Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad?

The child rape scandal at Penn State raises inevitable comparisons with the Catholic Church. Does religion make these kinds of abuses worse?

I can’t be the only person who heard about the Penn State child rape scandal and thought, “Holy crap — it’s just like the Catholic Church.” The abuse of power by a trusted authority figure; the coverup by people in authority; the unwillingness of witnesses to speak out; the grotesque, morally bankrupt defenses of a beloved institution by its followers… all of it is depressingly familiar.

And I can’t be the only critic of religion who’s been wondering, “Hmm. If Penn State has been acting like the Catholic Church… then did the Catholic Church child rape scandal actually have anything to do with religion?”

I still think it does. But it’s a complicated question. Let’s take a closer look.

Apologists for the Catholic Church and its role in the extensive child rape scandal often use the “But everyone else does it!” defense. “Priests aren’t the only people in positions of trust and power over children who abuse that power,” they say. “Parents, relatives, teachers, babysitters, coaches — they rape children as well. It’s all terrible… but it’s unfair to single out the Catholic Church as if it were special.”

Atheists and other critics of the Church typically respond to this defense — after tearing their hair out and screaming — by pointing out: The rapes aren’t the scandal. The coverup is the scandal. The rapes of children are a horrible tragedy. The scandal is the fact that the Catholic Church hid the rapes, and protected the child-raping priests from discovery and prosecution: lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, paying off witnesses, moving child-raping priests from diocese to diocese so they could rape a whole new batch of children in a place where they wouldn’t be suspected. The scandal is the fact that it wasn’t just a few individuals in the ranks who protected and enabled the child-raping priests: it was large numbers of Church officials, including high-ranking officials, acting as a cold-blooded matter of Church policy. The scandal is the fact that the Church treated their own stability and reputation as a higher priority than, for fuck’s sake, children not being raped.

And many critics of religion have concluded that the nature of religion itself is largely to blame for this scandal. They have argued that religion’s lack of any sort of reality check, and its belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that transcends mere human concerns, makes religious institutions like the Catholic Church far more vulnerable to abuses of this kind.

I’ve made this argument myself. And in my own writings on this subject, I’ve asked what I thought was a rhetorical question: “If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it? If it were your political party, your softball league, your university, your children’s school, your employer? Would you still be part of it? Would you still pay your league dues and show up for softball night? Would you still pay your tuition and send your kids off to the school every day? Or would you be walking out in moral outrage?”

But it seems that this question wasn’t so rhetorical. It seems that, at least sometimes, the answer to that question is, “Yup — we’d be defending our school.”

At least sometimes, the answer is, “If we see our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police. If we’re in positions of authority in a school and we hear reports about our coach raping a child — we won’t alert the police, and we won’t investigate. And if we hear that a coach at our school raped children, and that the authorities at the school knew about it and didn’t alert the police or investigate, we will become outraged — not at the fact that the rapes occurred, not at the fact that the witnesses and school authorities did nothing, but at what we see as unfair treatment of the perpetrators, and at the very fact that the media is covering it.”

Clearly, defending the indefensible is not unique to religion.

Clearly, institutions centered on something other than a belief in the supernatural are perfectly capable of inspiring this grotesquely contorted form of loyalty. This unwillingness to believe that the people and institutions we admire could do anything that vile; this ability to rationalize actions we would normally find thoroughly despicable when we’ve made a commitment to the people who perpetrated them… this clearly isn’t just about religion. This is about the more fucked-up directions that the human brain can go in.

So I want to take a step back. I want to be rigorous, and ask: Is there anything special about the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church? Does the fact that the Catholic Church is a religious organization have any effect on how the child rape scandal has been playing out for them? Is there any real difference between the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church, and the child rape scandal at Penn State?

I’ve been looking at this hard. And I’ll acknowledge that I don’t think the difference is as great as I’d originally thought. The degree to which many students and supporters of Penn State have behaved like blind religious zealots has, quite frankly, shocked me.

But I still think there is a difference. There are non-trivial differences between these two scandals: differences of degree, and differences of kind. I want to look carefully at those differences and at whether religion has any part in how the Catholic Church has behaved, and continues to behave, when it comes to the rape of children.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad? To find out why, exactly, I think that, as horrific as the Penn State child rape scandal is, it is far eclipsed by the Catholic Church child rape scandal — and why I think religion is responsible for how much worse it is in the Catholic Church — read the rest of the piece. (Normally I’d say “Enjoy!” at this point, but that seems ghoulish in this case, so I’m going to skip it. I hope you find the piece edifying and thought-provoking.)

Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad?

48 thoughts on “Child Rape, Penn State and the Catholic Church: Is Religion Especially Bad?

  1. 1

    Hmmm…. Whilst I do agree with the differences you’ve identified, I think you’re driving in the wrong direction. I think it’s far more important to identify the commonalities, so that we can understand the underlying social dynamics which result in such similar behaviour from people in such different institutions. And it seems to me that the key commonality here (and in many other instances) is that both involve hierarchical systems of authority and obedience. That is the key factor, whether it is expressed through religion, politics, sport, or anything else.

    Now, the distinctive thing about the Catholic Church is that it’s pretty much the epitome of a strictly hierarchical system of authority, and it’s both very large and very well-established. You couldn’t get a similar situation involving multiple colleges, because once you get past the individual college level, you’re no longer dealing with a hierarchy – at least, not in the same authoritarian sense.

    If we look further afield, in both space and time, to see if other (not explicitly religious) authoritarian hierarchies exhibit similar behaviours, I think we’ll find that the extent of the abuses possible (indeed, inevitable) within a system correlates very well with the degree to which the system in question demands absolute obedience to hierarchical authority. Wherever you find institutions committing crimes against humanity on an industrial scale, you will find the same pattern – regardless of the precise nature of the ideology used to justify it.

    So I guess I’m disagreeing in that I don’t think that religion, specifically, is the key differentiator. Sure, you could widen your definition of “religion” to include any totalising ideology demanding rigid obedience to a strict hierarchy of authority, but I’m not sure that would be a useful definition at all – after all, there are institutions which definitely are religions which do not follow that pattern (e.g. the Quakers), and there are institutions which are definitely not religions (in any conventional sense) which do (e.g. the military).

  2. 2

    I haven’t clicked over to AlterNet yet, but I want to say this first:

    The fact that there are child rapists in any organization doesn’t surprise me. Whether religious or secular, there are sick people everywhere, and it doesn’t take a religion to hide them.

    The fact that there are those who will ignore or cover up such abuses also doesn’t surprise me. For whatever the reason, some people just cannot accept that some charismatic bastard could possibly do anything wrong. Whether (s)he’s wearing a cassock or a football jersey, someone like that “just couldn’t be a bad person.”

    Even the fact that such diverse organizations as the Catholic Church and Penn State University both, apparently, cover up and protect the perpetrators of such abuses doesn’t surprise me.

    What does surprise me, always, is the fact that the Catholic Church, and all other religious institutions, claim to be the moral authority of the world, speaking for their god. This is the part that just drives me crazy! How can any institution accept and protect such horrific actions while still claiming to hold the moral high ground? And it’s not just the Catholic Church, either. There have been similar scandals in virtually every religious organization.

    If this is the “morality” that the theist claim we wouldn’t have without gods, then I say we’d be better off without it!

  3. 3

    In addition to what Dunc said, I’d like to point out that sports is a lot like small-scale religion if you look at the followers. Both sport fans and believers usually don’t support their team/church because of a rational, informed choice they made, but because of cultural factors (family, friends, location,…). Also, it’s often one big “us against them” group thing and a lot of people tend to define their identity by belonging to the group. This tendency is stronger for religion than for sports, but still, it explains the reaction from Penn fans, mindlessly defending “their” organisation from a perceived outside attack.

    So besides the hierarchical systems of authority and obedience, I’d add unquestioning devotion to the list of things that let something like this happen.

  4. 4

    After reading the AlterNet article, I’m happy to see that I was thinking along the same lines as you, Greta. Of course, you were far more eloquent about it than I was.

    You can understand — almost — how people would become righteously outraged at accusations of immorality against the divinely appointed representatives of their perfect loving god. But against their football coach? Really? I mean — really?

    But this comment gave me a bit of a chuckle. In this country, in this day and age, football has become ALMOST a religious experience for many. The thought that their football gods, whether players or coaches, might have feet of clay is just too much for these sports worshipers to accept.

  5. 5

    Penn State, to the best of my knowledge, has never presented itself as the ultimate authority and arbiter of universal human morality.

    The Catholic Church has. And does. And will continue to do so.

    That’s an important difference. And not just because of the whole “greater degree of power and authority/ greater capacity for abuse” thing. It’s different because of the hypocrisy. It’s different because, when an institution presumes to position itself as the ultimate moral authority and infallible interpreter of God’s moral teachings — and when it takes legal and political action to enforce those mores and turn them into laws controlling even people who don’t share the faith (such as pressing for laws banning same-sex marriage) — then their reprehensible behavior takes on a whole new shape of grotesquery.

    This is, to me, the most important difference. This grotesque hypocrisy is what angers me most about the Catholic Church’s abuses.

  6. 6

    I think there’s another difference: when Penn State got caught, heads started to roll. The school didn’t start claiming that their employees were above the law, or that no one needed to shoulder responsibility for the cover-up, or blame the hippies and liberals for the crimes. The newspapers aren’t giving Penn State officials several square miles of editorial page space to claim that the problem isn’t as bad as people say, and that the scandal is being drummed up by non-football fans and the evil media.

  7. 7

    Considering the Second Mile aspect makes it obvious to me that a big part of why these things get covered up is that people in some way believe there’s enough good being done to outweigh the bad.

    You don’t want to remove that priest because hey look at how many poor people he helps!

    You don’t want to report Sandusky because hey look at how many at-risk youth he helps!

    People are blinded by do-goodery to a sickening extent. That said do-goodery is often used for cover by predators is rarely acknowledged. I really think that people were less likely to report his crimes due to the fact that Sandusky was a charity founder than due to the fact that he was some celebrated football coach.

  8. 8

    Great article.

    The role ‘religion’ plays here … I really don’t know. Is it the abstract religious mindset that’s the problem?

    I can see three areas where there’s a more concrete problem:

    1. The church is a hierarchy with no internal accountability. There’s simply no mechanism to report or challenge a superior.

    2. Society’s respect for the institution / the power the institution wields at a local and national political level means that no one dare go after them.

    3. They believe they serve a higher authority and greater interest.

    These are not ‘religious’ in nature, in the sense that secular organizations could suffer from the same problems.

    I think the Catholic Church has a set up that turns the dials on all three of these up to eleven, and *that’s* religion’s fault. God is the ultimate trump card here.

    I don’t think it’s ‘religion’ that stops religious people from killing their fellow man, it’s … ‘human nature’. The same applies here.

  9. 9

    A family friend who was a priest in a large “liberal” Protestant denomination, had his problem with alcohol progress to the point that he was assigned by his Diocese for rehabilitation at a church retreat. Afterwards and some months later at a dinner with me, he volunteered that he couldn’t stand all the child abusers (plural) that were at the retreat.

    This was all years before news of the Catholic Church’s abuses broke.

    In hindsight it is obvious that a Diocese does not try to rehabilitate child abusers whom they have turned over to Police.

    At any rate, this is a problem among churches in general and hardly confined to the Catholics.

  10. 10


    Many forms of religion and college football both encourage intense tribal loyalties.

    My son attends LSU where he performs in the marching band at the games and we’ve attended a few of them. So I’ve witnessed this tribal loyalty up-close.

    There are LSU fans who are angry because the former LSU coach (Nick Saban) took a coaching job at Alabama. There is no written rule or contract preventing this but the hard-core LSU fans consider Saban’s “disloyalty” a character flaw. No one would blink an eye if a history or biochemistry prof were to leave LSU for Alabama — it would be viewed as a personal employment matter. Somehow the “coach” position is different – Saban coaching Alabama would be like the Pope converting to Islam for the hard-core fans.

    However, the LSU games do make some of the best reality TV out there. I’ve seen things happen in the games that you couldn’t make up for TV show or movie because they would be totally implausible. I think the current LSU coach (Les Miles) is doing this for TV ratings. And one of their players has picked up the “honey badger” internet meme as for his nickname.

  11. 11

    Just because a religious mentality facilitates this kind of behavior, it doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to it. I see it as a genetic predisposition to something like alcoholism. While a genetic predisposition to addiction undoubtedly makes you more likely to fall into said addiction, but it doesnt mean that someone without it can’t do the same.

    I think religion takes the cake with blind loyalty, it’s no.1 in the rule book, which is why these coverups are so much more prevalent there (and the catholic church is not alone, just more publicized). However sports, particularly football, also sees it’s share of irrational loyalty (if the ref calls a foul against the other team it’s legit, if it’s the exact same call against your own it’s a bad call), which to me explains this reaction to a certain extent.

    Any environment that breeds blind loyalty as opposed to critical thinking is a place where these things are going to be far more likely to happen

  12. 12

    I did find your article thought provoking, and I appreciate that you wrote it.

    I *enjoyed* the comparison of cookies to kittens.

    I’ve been reading your blog regularly for about a year, and just wanted to say “hi” and that I appreciate your work.

    Returning the comments to those more articulate than I.

  13. 13

    As a PSU alum, I can tell you that football is a religion and Joe Paterno is their god.

    Count me though, among those who were sickened by both the scandal and the students who were protesting JoePa being fired.

    Penn State, to the best of my knowledge, has never presented itself as the ultimate authority and arbiter of universal human morality.

    I will slightly disagree with this statement. PSU has long prided itself in being a “clean” program that doesn’t violate NCAA rules and has one of the highest graduation rates of student-athletes. It may not be quite on the level as claiming to be the infallible representative of gawd on Earth, but Penn State has long regarded itself as a paragon of virtue in a sports system that is often rife with financial shenanigans.

    What PSU has in common with the RCC and indeed, most large institutions, is a tendency to put the prestige and reputation of the institution ahead of the welfare of people. It is tragic and unforgivable when it happens to children like this, but I think it is human nature to rally around the “tribe” whenever there is a feeling that the tribe is being threatened.

    I for one, however, no longer feel any “Penn State Pride” in my tribe. I won’t be giving any donations to my alma mater anytime soon.

  14. 14

    Judging from the people who defriended me and cut off contact with me for taking them to task for defending Penn State and Joe Paterno, I can definitively say that they do claim moral authority. I heard constantly that this was a program run by a moral man and this child abuse was one minor slip up in an otherwise stellar career (as if good deeds were placed in a savings bank that could be cashed out when Uncle Jerry is feeling fondly). It was supremely frustrating and disheartening.

  15. 15

    Every article on child sexual abuse as it relates to the church fails to ask one fundamental question.

    If child abuse is so prevalent in the Catholic Church as to involve thousands of perpetrators, tens if not hundreds of thousands of victims, coverups so widespread as to essentially condone the activity, and seeing as the entire premise of religion, ie: the existence of a non-existent supernatural being is a blatant falsehood – is it not obvious that the Catholic Church as a religious institution is a simple front for a millenium-old pedophile ring?

  16. 16

    I guess I’d be one of the people who would, as you write, “argue that, compared to the Penn State child rape scandal, the Catholic Church child rape scandal isn’t really all that different. It’s really just a difference of degree.” I think that on every one of the factors you list, Penn State does possess characteristics that are similar in kind, though not degree, to the RCC. (As several comments upthread here point out.)

    And you’re right that the differences in question are “pretty fucking big difference[s] of degree.” That’s true. But fucking big differences of degree are still differences of degree.

    All that said, I guess I agree with Dunc @1: I’d say the more useful way to look at the relationship is to emphasize the similarities between the two institutions, rather than the distinctions between them. The (albeit large) differences in degree between PSU and the RCC on the factors you list don’t let religion off the hook; instead, they emphasize the respects in which Penn State shares some of the dangerous and destructive elements of religion!

    As you more than most commentators have pointed out, there are certain cognizable aspects of religion (e.g., the lack of a reality check) that make it dangerous. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when other institutions that share some of those same aspects also end up hurting people and destroying lives. (With regard to PSU and a reality check, the Sports Illustrated article on the scandal is very interesting, in that it details how absurdly false the aura of cleanliness PSU cultivated, and d cwilson mentioned @13, was.)

    It’s much the same as one common response to the old “Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, and they murdered millions—so where do you get off blaming religion for hurting people?” canard. Totalitarian regimes like those three have all kinds of similarities with religion. As you’ve pointed out more than once before, it’s the characteristics all of these institutions share that are the key factors leading to injustice and horror, not just the label “religion” or “college football” or, obviously, “atheism.”

  17. 17

    Unquestioning devotion and fanatic dedication is key here. When an organization claims to be the one and only arbiter and preacher of the one and only truth, as my fromer cult, The Worldwide Church of God, did (much the same claim as the Catholic Church), the floodgates are thrown open.

    All kinds of people with mental quirks and complexes are drawn in, largely because the authoritarianism attracts them. Child abusers and rapist/molesters find a safe haven there if they can worm their way into a position of representing the authority of the church, such as being teachers and administrators of our private Imperial Schools. I have found that that institution was infested with just such sexually abusive individuals.

    At all cost, the reputation, no matter how false it is, of the institution must be guarded so the blinded adherents will go on supporting the group fervently. It’s all about image and the resulting power and money.

    Penn State didn’t want to have its fervent supporters disillusioned or turned off anymore than the Catholic Church wants to see its members departing and its wealth, power and influence decreased. Image is everything in this world and all people with an invested interest in maintaining that image will be tempted to cover up just about anything. It reaches its slimy tentacles everywhere, even into the smallest and most insignificant businesses, groups and enterprises.

    In my own family, as I was growing up, the constant refrain about anything questionable was, “What will people think,” and the “family name” was all important. My grandparents hid my aunt’s divorce for months that became years because they felt ashamed of it and feared the opinions of their neighbors, only to have to embarrassingly acknowledge the truth when my aunt returned home after WWII with a new husband. Apparently, the fact that she was again “honorably” married, took the edge off the embarrassment.

  18. 18

    (With regard to PSU and a reality check, the Sports Illustrated article on the scandal is very interesting, in that it details how absurdly false the aura of cleanliness PSU cultivated, and d cwilson mentioned @13, was.)

    Absolutely. Anyone who has paid close attention over the past 20 years would know what a sham Penn State’s “clean” record really ways.

    It’s much the same as one common response to the old “Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, and they murdered millions—so where do you get off blaming religion for hurting people?”

    Actually, if you look at a lot of dictatorial regimes, they often create a cult of personality that has many of the elements of a religion, with the state, as embodied by the “dear leader” taking the place of a deity. Just picture all the giant portraits of the leader that adorn these countries in the place of idols or crosses.

  19. 19

    Actually, if you look at a lot of dictatorial regimes, they often create a cult of personality that has many of the elements of a religion….

    Right—that was most of my point in citing said regimes. By the same token, PSU “has many of the elements of a religion” as well, in smaller doses.

  20. 20

    Another thing to consider is that an attitude to sexuality that is almost as puritanical as that of the Christian religion prevails among most organised competitive sports (a bit of trivia for you: the literal meaning of “ascetic” is an athlete in training). This is hardly surprising as an awful lot of sports were codified by men who if not acutally clergymen, very often made a point of their public piety. And correct me if I’m wrong – but aren’t Sandusky, Paterno et al Catholics?

  21. 21

    I read your article with interest, because I too have been thinking about what the causes of all this are.

    I’m not sure the differences in scope between what the church did and what Penn State did are attributable to the fact that the former deals with religion. The Church itself is larger than Penn State, is more involved in every aspect of people’s lives, is richer, is older, and it holds more power. In order for your thesis to be correct that “religion” is to blame, you would have to show that a non-religious organization with all these same attributes would not be able to perpetuate a scandal of the same magnitude. I don’t think you’ve shown that.

    Furthermore, lately I’ve been thinking that blaming this on “religion” is too general. Lately I have been writing and arguing a lot to defend premarital and casual sex from denigration by the religious, specifically the claim that there is something harmful about casual sex. What I have been saying is that if two people can have casual sex and not experience any harm, then it cannot be casual sex itself that is responsible. It may be a lack of communication, or lack of caution about disease, or dishonesty that was involved in the act, etc. But casual sex need not involve any of these harmful things, and therefore it is wrong to say “casual sex is the problem.”

    It seems to me that the same must be said of religion. What about religion causes the problem? Is the problem that I believe in the Christian God, or that I believe in the Christian God without reason and I think that’s okay? I think the latter speaks more to the heart of the issue. Abrogation of reason allows one to never question one’s beliefs (as you have often said, Greta), and I do not think we lose anything by stating specifically that this is the problem. We can point out that these problems are often found in religion. But belief in the supernatural alone doesn’t seem to get us there.

  22. 22

    Well, power and authority blah blah, sexualization of children blah blah (its Freud’s fault!) Bureaucratic rigidity etc.

    Still, the Paterno regime DID win football games, the Catholic church has not ‘saved’ a single soul.

    Perhaps the worst part of the church’s behaviour is their sincere belief that they have the power to ‘cure’ and absolve pedophiles of their ‘sinfulness.’ If that were true, criminal and civil law would not be worth acknowledging. The church really would be solving the problem in-house, with no loss of money, property or prestige.

    More than 50 years ago, the Servants of the Paraclete organization (which used to ‘treat’ drunken or pedophile priests) warned the church that pedophiles felt no remorse and were certain to repeat their crimes. It seems the church may need a few centuries to digest the inconvenient facts. Remember Galileo anyone?

  23. 23

    Given that many Americans’ relationship to football is basically religious anyway, this isn’t a comparison that much helps the apologists’ case.

  24. 24

    My hope is that in the case of the PSU the perpetrators of the crimes and the cover up will be dealt with swiftly and robustly. We will then be justified in asking why the criminals within the RCC were not similarly dealt with. The RCC is also quite keen on claiming that they are the victims of evil secularist anti-Catholic types rather than evil criminals. The fact that we went after the PSU in exactly the same way as we would have gone after any organisation that allows the rape of children pretty much destroys that argument.

  25. KG

    A very thoughtful article. One aspect you may have missed, as an American, is the unusual degree to which American students are inculcated with institutional loyalty to and emotional identification with their university/college, and the degree to which these are expressed through sport. It’s really not the same in the UK or, as far as I can judge from people I work with, in the rest of Europe. I’d guess this itself results from the degree to which many US universities depend on their alumni (I had to stop and search for the word – I just never think of myself as an alumnus of the University of Sussex, even though I did both my BA and my DPhil there, and was employed by them for 5 years) for funding. American sport, too, is bound up with religion to a degree not replicated here. So in a sense, given these intertwined factors, the coaches are religious leaders.

    One more factor, which may attract pedophiles and ephebophiles to sports coaching for children and adolescents, which even priests do not get: a justification for proximity to those children and adolescents when they are naked or nearly so.

  26. 26

    I don’t see the scope & duration aspects as truly being different between the two cases. The catholic church is a centuries old, worldwide organization, Penn State football isn’t. The football program doesn’t have as much power as the catholics, if they did they might well have had abuses on the same scale. In both cases the corruption and cover-up involved a large proportion of the organization, so I see the scope & duration as being similar in relative extent (i.e. both were corrupt throughout their entire organization).

    To me the degree of power and especially the self-appointed mantle of ultimate moral authority are the key difference. The actions of the church is not just appalling, it is a direct violation of what they claim to stand for. For me, it is the hypocrisy of their condemnation of others that do no harm, combined with a failure to take action to stop their own members who do obvious harm, while also claiming exclusive, “divine”, unassailable moral superiority that places the catholic scandal in a different, and more disgusting, class to the penn state case.

  27. 27

    I think a lot of the inaction stems from the “pass the buck” nature of hierarchical bureaucracies. In many instances, people reported the initial abuse only to see it disappear “up the chain of command” with assurances that “it was being dealt with.” We now know that never happened. In the case of Penn State, the school President was rightly terminated for his moral and legal negligence. If the Catholic Church was serious about atoning for its own scandal, at the very least we should be questioning why the Pope still has a job.

  28. 28

    Well, darn it. I want to have a conversation about Catholics, because I want to think about how to be forthright and still recognize the humanity of the people you’re criticizing and because I want to figure out whether people like me, who genuinely like and respect a certain fraction of Catholics, fit anywhere in this atheist (Atheist?) movement.

    I want to have that conversation, but I can’t, because I just realized that some combination of S.A.D. and too much internet time is making my (thankfully mild) depression act up and it would just stupid for me to get into a fight, or even an involved conversation, online right now. So I’m going (darn it) to do the prudent thing, put the internet down, walk away, and get ready to go to China in a couple months. If I can make the internet work in China, I’ll check back in the spring and see what’s going on, and if not, then in the summer. Meantime, take care, and, yes, Greta, I liked yur analysis.

  29. JfC

    I would encourage you to read this take on the Penn State scandal:

    While your larger point of scope still stands, I think it’s not comparing like to like to stack up Sandusky’s seven (discovered so far) victims with the Catholic Church as a whole’s thousands of victims. I think it would be fairer to look at other rape cover-ups in the world of football and sport in general, which Fannie alludes to. Really to me it seems that religion just exacerbates existing kyriarchal structures.

  30. 31

    To expand on a comment I made on Twitter, there’s one more big difference: When this scandal came to light, Penn State’s board of trustees fired Joe Paterno and the school’s president. They didn’t shelter or reward people who facilitated the coverup. The Roman Catholic church, by contrast, has consistently protected and even rewarded the bishops who sheltered and enabled child abusers.

  31. 32

    The Catholic Church teaches its followers that the Church is the one true conduit to God and salvation, and that without it your soul will be lost forever.

    This isn’t true, and hasn’t been true since 1964 when the Lumen Gentium was published. The Lumen Gentium or Dogmatic Constitution of the Church explicitly acknowledges the possibility that all non-Catholics, including atheists, an be saved without converting to Catholicism.

    Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126); But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.

    This doctrine in effect declares all people of good will to be “secret Catholics,” to use my Catholic religious studies prof’s words. The RCC may not talk about it much, but Pope Paul VI promulgated it and it was endorsed by a council of bishops by 2,151 to 5.

  32. 33

    The Catholic Church teaches its followers that the Church is the one true conduit to God and salvation, and that without it your soul will be lost forever.

    This doctrine in effect declares all people of good will to be “secret Catholics,” to use my Catholic religious studies prof’s words.

    These two points aren’t as far apart as you think.

  33. 34

    I wonder, like Greta, if there’s a specific *kind* of issue that’s driven by religion in the Catholic case that’s absent in the Penn State one.

    There are, as she says, questions of degree. And the cover up at Penn State was clearly not as elaborate as the Catholic one.

    Is there, though, any … ‘supernatural’ difference? At first sight, I think both scandals are entirely human in origin. I don’t think any Catholic abuser priest ever claimed that he was doing it *for* God, despite his own reservations (which is not as silly as it sounds – there are plenty of examples of *ritual* abuse of children in other religions/cults).

    I think the big difference is the first one identified in The God Delusion – for all their whingeing about ‘being persecuted’, religious institutions get away with all sorts of shit secular ones don’t. They are not subject to the same scrutiny, they don’t pay the same taxes, they are not as accountable.

    I think the solution is obvious: a genuinely level playing field. Religions treated *exactly* like comparable secular institutions.

    Now, that seems blindingly obvious and by definition utterly fair.

    But it won’t happen. Why? Because they’re religions. Religions get leeway. Politicians will not mess with religions. The police will not go after religions. The courts have always bought the ‘my religion says it’ line when it’s between members of the same church.

    And *that’s* the distinction. That’s the difference between football and Catholicism.

  34. 35

    Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

    Right, so all those of us who have had the opportunity to know of this “god” and his teachings and who explicitly reject them, are doomed. That’s what Greta’s saying.

    Furthermore, according to this passage the important thing is following the “dictates of conscience”? That’s what humanists are always saying. Doing good is what matters, not believing in some god-man hybrid who preached some pretty awful crap.

  35. 36

    “I want to figure out whether people like me, who genuinely like and respect a certain fraction of Catholics”

    I like and respect Catholics. It’s a big group of people. I suspect most Catholic clergy, even, are entirely uninvolved in the scandal.

    The main problem with the Church is that it has been, and remains, very badly managed. With the added complication that there’s a built in problem that they think Jesus left these guys in charge, so it’s difficult to raise the issue of the Vatican being an utterly corrupt right wing gang of villains. The only Catholic priest I know has the attitude that they’re all eighty and they’ll die soon and a better generation will come along. Well, I hope so.

  36. 37

    The Roman Catholic Church was the originator of the military industrial complex. It is a military corporation hiding behind a religious institution. In effect, the RCC is the owner of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and McDonell Douglas. It is the house of Satan in disguise.

  37. 38

    Dunc wrote:

    So I guess I’m disagreeing in that I don’t think that religion, specifically, is the key differentiator. Sure, you could widen your definition of “religion” to include any totalising ideology demanding rigid obedience to a strict hierarchy of authority, but I’m not sure that would be a useful definition at all […]

    I was tempted toward that line of thinking myself, that it was a matter of ideology, rather than religion per se (bearing in mind that religions are simply a subset of ideologies). But then I remembered that the Chinese communist party does not hesitate to prosecute and convict hundreds of its members every year, mostly on corruption charges (embezzlement, taking bribes and other forms of self-enrichment), even going so far as to put particularly egregious offenders to death.

    Of course, where the CPC differs from the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed the Penn State football program, is that the CPC doesn’t have to hand offenders in its ranks over to a different authority to be tried and punished, thereby implicitly acknowledging the supremacy of that authority, at least when it comes to the enforcement of “worldly” laws. Bear in mind that with the various iterations of Catholic Inquisitions, while the Church was more than happy to let the “worldly authorities” take care of the dirty work (torture and punishment up to and including execution), the worldly authorities did so on on the instructions of the Church.

    On the other hand, we can hardly imagine that Penn State has some ideological objection to acknowledging the supremacy of the authority of the Centre County Sheriff’s Office and Court of Common Appeals when it comes to enforcing criminal offenses, while the armed forces don’t have to acknowledge an external authority in policing, trying and punishing its own, since it possesses all those institutions itself. And when there has been a conflict concerning the armed forces’ jurisdiction, it’s typically been a case of a serviceman being accused of committing an offense on foreign soil against a foreign national outside a state of armed conflict (e.g. marines committing rape on Okinawa, or an army driver committing vehicular homicide in Korea), and even then, the point of contention wasn’t whether the serviceman(/men) in question should be tried and, if found guilty, punished, but by whom.

    And so I have to come to the tentative conclusion that the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the what was going is a result of religion, but a specific subset of religion, namely one of organized current or former de jure or de facto state religions that think they have a historical claim to wield a certain amount of executive and judicial power concerning certain individuals and certain offenses to which the worldly authorities should defer (i.e. they expect to be allowed to police their own clergy for offenses in general, and to police the general population for religious offenses such as heresy, “immoral” behavior, et al.). As a result, if a scandal like this emerged in another religious hierarchy, we’d expect it to be in the Russian or Greek Orthodox church, or the Wahhabist clergy in Saudi Arabia, or maybe the Shia clergy in Iran.

    But even then, the scandal would be limited to one country. What makes the Catholic Church unique is that it used to be the state religion of all of western Europe, all of it ultimately answering to a single guy (leaving aside the period of the Western Schism), but gradually losing that status in one country after another from the Reformation onwards (especially as the notion of “separation of church and state” gained popularity).

  38. 39

    And … stop the press:

    I thought this was from The Onion at first. No. Apparently, in the 1970s, there were no theological problems with pedophilia, and nowadays child porn is perfectly normal. It’s all about the ‘context of the times’, you see? I’m a theologically naive atheist – I always thought raping kids was always a bad thing. I guess God changed his mind.

  39. 40

    The Catholic Church is an institution that claims to be guided by God, and it claims that Christians have undergone spiritual transformations. It’s not a question of whether it handles these issues worse than anyone else. It’s a question of whether it has any credibility as a divinely-founded and guided organisation, staffed with spiritually transformed people, when it handles such issues in an all-too-human way. Even if it had handled the issues slightly better than other organisations, its credibility in making those claims would be in tatters, as there are all sorts of reasons why one organisation might do a slightly better job than the average. In the event, it has handled the issues in the same morally obtuse way as other organisations tend to, suggesting that it is a humanly constructed organisation, just like they are.

    In my mind, that was always the issue. It was never about whether the Church is actually worse than other organisations. That never struck me as proved or even particularly likely, and the actual reports don’t really give that impression (I’ve ploughed through a lot of them), but nor did it ever seem that relevant to the central issue of whether the Church is what it holds itself out to be.

    We shouldn’t make the issue one of statistics between the Church and other organisations. The issue is simply why the Church, with all its moral pretensions, has shown such horrible obtuseness, callousness, etc., etc. Those pretensions now lack credibility.

  40. 41

    “We shouldn’t make the issue one of statistics between the Church and other organisations.”

    No, and I agree with everything you said … but then you see the way the Vatican and NCR and so on twist that ever so slightly and push the party line that ‘we told you human nature was flawed, everyone’s at it, it’s the spiritual corruption of the times and rise of secularism, it’s considered normal, some of our priests succumb to that, they never report that this is going on in other organizations, this is what happens when you leave gays alone for five minutes’. Just look at the article I linked to in the post above.

    Running an international child rape gang is not ‘human nature’, child pornography is not ‘normal’. More of it happens than we are comfortable acknowledging, but even given that, it’s not some mainstream activity, it’s an appalling taboo, one that would get you sacked from most organizations for making a light remark about, let alone actually doing on company property with your manager complicit.

  41. 43

    But then I remembered that the Chinese communist party does not hesitate to prosecute and convict hundreds of its members every year, mostly on corruption charges …

    Note, however, that while the Catholic church actively shields members who are child rapists, it WILL excommunicate members who have or permit abortions. Authoritarian organizations don’t protect their own indiscriminately; if they did, they’d lose the ability to control through punishment.

  42. 44

    “while the Catholic church actively shields members who are child rapists, it WILL excommunicate members who have or permit abortions.”

    They excommunicated Goebbels … because he married a Protestant. No other Catholic members of any of the fascist regimes were excommunicated.

  43. 45

    Great example of group-think in the comments!

    Let’s all pile-on the tribalism of sports programs, authoritative institutions, and of course, the scum of all scum ORGANIZED religion.
    The most important thing is to reinforce the distinction of how different we are from them. Perish the thought that it could possibly happen in our group.

    Message to pedophiles!
    Come volunteer your time at Skepticamp. You have the perfect cover because no one will entertain the possibility of any ill intentions being perpetrated here. Scientists aren’t capable of such monstrosities. Cancel those career plans for joining the seminary or coaching sports teams. Become a scientist, instead.

    Excuse me, but the humanitarian side of me would rather protect children. Instead of convincing ourselves that such things could never happen here, let’s make sure they don’t.

  44. 46

    “Instead of convincing ourselves that such things could never happen here”

    No one has said anything like that, though. I think organizations where adults and children come into contact need clear rules to try to prevent inappropriate behavior, mechanisms to report it and transparency.

    I don’t know if ‘religion’ plays a separate role, brings a whole new motivation, to abuse. In some cases – ritual sex, traditions of child brides, dominant charismatic guru cults – it clearly does, but to be fair to the Catholic Church, I don’t think any priest has raped a kid and claimed it was God’s will.

    What the Catholic Church is, though, is a perfect storm for pedophiles – authoritarian, opaque, international, concerned with maintaining its reputation at all costs, above the law, rich, politically-connected, run by people who are sexually ignorant, people who don’t have children of their own. I don’t think it was *designed* as a pedophile ring (it was clearly designed as a business network and evolved into a simple extract-money-from-peasants scam), but it clearly wasn’t hard to retask it to that purpose.

    Yes, *all* organizations should be vigilant. Who argues different?

  45. 47

    A good article, but I wanted to talk about one thing that the two have in common. (It looks like others have done so already, but I don’t have time to read a whole comment thread right now unfortunately… just wanted to share this because it relates to an anecdote I like to tell)

    What sports and religion both have in common is that, for the vast majority of followers, which “team” you root for is purely a matter of happenstance — and I think that inspires a uniquely rabid and tunnel-vision-y form of tribalism. Sure, there are people who are fans of sports teams other than either a) where they live or b) who their parents rooted for. And there are people who have changed religions. But these folks are the exception, not the norm. Most people’s religious and team affiliation are both driven solely by geography and upbringing, and the choice of affiliation is arbitrary.

    I’m not trying to knock sports fans in this regard. I am cursed to be a fan of the Buffalo Bills just because I live about an hour east of where they play. I suppose I could choose a different team, but just like religion, there’s no real way of establishing which team I “should” root for. (Simply rooting for the most successful team takes away 100% of the drama and emotional attachment of being a fan, and there are really no other objective criteria… I did root for the Panthers a little bit back in 2006 or so because I liked the playing style of a couple of their big name players, but rosters change and now I couldn’t care less about them)

    This can all be healthy fun if you maintain perspective, and realize your choice of team affiliation is arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. But many sports fans (and theists!) seem incapable of doing so. And here comes the anecdote I like to tell: I have to be careful when watching games around “true” Bills fans. If a big penalty goes against Buffalo, and I think the call was legitimate, I will say so. Oooo boy does that piss off “true” fans! Any time a penalty against your team is significant, you are supposed to think the refs are in the bag for the other team, that “we got ripped off”, etc. I won’t say I’m not biased, of course I’m biased… but when a blind otter could see that the ref is right (even to the detriment of the Good Guys), I will say so. And that’s a sin among “true” fans. Hell, I’ll even say the ref got it wrong, even when his mistake benefits the Bills, if it’s obvious to me that is the case. Blasphemy!

    I think we’re seeing some of that blind tribalism in the Penn State case, and I think the reason, as I said, is because the choice of affiliation is completely arbitrary, and nobody can really make a pretense otherwise without being deeply disingenuous. With political affiliation, by contrast, there are at least nominal reasons why we make the choices we do (even if those aren’t the actual reasons) and one can potentially make an argument for why one’s opinions are not arbitrary. The same with what company you work for, or whatever. Although the nominal reasons might not be the real reasons, there at least can be nominal non-arbitrary reasons for loyalty.

    That is simply not the case when it comes to religion or sports. In those arenas, loyalty is entirely arbitrary.

    And when loyalty is arbitrary, in order to maintain that loyalty, people end up deafening themselves to good reasons why they should abandon that loyalty. Even to the extent of maintaining loyalty in the face of child rape, apparently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *