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William Oddie FAITH Magazine July-August 2010

Justice for All or None

The child abuse committed within the Roman Catholic Church and its concealment is deeply shocking and totally unacceptable. I am ashamed of what happened, and understand the outrage and anger it has provoked.

That shame and anger centres on the damage done to every single abused child. Abuse damages, often irrevocably, a child's ability to trust another, to fashion stable relationships, to sustain self-esteem. When it is inflicted within a religious context, it damages that child's relationship to God. Today, not for the first time, I express my unreserved shame and sorrow for what has happened to many in the Church.

Thus, on March 26, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, writing in The Times newspaper: but it could have been almost any other Catholic bishop in the English-speaking world. His article was actually a defence of the Pope's central role in the fight against clerical child abuse: but this is the way all statements by Catholic spokesmen on this subject now have to begin. The Times gave the article the headline "The Church is not trying to cover anything up" and the standfirst "Catholics are shamed by child abuse allegations. But the Pope has taken strong action".

But do we now need to start saying a lot more than that we are deeply ashamed and that the problem is being confronted? The problem I suspect, more and more, is that every time we repeat this simple (and I agree unavoidable) message, we underline the strong impression that it is only -or at least mainly - the Catholic Church within which this dreadful phenomenon has flourished unchecked, and that it is the Catholic Church which is the archetypal paedophile organisation. The trouble with this is firstly that it is just not true, and secondly that it plays straight into the hands of the Dawkinses and the Christopher Hitchenses of this world, for whom this is the perfect slur, not simply against Christianity in general (which they despise just as much as they do Catholicism) but againstChristianity's most successful and authoritative manifestation: the Catholic Church. Thus, it can be the star indictment on a list of other unchallenged absurdities that the so-called "new atheists" (an unprecedentedly nasty bunch - at least people like Bertrand Russell never descended to crude invective) are now peddling, more or less unchallenged. This is the kind of thing that Dawkins is now writing, and which a supposedly decent newspaper like The Washington Post is happy to publish:

Should the pope resign? No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognised when they elected him, he is perfectly - ideally - qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organisation whose character he fitslike a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

I am not saying we should be impenitent. But it is surely now time that Catholics started to defend the Church against this kind of thing: apart from anything else, we are betraying our priests if we do not. Damian Thompson's comment was 'The article conjures up the image of a nasty old man who's losing his marbles. It's not very nice about the Pope, either': a neat crack, Damian, but we need to say more about Dawkins than that he's losing his marbles: we need to say that he's just wrong on all counts: and we need to say it loud and clear because there are just too many people who think that he is dead right.

About the problem of child abuse in particular, we need to say that this is NOT a specifically Catholic problem, but that it is one, on the contrary, which is characteristic of modern society: our shame is that we are, in this, all too representative of the modern world rather than being, as we should be in this as in all else, a Sign of Contradiction: here if anywhere we are doing what the liberals always say we should be doing, reflecting the Spirit of the Age.

There may be signs that the penny is beginning to drop. An article by Jim Dwyer in, of all places, The New York Times reported (April 27) that the New York State legislature is beginning to address the fact that child abuse is not only a problem for the Church, but for the whole of society. "Should it be possible", asked Dwyer

... to sue the city of New York for sexual abuse by public school teachers that happened decades ago? How about doctors or hospital attendants? Police officers? Welfare workers? Playground attendants? For nearly a year, the city has tiptoed around that question, but in the coming months, there may be no ducking it. Legislation in Albany would force public officials to answer for the crimes of earlier generations, just as Catholic bishops have.

What began as an effort by legislators to expand judicial accountability for sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has grown to cover people in every walk of life. One bill would temporarily suspend the statute of limitations, and allow people who say they were abused as children to file lawsuits up to age 58 - that is, 40 years after they turned 18....

The bill ultimately was not voted on last year. It is back again, and no doubt will get fresh life from the continuing stream of revelations about high church officials who covered up abuse.

To date, New York City has been publicly silent on the proposal, but sees the possibility of enormous expenses.

Well, join the club, New York City. As Dwyer's article points out, 'Since 2004, Catholic dioceses nationwide have paid $1.4 billion to settle claims of abuse, many from acts from the 1970s or earlier.... Yet [he continues] there is little evidence to show there is more sexual abuse among Catholic priests than among clergy from other denominations, or, for that matter, among people from other walks of life.'

Well, at last: this obvious fact (obvious surely, to most Catholics, who know their priests and are aware of how unjustly they have suffered from the contemptible lies of the Dawkins/ Hitchens lobby and the newspapers who have given them credibility) is beginning, just beginning, to be understood.

An article in Newsweek (April 8 - well worth reading in full at http://www. newsweek.com/id/236096) - has the facts which every Catholic should have at his or her fingertips; I shall quote it here at length. Its headline is "Mean Men", and its content is briefly summarised in its standfirst: "The priesthood is being cast as the refuge of pederasts. In fact, priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else":

The Catholic sex-abuse stories emerging every day suggest that Catholics have a much bigger problem with child molestation than other denominations and the general population. Many point to peculiarities of the Catholic Church (its celibacy rules for priests, its insular hierarchy, its exclusion of women) to infer that there's something particularly pernicious about Catholic clerics that predisposes them to these horrific acts....

Yet experts say there's simply no data to support the claim at all. No formal comparative study has ever broken down child sexual abuse by denomination, and only the Catholic Church has released detailed data about its own. But based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

... the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than... national estimates. Priests may... appear more likely to molest children because cases of abuse come to light in huge waves.....Allen suggests a final reason we hear so much more about Catholic abuse than transgressions in other religions: [the Church's] sheer size.... "When you consider the per capita data," says Allen, "I don't think they have a larger incidence than other faiths."

Nevertheless, we all know that almost the only institution in society within which paedophilia is ever reported as typical by the Press is the Catholic Church, and that most people do think that this is a specifically Catholic problem. In 2002, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey found that 64 percent of those queried thought Catholic priests "frequently" abused children. Almost certainly, here and in the U.S., this perception is still the norm. And it's not just the Press who are responsible for this belief, it's also our bishops, who in almost everything they say on the subject foster this impression. If you don't believe me, read the whole article by Archbishop Nichols (google it from Times online) with which I began this article. Not one word in it begins tosuggest that this is a problem which exists in society at large: on the contrary, child abuse appears to be considered as a specifically Catholic problem. We need to begin to get real; and to be fair, elsewhere Archbishop Nichols has said rather more, for instance in an interview for The Times given just after his translation to Westminster:

The vast majority of abuse in this country happens within the home. This does not mean that all homes are bad. Just one act of abuse is too many but it should be remembered that the priests who have abused are a tiny minority of the total number of priests and the abuse they have carried out is a tiny proportion of all abuse - less than a half of 1 \%.

Just as it is now normal (and right) for spokesmen for the Church to express our sorrow for the tiny minority of priests who have committed this unspeakable crime, so they should never do this without also insisting that this is not in any way a specifically Catholic problem but one in which we are all too representative of society as a whole. This is not just a matter of justice for our clergy. Much more importantly, it's one of justice for the great majority of child abuse victims, nearly all of whom are being abused outside the Church.


Faith Magazine

July - August 2010