Pious Predators

Sexual “misconduct” with children seemed to be considered “not that important, and certainly not serious enough to be worth compromising a priestly career.”

By Michael Parenti | May-August 2016 Issue
The Truth Seeker

The sexual abuse of children and others has been ignored and tolerated by the Catholic Church hierarchy for centuries. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Shocking revelations of sex crimes perpetrated by Catholic clergy have made headlines for some time now. Reports released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops documented the abuse committed by 4,392 priests against thousands of children over the last half century. One of every ten priests ordained in 1970 was charged as a pedophile by 2002, and those were only the ones reported.

Pope John Paul II was quick to dismiss these crimes as an “American problem.” But by the late 1990s pedophile scandals involving Catholic clergy had surfaced in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, and Poland. A study of the Irish Christian Brothers found that at least 10 percent of them had violated children and youths in what was described as a “sexual underground.”

In the United States, with cases ranging back over decades, many perpetrators have been able to avoid prosecution because of the statute of limitations. Far from being isolated misfits, the pedophile priests often have been well positioned as administrators, vicars, and parochial school officials, allowed to remain in responsible posts sometimes even while involved in litigation. At times, perpetrators have been repeatedly charged yet repeatedly promoted.

A three-year grand jury investigation in Philadelphia found that Cardinals John Krol and Anthony Bevilacqua concealed child sex-abuse cases involving at least 63 priests over a 35-year period. The two cardinals transferred predator clerics without alerting the police or the congregations to which they were rotated. Among them was a priest who raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl, then took her for an abortion. Another one sexually violated a teenage girl while she was immobilized in traction after a car accident. Meanwhile, Cardinal Bevilacqua denounced homosexuality as “a moral evil”—when homosexuality was not the issue.

In 2002 it was revealed that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law had knowingly covered up hundreds of pedophilic crimes from as early as 1977, “shielding child rapists and recklessly allowing them unfettered access to yet more victims.” When one of the worst perpetrators, Rev. John Geoghan, was forced into retirement after 17 years and nearly 200 victims, Law could still write him, “On behalf of those you have served well, in my own name, I would like to thank you. I understand yours is a painful situation.”

Responding to charges that one of his priests sexually assaulted a six-year-old boy, Cardinal Law asserted that “the boy and his parents contributed to the abuse by being negligent.” Law never went to jail as an accessory to these crimes. He resigned as archbishop while continuing to receive a salary and benefits. In 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed him to head one of Rome’s major basilicas, where he lived in palatial luxury on a generous stipend, supervised by no one but a permissive pope.

The church hierarchy has directed more fire at the media for publicizing the crimes than at the clergy for committing them. In 2002, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras compared the US media to Hitler and Stalin for reporting sex-abuse scandals. At the same time, Maradiaga himself helped find a safe haven in Honduras for a Costa Rican priest accused of child molestation.

Some years earlier, when Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, New Mexico, resigned because of a 60 Minutes TV exposé of his abuse of teenage girls, Pope John Paul II denounced the media for “sensationalizing” the issue. John Paul remained sedulously unwilling to deal with the pedophilia plague within the Roman Church. Yet now he is being made a saint in record time.

In 2002, John Paul ordered that charges against priests were to be reported secretly to the Vatican, and hearings were to be held in camera. In 2004 a lay reform group, Voice of the Faithful, with chapters around the United States, submitted a petition with 25,000 signatures asking that the pontiff meet with a group of abuse survivors. The pope ignored the request.

A judge of the Holy Roman Rota, the church’s highest court, wrote in a Vatican-approved article that bishops should not report sexual violations to civil authorities. Some bishops agreed, perhaps fearing that a thorough investigation of the lower ranks might lead upward into the hierarchy itself. Indeed, the John Jay College Survey commissioned by the US bishops found that among 5,450 complaints of clerical sexual abuse there were charges against at least sixteen bishops.

Obstructing Justice

The sexual abuse of children and others has been ignored and tolerated by the Catholic Church hierarchy for centuries. Upon receiving a complaint, church officials either ignored it or responded with a denial. They seemed primarily concerned with avoiding lawsuits and bad publicity. They did not investigate to see if other children had been victimized by the same priest. They told parishioners not to talk to the authorities, and offered no pastoral assistance to young victims and their shaken families. Some victims were threatened with excommunication or suspension from Catholic school. Church officials impugned their credibility, even going after them with countersuits.

Sexual “misconduct” with children seemed to be considered “not that important, and certainly not serious enough to be worth compromising a priestly career.” Church leaders refrained from cooperating with law enforcement authorities, refusing to hand over abusers’ records in both criminal and civil cases, claiming that the confidentiality of their files came under the same legal protection as privileged communications in the confessional. In effect, the clergy were above the legal process—a view that has no basis in canon or secular law. Bishop James Quinn of Cleveland even urged church officials to send incriminating files of “brother priests” to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, where diplomatic immunity would prevent the documents from being subpoenaed. A good number among the hierarchy continued to abet criminal offenders, obstruct justice, and act as accessories to the crime.

For years church leaders clung to the “few bad apples” argument, treating the charges as hysterical exaggeration. Courageous priests who called for investigations of the problem sometimes had their careers blocked. Some church officials hid pedophilic fugitives from the law, arguing in court that criminal investigations of church affairs violated the free practice of religion as guaranteed by the US Constitution—as if pedophilia were a sacrosanct religious practice. Church authorities tended to treat child rape as just a personal failing that needed healing through prayer and forgiveness. They were often quick to believe the pedophile’s denials or his seemingly heartfelt vow that he would err no more.

The church hierarchy seems to have shown little regard for the sexual victims whose lives are so deeply scarred. The victims continue to pay a heavy price: years of depression, anger, alcoholism, eating disorders, nightmares, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, broken marriages, and in some instances mental breakdown and suicide. The parents in turn live with the pain of having their children raped by men whom the family had trusted and respected as ordained purveyors of the holy sacraments.

Meanwhile church leaders act today as if the pedophile crisis has been resolved. But there still are pedophiles within the religious orders in this country and around the world who have yet to be brought to justice.

Pedophilic Protestants

The presupposition that Catholic clergy are especially driven to pedophilia because of their celibacy is perhaps put to rest by the prevalence of sex offenders among Protestant clerics, all of whom are married or allowed to marry. A victims’ advocate group recently turned its attention from the Roman Church to the Southern Baptists, charging America’s largest Protestant denomination with failing to deal with child abusers. In the latter half of 2006, the advocate group received reports of about forty cases of sexual crimes by Southern Baptist ministers.

In North Carolina, the pastor at New Life Christian Center, was charged with repeatedly raping a 12-year-old girl and fathering her child. The minister of a Baptist church in Illinois was indicted for sexually assaulting a young girl. And on it goes, with ministers of a wide variety of Protestant churches in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere, charged with raping numerous young girls and some boys. There was Rev. Eugene Paul White, Baptist minister in Orangevale, California, who was convicted of sexually abusing his four adopted foster daughters from 1999 to 2004. He was sharply criticized by the judge for blaming the girls, ages 8 to 12, for deliberately enticing him, and was given 180 years to life.

More often perpetrators escape prosecution because of the statute of limitations, or receive a light sentence by judges who seem disinclined to treat child rape as a serious crime. One of the worst cases of leniency involves a Jehovah’s Witnesses deacon, Michael Porter, who was convicted in Britain on 25 counts of committing “gross indecency” with thirteen children” (including an 18-month-old baby), over a 14-year period. For this he was sentenced to three years of “community rehabilitation.” Families of the victims were outraged.

Every month, an atheist publication, Freethought Today, issues long lists of clergy of all denominations who are connected to a dismaying litany of pedophilic crimes: “child molestation,” “felony rape of a child,” “aggravated sexual assault of a minor,” “rape and gross sexual imposition involving children,” “oral copulation with a child,” “impregnating a minor,” and on and on. Freethought Today’s staggering lists of crimes by clergy also include voyeurism, indecent exposure, solicitation, theft, embezzlement, fraud, burglary, drug trafficking, felonious assault, and an occasional murder or attempted murder.

In 2006 the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Boy Scouts of America were sued by six men for perpetrating an “infestation of child abuse, stretching across the country, involving hundreds of predators and thousands of children.” The plaintiffs further charged that both organizations knew about it but had failed to protect children. (The Mormons sponsored 28 percent of all Scout units nationally in 2006.) One of those charged, Timur Dykes was a former Scout leader and Mormon Sunday school teacher who was convicted of child sex abuse several times and was serving probation until 2013 as a predatory sex offender. More than a dozen men have brought charges against the Mormon Church.

Suppressing Secular Sexuality

While ignoring or covering up pedophilia for many years, church leaders have vigorously policed other forms of sexuality. Like John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI focused on the “intrinsic moral evil” of homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce, birth control, masturbation, and all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. John Paul had made clear that there was no compromising on these issues.

In recent years Protestant fundamentalists have become just as preoccupied as any pope with suppressing human sexuality even within the confines of heterosexual marriage. They argue against the use of contraception because it allows for sex with impunity, thereby encouraging promiscuity; once the risk of conception has been removed, there is greater license for premarital sex, adultery, and a tendency within marriage itself to separate the sex act from procreation, leaving people more inclined to get an abortion should an accidental pregnancy occur.

To conclude this article: while maintaining a suppressive stance against sexuality in the secular world, Catholic and Protestant church leaders have not accorded sufficiently serious attention to the sexual abuse within their religious world. This is more than just hypocrisy. The hypocrisy itself effects an immense betrayal and often is a cover for criminal behavior that is seriously injurious to innocent lives.

It is argued that predator transgressions are not an indictment against religion as such but are the doings of flawed individuals. But the cases discussed herein involve something more than flawed character. We are all flawed in that we are all far less than perfect. These perpetrators and their organizations are corrupt and hurtful of human life. They have operated with something close to impunity, using their sacred robes, elevated status, and moral authority to prey upon the weak and vulnerable, and making the religious establishment their base of operation, a shelter for deeply damaging deeds.

Reprinted with permission from The Truth Seeker.

Michael Parenti is the author of God and His Demons, and most recently Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid’s Life and Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies. For further information about his work, see: www.michaelparenti.org.

For nearly a century and a half, The Truth Seeker has promoted women’s rights, birth control, free speech, science, separation of church and state, and exposed religion as against reason. It counted among its illustrious subscribers and progressive writers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, and Robert Ingersoll. Each elegantly designed issue of The Truth Seeker offers a unique blend of contemporary, thought-provoking editorials and historical Freethought articles, archival photographs, irreverent cartoons, along with book and film reviews. A high-definition video preview of each January, May, and September issue is online at thetruthseeker.net.

The May-August 2016 issue focuses on religion’s role in taxes, government, politics, and the pursuit of justice.

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