Groping for answers

I couldn’t help thinking that the media’s obsession with presenting a superficial appearance of ideological balance might have gone a little too far when I discovered that The Age has not only a religion correspondent but an atheism columnist.   The latter rather crassly bills himself as “Godless” Gross.  This week Gross went toe-to-toe with the ABC’s God-botherer correspondent Scott Stephens on the vexed question of the penchant of too many Catholic clergy to molest children.

Both wrote columns about a recent Catholic Church-commissioned major report on the subject by John Jay College, but reached diametrically opposed conclusions about causation.  Gross puts the kiddie-fiddling down to priestly frustration born of unnatural celibacy. Stephens on the other hand adopts the John Jay College line that there was an epidemic of it in the 60s and 70s, probably caused by a combination of poor priestly recruitment decisions, dodgy training and the temptations of the Swinging Sixties.  He cites figures showing that the reporting of priestly abuse was much lower before the 60s and has subsequently tailed off (so to speak) over the last couple of decades.  Accordingly, Stephens argues that celibacy can’t be to blame because it was a constant factor throughout.  The child-molesting epidemic must have had another cause:

This line of reasoning has been characterized as the “blame Woodstock explanation,” designed to give the Catholic Church some alibi for its crimes. It does no such thing. Indeed, there can be no more damning indictment than that the Church had so imbibed the proclivities of the age that it reproduced them in its own life.

That being said, only someone who is wilfully naive or intractably bigoted would refuse to acknowledge that the social antinomianism and fetishization of sexual liberation in the 1960s and 70s, along with the valorization of the pursuit of individual pleasure and free experimentation with transgressive sexual practices, created the conditions for a dramatic escalation in deviant behaviour – including paedophilia – both within and without the Church.

But surely there is another and rather more plausible explanation which doesn’t exonerate the bizarre institution of priestly celibacy quite so glibly. Is it not likely that priestly child abuse was just as prevalent before the 1960s but drastically under-reported because of the general prevailing social repression about matters sexual?  Recent reports about the treatment of Aboriginal children and child migrants in Church homes through the 1940s and 50s rather suggest some such explanation.  And is it not likely that apparent reductions in child abuse reports from the 1980s onwards are explained by the very permissiveness that the 60s ushered in? The Stephens/John Jay College explanation appears to rest on a tacit but patently spurious assumption that we’re now in a post-permissive age of latter day prudery where vulnerable young priests are no longer subject to licentious temptations.   In reality, children are much more sexually aware today, so priests who might otherwise be tempted by pre-pubescent flesh know that they’re unlikely to get away with it.  Perhaps better clergy selection and training has played a role too.  You’d certainly hope so.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Religion. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
25 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Leinad
Leinad
10 years ago

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Ken.

The ‘permissiveness’ of the 60s included permission to challenge rigid institutions like the Catholic Church and speak openly about sex and sexual abuse. ‘Antinomianism’ contributed to a focus on the rights and freedoms of children within those systems where silence and suppression in the name of higher authority prevailed. In this light the Stephens argument is frankly nauseating.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

The median age of Catholic priests in Australia today is around 65. If Catholic priests are raping children less now than in the past it is because many of them are borderline geriatrics and because today’s less naive and more assertive youth are much more likely to tell a lusty priest to “fuck off”. Furthermore, most parents simply will not allow their children to be left alone in a room with a Catholic priest.

The days when the Catholic Church offered the best career prospects for paedophiles appear to be over. Interestingly, this probably in part explains why the Church is unable to recruit new priests.

Anthony
Anthony
10 years ago

I suspect your analysis of the John Jay line is spot on.

BTW, I’m not sure we should refer to Dick Gross as the Age’s “atheist columnist”. I get the dead tree version of the Age and, thankfully, never have to come across any scriptures by Dick. I gather he only has an online presence. I was once at a trivia night over 10 years ago where he pranced around in awful suiting with the result that I cannot take anything he says (or blogs) seriously anymore.

Paul Montgomery
10 years ago

I would also venture a theory that Catholic priests had a lot of power until recently, and some pedophilia was a manifestation of that power, or at least enabled by it.

Dehne Taylor
Dehne Taylor
10 years ago

Your reasons seem plausible, Ken. But, not sure how Mel’s theory explains the Boy scouts.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
10 years ago

Paul

Yes, the power aspect is a fascinating insight. Moreover, it’s the development of the “permissive” age with its emphasis on human rights and individual autonomy that has been the biggest contributor to stripping the Church of its previous unquestioned authority. Maybe that’s why apologists like Scott Stephens rail against it in such vitriolic terms.

However, the Catholic power structure would argue that a strong hierarchical power structure is necessary to maintenance of the doctrinal purity of the Word of God. Free-wheeling democracy would result in a “whatever you reckon” approach to faith, the sort of low Anglicanism satirised in Yes Minister (bishops who don’t believe in God and see Jesus as a metaphor). Ironically though, it may well be that rigid hierarchy that is most responsible for the Church’s rapid loss of respect and authority. The key insight of liberal democractic constitutionalism is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A range of external checks and balances is essential to preventing that inevitable corruption, but the Catholic Church resists any such innovations (note resistance to referring sexual abuse victims to police or secular support agencies, and insistence on its own internal “Towards Healing” process). In part this is what Luther and others were on about in the Reformation.

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
10 years ago

If celibacy was the cause of the problem then wouldn’t the priests involved go off and have sex with females they encounter.

That is what I do ( or attempt to do or used to attempt to do.)

How does celibacy lead to having sex with children?

Not being around in the 60s I do not know too much about that era but ‘swinging with little kiddies’ wasn’t an option I heard about.

I have little evidence to go on but having sex with children seems to be a catholic event. It seems to me protestants are more into adultery.

Are single men are more likely to be child molesters than married men with children themselves?

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
10 years ago

wrong person Mr Parish but right ISP,

I did say I had no evidence ( however I would like to see how the ratio of adultery/paedophilia is in protestant denominations) however even in my homeland paedophilia seems to be a thing that occurs in mainly single men of almost any age.

C.L.
10 years ago

But there does seem to have been a greater incidence among Catholic clergy.

This of course is a lie.

I note that your ad hom against the report failed to mention that Stephens (who you say is positing a “line”) is a Uniting Church minister.

As for the Church vis-a-vis non-celibate society at large:

…the report found that cases of abuse have continued to fall from 15 for every 100,000 confirmations in 1992, to 5 per 100,000 in 2001 (that compares to 134 cases of sexual abuse for every 100,000 children in American society as a whole in 2001).

According to the New York Times (using data from the three biggest insurers which cover their denominations), abuse by protestant clergy in the United States is massive. Indeed, given the unlikelihood of clear figures being possible for protestant denominations (which include everything from major Southern Baptist congregations to the tens of thousands of Mickey Mouse ‘First Independent Churches of This and That’ scattered throughout the country), the crisis in protestant denominations is conceivably more systemic and problematic than it is in the more unified, more held-to-account Catholic Church.

Finally, most child sexual buse is committed by married men.

You really are a lazy, bitter, agenda-driven clown, Ken.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
10 years ago

There are vastly more married men than there are clergy (Catholic or otherwise). Your “point” is one of the statistical canards in the John Jay report. To illustrate the obvious point in the simplest possible manner, if there were 5 paedophiles among 100 clergy and 20 among 1 million married men, would that not suggest a significant problem relating to clergy?

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

LOL, CL can sniff out anti-church activism anywhere.

“However, the Catholic power structure would argue that a strong hierarchical power structure is necessary to maintenance of the doctrinal purity of the Word of God.”

Yes, a rare manifestation of logical thinking in the bunk that is the scripture.

“Free-wheeling democracy would result in a “whatever you reckon” approach to faith, the sort of low Anglicanism satirised in Yes Minister (bishops who don’t believe in God and see Jesus as a metaphor). Ironically though, it may well be that rigid hierarchy that is most responsible for the Church’s rapid loss of respect and authority.”

No, I think it is a general problem with the story itself, you know, being rubbish and everything. But the priesthood is no more likely to hold kiddie fiddlers than the teaching profession, or the ALP for that matter.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

The special pleading from both Stephens and CL here is patent. The venom of their response shows they know in their heart they’re defending the indefensible (nice piece of abuse there BTW, CL – very Christian of you. Are you quite sure it is not YOU who is “lazy, bitter, agenda-driven”?)

They’d get a lot more respect as people from me (though still no respect for their argument) if they had the intellectual honesty to say “yes, the combination of celibacy and an authoritarian culture risks these sort of problems – but both the celibacy and the culture must be worth it because the Pope is God’s Vicar and he wants it that way”.

On Proddie abuse, yes of course it is or was common – and again it has a lot to do with the way repressed young men try vainly to reconcile the urges coming from their gonads with the belief structures they are taught. It’s just that Mother Church creates an accommodating structure more consistently than the heretics can.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

One of the “tricks” Catholics use when comparing abuse in their Church with other Church’s and organisations is to focus only on abuse committed by the Clergy or the Catholic Church as a legal entity. This is misleading because it does not include Jesuits, the Christian Brothers and so on. The Catholic Church has cleverly and mischievously ensured that such groups are separate legal entities.

And on that note:

Jesuits file for bankruptcy as a result of mounting sexual abuse claims

Christian Brothers file for bankruptcy as a result of mounting sexual abuse claims

Fyodor
10 years ago

The Catholic Church has cleverly and mischievously ensured that such groups are separate legal entities.

Not that I’m keen to go into bat for the RCC, but there’s nothing particularly mischievous about the organisation of the RC Church. The fragmented legal structure is the historical legacy of its essentially Romano-feudal origins, not a legal wheeze.

JC
JC
10 years ago

I don’t buy into the collective guilt schtick and this is coming from someone that was taken out of a Catholic school because of the violent nature of teachers going right up to the principal. Being a smart arse from a young age I was sent to the principal’s office where I received a pretty decent beating for being a smart alec (to him) and as a result was taken out of the school soon after. It as pretty memorable, because if I saw that principal (a brother) again .. even if he was in his 90’s I’d wouldn’t try to control myself to avoid flooring him.

I don’t care much for the RCC one way or another other than having loose cultural ties. However to paint collective guilt on those involved is frankly wrong, as the vast majority of the people appear to be caring in their pursuit of whatever they are searching for. Those that are totally innocent of wrong doing are not and should not be responsible for the evil shit others did.

DD says:

They’d get a lot more respect as people from me (though still no respect for their argument) if they had the intellectual honesty to say “yes, the combination of celibacy and an authoritarian culture risks these sort of problems – but both the celibacy and the culture must be worth it because the Pope is God’s Vicar and he wants it that way”.

So let me get this right DD. You’d only respect them if they were married (with kids perhaps). By extension of your argument, you therefore must think every single male who isn’t getting a leg over one way or another is potentially at an elevated risk of being a sexual predator. That’s basically your argument, right?

I can’t recall where I read about the break down of the risk profile on kid molesters, but from what I remember reading, the large proportion are not single men and a surprising large number were like the boyfriends of single mothers living in the home and sexually active.

JC
JC
10 years ago

I have little evidence to go on but having sex with children seems to be a catholic event. It seems to me protestants are more into adultery.

Homes, it’s the deeply insightful comments I miss about you, so so much. Really. Narrowing it down a little more, you reckon it’s an Irish thing? And splicing it even further does it go right to the NSW Right? Honest questions Homes.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

Joe:

“However to paint collective guilt on those involved is frankly wrong, as the vast majority of the people appear to be caring in their pursuit of whatever they are searching for. Those that are totally innocent of wrong doing are not and should not be responsible for the evil shit others did.”

Unfortunately the wrongdoing goes all the way up to the top. Arguably the figures in the Catholic hierarchy who knowingly moved pedophiles from one unsuspecting parish to another, who failed to report each and every allegation of abuse to the police and who consented to church lawyers using every trick in the book to discredit, harass, humiliate and punish victims are even more evil than the pedophiles.

Pope John Paul II’s uncompromising fidelity to Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, a sinister Rasputin like creature, is but one example of how the stench of wickedness and corruption permeates the whole church.

JC
JC
10 years ago

Mel

Stop being dramatic.

……but one example of how the stench of wickedness and corruption permeates the whole church.

This reminds me a lot of the Arthur Anderson collapse. The DOJ went after the entire firm essentially accusing everyone of guilt by association, including offices around the world. The court finally absolved AA of the accusations but by that time the damage had already been done and the firm was wiped out of existence. Thousands of Peoples livelihoods, net worth and such like was wiped out.

Collective guilt doesn’t work even if the guy at the top is a crook.

observa
observa
10 years ago

How does the celibacy/permissiveness thingy work in the field of education where the bulk of the kiddy fiddlers congregate? The usual suspects are stony silent about that. The answer is clearly that kiddy fiddlers and touchy feely types are attracted to where the kiddies are, rather than trades like bricklaying and carpentry where I work.

Hands-on has a very different meaning in building and construction, although it broadens significantly should we accidently bump into any kiddy fiddlers off their patch. Naturally these education types abhor corporal punishment, which puzzles we Bob the Builder types at times, because we generally believe if it doesn’t go in the ear it goes in the rear, lest things get decidedly more communally risky on site than they need be. That’s largely because we face more communal risk at work than the paper cut brigade and we’re not kids of course.

So Mel, would you like me to Google any particular example of how the stench of wickedness and corruption permeates the whole education sector?

observa
observa
10 years ago

OTOH if instead of Googling ‘teacher sex pupil’ we try ‘builder sex apprentice’ we get 3.4mill hits and apart from the odd Gayporn website taking the piss, it’s all about not discriminating on the basis of sex, religion, race, creed and age, the last category we in the industry don’t take too literally ;)

observa
observa
10 years ago

Glass houses.. those without sin…stones…empathy.. eh Mel? ;)

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

You misread me, JC. My lack of personal respect was directed at Stephens and CL because they don’t have the guts to be honest with themselves and others. Young men not getting a leg over get my sympathy rather than scorn (I remember the feelings myself all too well), unless it leads them to hurt others.

Yes, “every single male who isn’t getting a leg over one way or another is potentially at an elevated risk of being a sexual predator”, but mostly only if they keep being told that the urge to get a leg over is wickedness best dealt with by joining an authoritarian order where they get to exercise power over others as a substitute.

JC
JC
10 years ago

You misread me, JC. My lack of personal respect was directed at Stephens and CL because they don’t have the guts to be honest with themselves and others. Young men not getting a leg over get my sympathy rather than scorn (I remember the feelings myself all too well), unless it leads them to hurt others.

Yes but the vast, vast majority of these men that entered the priesthood are not sexual predators and are adults when hey make the decision. Finally no one is stopping them from leaving if they so choose.

I went to a funeral recently and at the wake I was talking to the priest who officiated the memorial. We got talking and he told me he had been partner at a large corporate firm before deciding to become a priest. It didn’t seem to me he was forced to do anything.

Yes, “every single male who isn’t getting a leg over one way or another is potentially at an elevated risk of being a sexual predator”, but mostly only if they keep being told that the urge to get a leg over is wickedness best dealt with by joining an authoritarian order where they get to exercise power over others as a substitute.

Are you sure Catholicism teaches sex is wicked and that they have power over others? Really?