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.