whole ghastly history to this point is how the princes of a two-millenium-old and generally pretty successful enterprise could go on screwing up so badly. This cancer has popped up sequentially in at least five countries; wouldn’t someone, after the  American cases were revealed and their toxicity demonstrated, wonder if there wasn’t something to get ahead of in other places?  How are the Vatican higher-ups thinking about the dog that hasn’t barked yet in Italy, France, Spain…that it’s a northern, Germanic/Celtic, thing and it doesn’t happen in Latin countries?  Or are they thinking that it’s a matter of practice, learning to more effectively suppress the facts in places where they haven’t burst forth yet [good luck with that one]?

Or are they just irrational, inept, and crazy with fear and (I hope for their sakes), guilt?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Sexual predation in the Catholic Church”

  1. I'm glad the pope has finally addressed this issue. Too bad it just sound like more of the same BS. Next thing you know he's going to want to get the kids charged, those foul temptresses that they are:

  2. … are the Vatican higher-ups thinking … that it’s a northern, Germanic/Celtic, thing and it doesn’t happen in Latin countries?

    Probably. Because that sort of thing could never happen in a Latin culture.

  3. "… are the Vatican higher-ups thinking … that it’s a northern, Germanic/Celtic, thing and it doesn’t happen in Latin countries?"

    Probably not. But looking at sexuality in abstraction of your own relationship to it is kind of impossible. And when any form of sexuality is prohibited, there won't be many, if any, wearers of a cassock that aren't abysmal personal failures. The hierarchy in the Vatican will have to be pushed to deal with this every inch of the way.

  4. I think that they're afraid to face the possibility that celibacy is the problem. Because once you come to that realization, it's only a short step to seeing that sexual repression itself is unhealthy and destructive, and can lead to immorality. That's a tough swallow given how much of Catholic Church dogma includes sexual repression.

    When you deny the reality in front of you (as the Pope is doing, victim of his own "infallibility") so that you have no causal link from something the Church has promoted (like celibacy), then there can be no reason for all these scandals other than bad coincidence. And if it's merely a bad streak of random happenings (akin to a long run of flipping coins and getting tails), there's no reason to expect the pattern to exist elsewhere.

  5. I think a large part of what the Catholic hierarchy sees is the following:

    1) The sexual predation was mostly in the years when sexual predators on children were assumed treatable (both in the church and in society at large). They aren't making that mistake anymore. (Compare the Polanski case; 6 months in jail was considered extremely harsh in the early 70's, bizarrely lenient now.)

    2) Very few of the people who insist that it's a systematic problem are not generally hostile to the church's moral standards. People who already disagree with you on your central moral issues aren't people that any of us find particularly worth listening to on details. (Compare your willingness to take advice on land use from a global warming denier.)

  6. So, isn't there now evidence that these disorder are treatable, and the story that they weren't was put forth to create hysteria with the result of masses of people on sex offender registries who don't belong there? I certainly make no argument in favor of hypocritical priests and hierarchy, but I am very unhappy to see the witch hunt against people who have never touched a child improperly, but move from addiction to porn to receiving child pornography on their computers. Then we have bad science (Butner "study")that says that means they will become child molesters. Wonder if we could get some real facts about the causes of child molesting priests and how widespread it is/was instead of all this speculation based politics? Aren't our prisons overflowing in part because of misread studies that rehabilitation doesn't work, or do I speak too broadly?

  7. anna,

    Rehabilitation GENERALLY probably works well, and the move away from rehabilitation to punishment in general crime has contributed to the huge prison population. However, "rehabilitation" for sexual orientation is not a general case; even with active cooperation, it works rarely and unreliably. (And pedophilia, like homosexuality, seems to be in many cases an orientation, even if in both cases how to act is a choice.) "Rehabilitation" for pedophilia works pretty much as reliably as "rehabilitation" for homosexuality, and unlike homosexuality, re-defining the behavior as normal and acceptable isn't a reasonable option.

  8. "…in good shape if they stay current with their confessions…" You are, if not yet quite hitting the nail on the head, at least on the same board with it. The distinctive and intrinsic moral vileness of Christianity is the notion of forgiveness. To forgive is to endorse. Today's Christians (absent, of course, some ineffectual outliers) believe themselves unaccountable and behave accordingly. We got where we are by letting people off the hook.

  9. How much of the RoCaMBLA's fervid opposition to abortion springs from fear of an altar boy shortage?

  10. I suspect that these abuses aren't exposed to the light of day because of the catch 22 nature of discipline within the hierarchy. Any confession received is top secret. Any priest that discusses a confession outside of the confessional can be defrocked. So the greater sin for the priest is to act upon the confession of a pedophile priest and move to have him brought to justice. Reassignment is seen as a "less bad" choice than either turning him or doing nothing at all.

    Celibacy is probably the root problem here. Men that are willing to take a vow of celibacy are more likely to be men who aren't attracted to women. That means a preponderance of priests who are closet homosexuals, pedophiles, or a non-sexual person. The Vatican is basically hoping it can somehow recruit only the latter and none of the former. I suspect that their views on the shrinking priesthood is that it is changing views within society, rather than realizing that this structure always existed, and why these pedophile priests are very old men. They probably think that they used to recruit all of the latter and that something changed in society to make asexual people sexual. Who knows?

  11. A former occasionally-mildly-interesting commenter achieves his personal and permanent nadir:

    Very few of the people who insist that [hierarchical facilitation of predatory paedophilia is] a systematic problem are not generally hostile to the church’s moral standards

    Yes. Yes, you could say that. Given the nature of that organisations's moral standards, as they are revealed a bit more each day despite its frantic efforts at concealment, and despite the efforts of useful idiots carrying its water, it is safe to say that there can be no decent human being who is not generally hostile to them.

    But you go right on defending them. It is a good thing that people be seen clearly for what they are.

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