Out of proportion

Guardian columnist Andrew Brown has published a quasi-defense of the Catholic Church’s handling of its culture of abuse:

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4% But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different. Four out of five of their victims were male. Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.

I highlighted the last sentence because it made little sense to me. With the information Brown presents, it is neither right nor wrong but meaningless. Without comparing the rate of abuse by Catholic clergy to other professionals in close contact with children (teachers, school coaches, pediatricians, etc), it’s anybody’s guess as to how bad the church’s situtaiton actually is. The statistics are probably out there somewhere, but Brown does not avail himself of them. He just assumes the numbers are comparable, and we’re meant to assume with him.

Moreover, Brown reveals he does not understand the real motivations behind ongoing criticisms of the magisterium’s handling of the crisis:

So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers? Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things.

Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world. That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.

The people angry at the Catholic Church aren’t worried per se about further abuse. (At least the well-informed ones; but even then they can’t be blamed for harboring a sub-rational suspicion of the Church’s institutions.)  We’re agitated about abuse that has already happened and been concealed from justice. Critics in good faith would hopefully admit that at this point there are safeguards to discourage abuse. (Granted, the opaque, top-down structure of the institution sheilds some corruption from the public eye creates greater uncertainty as to how well these safeguards work, but that’s another point.) What’s most offensive to watchdogs is that many of the people who covered up or failed to report abuse have yet to be brought to justice. Some are still in power.  Some have even been promoted. As Jerry Coyne writes:

The concentration on Catholic priests and brothers comes from the shocking institutionalization of that abuse: the consistent efforts of Church officials, who knew full well about the abuse, to cover it up and, sometimes, simply transfer abusers to new places.  Yes, other professions sometimes cover up child abuse, but not, I think, on such a massive scale.  I am not aware of this kind of cover-up being endemic in American public schools, for example.


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