Between the John McGahern Ban and Westlife’s First LP

by Henry Farrell on April 8, 2010

Another Bloggingheads, this time with Brink Lindsey, covering the helicopter gunship attacks still being discussed below, David Frum, and the parlous state of Catholicism again. “One bit”: which is worth developing on a bit – I mention in passing that Ross Douthat made a ridiculous claim about the causes of the Catholic priest pedophilia coverup. The exact argument is “here”:

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.) But it was the church’s conservative instincts — the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics — that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished.

The problem with this claim is that one of the countries discussed by Douthat (a) did not have a permissive sexual culture during the 1970s (or, for that matter, 1980s and early 1990s), (b) did not notably overemphasize therapy (or, indeed, emphasize therapy at all), and (c ) was arguably responsible for the worst abuses and cover-up of all. That country, of course, being Ireland. Ireland’s public sexual mores did loosen up a little during the 1970s. In the late 1960s, a hint on public television that night clothes might be doffed on a couple’s wedding night was sufficient to produce public debate and episcopal fulminations on the rising tide of filth threatening to swamp the country. By the 1970s, the country had advanced to the stage where a soap opera could mention that a married couple might use birth control if a second pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother. By the time that I myself went to college in the late 1980s, it was still impossible to buy birth control without a medical prescription (the idea being that doctors would only prescribe to married couples), and there were regular battles between the Student’s Union – which kept trying to instal a condom vending machine – and the university authorities – which kept ripping it down in the middle of the night. Therapy was a decidedly odd notion, confined to Protestants and agnostics in a few metropolitan areas. Ordinary decent Catholics allowed their neuroses to blossom or fester, depending on their social acceptability; and in dire emergencies and near breakdowns, perhaps consulted their local priest.

Perhaps this all counts as sinful licentiousness by Douthat’s standards. What is curious, then, is how the causal impact of 1970s permissiveness extend backwards, as well as forward in time. Ireland’s “Child Abuse Commission’s report”: suggests that many of the worst abuses occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, some of the worst institutions had already closed down by the early 1970s. In the report’s description:

The Confidential Committee heard evidence from 1090 men and women who reported being abused as children in Irish institutions. Abuse was reported to the Committee in relation to 216 school and residential settings including Industrial and Reformatory Schools, Children’s Homes, hospitals, national and secondary schools, day and residential special needs schools, foster care and a small number of other residential institutions, including laundries and hostels. 791 witnesses reported abuse to Industrial and Reformatory Schools and 259 witnesses reported abuse in the range of other institutions. … 77% of witnesses were aged over 50 years and 3% were under 30 years of age when they gave their evidence to the Confidential Committee. … Witnesses reported being physically, sexually and emotionally abused, and neglected by religious and lay adults who had responsibility for their care, and by others in the absence of adequate care and supervision.

Sexual abuse was reported by approximately half of all the Confidential Committee witnesses. Acute and chronic contact and non-contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time. The secret nature of sexual abuse was repeatedly emphasised as facilitating its occurrence. Witnesses reported being sexually abused by religious and lay staff in the schools and institutions and by co-residents and others, including professionals, both within and external to the institutions. They also reported being sexually abused by members of the general public, including volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employers, foster parents, and others who had unsupervised contact with residents in the course of everyday activities. Witnesses reported being sexually abused when they were taken away for excursions, holidays or to work for others. Some witnesses who disclosed sexual abuse were subjected to severe reproach by those who had responsibility for their care and protection. Female witnesses in particular described, at times, being told they were responsible for the sexual abuse they experienced, by both their abuser and those to whom they disclosed abuse.

If I sound sarcastic in this post, it’s because it’s the only way that I can write about this without being overwhelmed by bitterness and rage. These vile abuses had nothing to do with a 1970s culture of permissiveness. Douthat’s claim to the contrary is worse than lazy. It is actually quite shameful. The “pox on both your houses” insulates him – and the church he is trying to defend – from the obvious fact that it was exactly the conservative features of the Irish church and its social dominance that were causally responsible for perpetuating the rape and sexual abuse of many hundreds of children in religious institutions. These included not only hierarchy and the conspiracy of silence among the powerful, but a terror of, and disgust for, both female sexuality and homosexuality. The victims of sexual abuse had nowhere to turn, because they were identified as complicit in their own abuse, if not indeed its instigators. Being the ruination of a priest or brother was an enormous cause of shame. Failing to acknowledge this – and resorting instead to a cheap conservative trope about the sexual license of the 1970s – is intellectually dishonest and rather contemptible.



Kieran Healy 04.08.10 at 2:01 am

Hear, hear.


Tom Hurka 04.08.10 at 2:05 am

Powerful post.


Witt 04.08.10 at 2:10 am

Thank you for saying this.

I was tempted to go off into speculation about why this guy thinks he can get away with that kind of statement (Americans’ ignorance of other countries? A Cheney-esque Big Lie?). But I don’t think it matters. Much more important to counter with the facts, as you did.


Bloix 04.08.10 at 2:19 am

Does anyone know how long this has been going on? Have priests been raping children for hundreds of years? or did something extraordinary happen to the priesthood in the 1950’s?


polyorchnid octopunch 04.08.10 at 3:02 am

On this side of the pond, we don’t call him Douche Hat for nothing. This is far from the only example of his complete and utter fuckedupedness.


Vance Maverick 04.08.10 at 3:08 am

Thanks, Henry. Reading this I was torn between horror at your summary and satisfaction that the right stick had been found to beat RD with.


P O'Neill 04.08.10 at 3:09 am

Andrew Sullivan is collecting material on the “how long has this been going on” question. It’s worth a look. Short answer: a long time.

Note also that Papa Ratzi has sometimes sounded like he blames the post Vatican II era (e.g. that’s one reading of his letter to the Irish).

And one thing has come across in interviews with the 1970s perpetrators, which one might think would be the best subjects for the Douthat argument: they were abused themselves by priests from the previous generation.


chrismealy 04.08.10 at 3:35 am

For a guy as boring as Douthat “intellectually dishonest and rather contemptible” is praise.


Salient 04.08.10 at 3:53 am

Thanks, Henry. And we sympathize completely with bitterness and rage, at the events themselves, and amplified by Douthat’s article. I can’t find a single sentence in Douthat’s article that does not provoke some kind of response in the flabbergasted-to-overwhelming spectrum. I couldn’t finish reading it, so perhaps I am wrong. But for those who didn’t click through, consider even the comparatively mild introduction:

The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded [to a threat] ruefully: “Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”

Two centuries later, the clergy has taken another shot at it. What the American and Irish churches have endured in the last decade and what German Catholics find themselves enduring today is all part of the same grim story: the exposure, years after the fact, of an appalling period in which the Catholic hierarchy responded to an explosion of priestly sex abuse with cover-ups, evasions and criminal negligence.

Now the scandal has touched the pope himself.

I bet he smirked when he wrote that.


What a horrible article. Perhaps someone should let Ross know that the priests in question are properly understood to be perpetrators and enablers of horrible crimes, not self-destructive victims who are “taking a shot at” destroying their own church.


christian h. 04.08.10 at 4:54 am

Well Douthat is who he is – a despicable person with nothing interesting to say. The real question that should be asked is why the NYT would give space to a hack like him. I am not sufficiently deluded to think that the paper could actually hire a leftist to write a column – but at least they could try for someone who doesn’t spout warmed-over culture war tripe twice a week. Or just use the money to pay for reporting.


Colin Danby 04.08.10 at 5:27 am

It’s hard just keeping track of all the bad arguments. Surely part of the point of Catholicism is access to a timeless moral core … but suppose we take this argument at its strongest — I lived through the 1970s in the U.S.; as a child and adolescent, and I really don’t remember the part about raping children being OK.

It also pisses me off that sexual permissiveness is reflexively classed as “left.” Most of the old left that I remember was quite prudish. And more seriously, 2nd-wave feminism, a genuine product of the 1970s, articulated a thorough, radical critique of sexual violence. (A critique that has some explanatory power re the current scandals.) Read your Kate Millett. So what the hell is he talking about?


Professor Booty 04.08.10 at 6:32 am

Well said. And I will be surprised if the next two decades don’t reveal that there are sex scandals on this scale going on right now in the developing world, in countries where the Church retains the prestige and authority that it formerly had in Ireland and, at least locally, within the US. How easy would it be for a Filipino, Bolivian or Kenyan boy, today, to tell his parents that his priest had sodomized him?


giotto 04.08.10 at 6:39 am

Bloix, this been happening in the church for 2000 years. There is absolutely nothing new in any of this. Of course, one needs to separate the “facts”–or at least the credible accusations– from the anti-Catholic propaganda of Protestantism, which contained a great deal of scurrilous accusations of sexual malfeasance among the Catholic clergy. But there is a paper trail in the Church itself of attempts to deal with this problem. Pope Leo IX (1049-1054), for example, knew that some priests were abusing boys, but essentially chose to look the other way.

There is no shortage of respectable literature on this. See Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. One of the authors is Patrick Wall, who was once a “fixer” for the church, protecting the church’s image by convincing abuse victims to keep silent. To his credit he has since turned against the church on this matter and is now trying to expose the systematic cover-up. He is featured in this recent story–as if things weren’t already despicable enough, it now seems the Church was dumping its known child rapers into Native American communities.

For something perhaps more academically respectable, there is “Child sexual abuse and the Catholic church: An historical and contemporary review” published in the journal Pastoral Psychology, Volume 45, Number 4 / March, 1997, available online from Springer via most university libraries. The first line of the abstract:

Although the recent revelations of clergy sexual abuse suggests an unusual and recent epidemic among the Catholic church, the historical record suggests this difficulty has plagued the church over the centuries.

It is also worth noting, I would think, that there is probably nothing unique to Catholicism about any of this. This is what happens when powerful institutions are allowed to operate without accountability.


PJM 04.08.10 at 7:27 am

Thanks for this Henry. I’m an Irish historian and we constantly face this nonsense. The reality is that there was a culture of control and deference to those in authority until the late 70s at least which made it hard to challenge the existing structure. It was supported by the state and ‘respectable’ society – parents, professionals,teachers etc. Policemen or journalists who found things out were expected to report it to their bosses who would sort it out with the bishops. Large sections of society; education, medical ethics, ref0rm of young offenders were considered to be in the sphere of the church and the state kept away from regulating it. There were whistleblowers but they were ignored or suppressed. What is happening now is a traumatic but necessary step into being an adult society and a real republic.


JoB 04.08.10 at 7:35 am

Yeah, thanks! I quite possibly is exactly the opposite of Douthat’s knee-jerk reaction. There is a lot to be said that said ‘loosening of mores’ (commonly known as normalization of relationships, away from coercion into a lifelong prison where the only escape is voluntary exile) worked to it being possible for the abused to eventually cry out. If so – the reason we see comparatively less recent cases is not because the church has become better but because the inviduals are aware of what exactly is tolerable sexual behaviour (i.e. most currently normal behaviour) and what not, e.g. some outright criminal behaviour by people in positions of power & trust that was thought tolerable in the ‘bigger scheme of things’. I know that in my family, one generation up, there was not just one case of priestly abuse and that the abused felt they had no choice but to shut up – in fact, more precisely, they did not feel they had any choice in this at all.

But what gets me even more than the denial of the fact that the institution church has been in a structural way linked to child abuse, is that we hear nothing from many institutions in the third world where catholic (& other religious) dignitaries are being the future saintly benefactors in a set of conditions for the children that is exactly that of e.g. Ireland in the 70s.


Hidari 04.08.10 at 8:11 am

I don’t know what all these questions about ‘why did this happen’ and ‘who should we blame’ are all about. The Bishop of Tenerife has supplied the answer to this question, which is that the little tarts were begging for it.

So there you have it.


sg 04.08.10 at 9:16 am

since when did sexual permissiveness include having sex with children? This argument is as contemptible as the idea that they wouldn’t do it if they could marry, as if ordinary men outside the church will start shagging children if they can’t get a root for more than a year or two.

It’s pathetic.


novakant 04.08.10 at 10:03 am

Douthat’s arguments are of course strategically motivated and mostly wrong, but it’s not as if the “1970s culture of permissiveness” didn’t have a dark side used to facilitate paedophelia, cf. e.g.:

or a case currently shaking Germany’s public:


Barry 04.08.10 at 10:30 am

Witt 04.08.10 at 2:10 am

” I was tempted to go off into speculation about why this guy thinks he can get away with that kind of statement (Americans’ ignorance of other countries? A Cheney-esque Big Lie?). But I don’t think it matters. Much more important to counter with the facts, as you did.”

Technically, it’d be Rovian Big Lie, and I vote for that. He’s just one more person who figures that the only problem in these scandals is too much truth and too few lies.


GW 04.08.10 at 10:42 am

This attack on the sexual revolution disregards the fact that we simply would not have had the vocabulary and public discourse with which to discuss issues of sexual abuse without the sexual revolution and feminism (which provided an important corrective to extreme permissiveness, early on, by calling attention to issues of abuse, violence, and the misue of power). Yes, as Novakant notes, there was, at the early stages an element of free-for-all, but that was quickly reigned in, and the most important and long-lasting effect is that it has become possible to talk about these matters publicly and this has facilitated prosecution. Indeed, all evidence indicates that the greater public attention to this has led to a net reduction in abuse.

Speculating about a topic like sexuality, and sexual abuse in particular, is a difficult problem for historians when it is kept silent and there is no written record to consult. But there are bits of the record — like the huge numbers of orphanages in the 19th and early 20th century, or the custom of priests keeping unmarried-but-not-childless housekeepers — that are highly suggestive of a more complex private morality than is usually presumed.


JoB 04.08.10 at 11:16 am

16- Maybe you could argue that paedophiles found it easier to move around in those spheres – instead of having to wait for being ‘called’ – but it would be hard to argue that there were more paedophiles because of the culture. Although I’m sure the latter will be the line that a Polanski defense would take in a case that will probably never be held.

The case against celibacy (celibacy increasing the number of paedophiles) seems more plausible on the other hand.


novakant 04.08.10 at 11:37 am

at the early stages an element of free-for-all, but that was quickly reigned in, and the most important and long-lasting effect is that it has become possible to talk about these matters publicly and this has facilitated prosecution.

That’s simply not true. In the case referred to at my second link, the abuse was continuing unhindered until the mid 80s, the authorities failed to take notice and when they finally did, it was too late. The whole truth is only becoming widely publicized now and this is not an isolated case as the current scandals in Germany show.

I’m an atheist and regard the effects of the sexual revolution as mainly beneficial, but let’s not sacrifice the truth for the sake of convenience.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 11:54 am

I’m not sure. For starters, in Ireland at any rate, it seems sexual abuse of children and teenagers has deep cultural roots extending far beyond the institutional Church. The 2002 report on Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland showed that of a sample of 3,000 Irish adults, 722 reported that they had been subjected to sexual abuse during childhood and adolescence. Of these, 12 had been abused by clergy and 12 by teachers from religious orders. In other words, if you take the institutional Church out of the equation, you’re still dealing with more than 23% of Irish adults having been sexually abused by people who weren’t priests, brothers, or nuns. This whole thing is abominable.

I think you’re right in saying that the abuses had nothing to do with a culture of sexual permissiveness or with a culture of therapy, but there is some merit to these as explanations of how the Church mishandled what allegations it received, and I think it’s unfair to criticise Douthat in that regard.

The Murphy Report’s remit only stretched back as far as 1975, so we can’t really comment on what happened before that, save for one thing. On television in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the report on how allegations of sexual abuse were handled by the Dublin Archdiocese, the Archbishop of Dublin mentioned in passing that something changed in the 1960s in terms of how allegations were handled. He mentioned how he’d looked through files and found that allegations were handled properly, at least in terms of canon law, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but then this stopped.

Nobody picked up on this in the programme, but one thing that becomes clear from the Murphy Report was that the Irish Church’s internal handling of allegations was all over the place during the period covered by the report. If you look at the three canon lawyers who advised Cardinal Connell, for example, the report shows that one took the line that the Church should deal with these things internally but was completely opposed to applying any penal processes and interfered in others’ handling of things; his successor was a far less machiavellian figure, and handled accusations very well, but was pretty much incapable of enforcing his decisions; the third chancellor, who is still in place, was neither as cynical nor as weak as his predecessors, but he took a while to find his feet.

I think the Pope pinpointed two key issues here in his recent pastoral letter, when he attributed the Irish Church’s failures to, among other things, ‘a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal’ and ‘a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations’. The former was an old problem, of course, and Douthat picks up on this in his criticism of the Church’s conservative instincts, but the reluctance to apply Canon Law to deal with allegations of sexual abuse etc was something that only began in the 1960s.

It seems that Canon Law in the post-conciliar decades was largely limited to issues of marriage and annulment, and that its penal aspects fell into disuse. It looks as though the Church was trying to shake off its legalistic image in the freer age the Council ushered in. The net result, of course, was to allow abusive priests a freedom they had never previously had.

Regarding therapy, whatever about wider society, it certainly was favoured within the institutional Church, and psychiatric advice was indeed taken. The Murphy Report notes that paedophilia proper tended to be regarded as a form of insanity or mental illness, which raised the question of whether paedophile priests were fully culpable for their actions. The Church seems to have felt it had an obligation to care for people it regarded as being ill, and went in for therapy and psychiatric approaches as much as possible.

The report takes the view that this was a reasonable approach to the situation provided said priests were not at liberty to cause further harm. Unfortunately, as we know, this all too often not the case. There seems to have been an unwillingness to enforce decisions, and often there was an inability to do so too. Given the Church’s instinctive conservatism, its culture of confidentiality, and the fact that there are 184 parts in the Church in Ireland, with nothing even resembling a clear chain of command to an extent that in a very real sense nobody was in charge, this is hardly surprising.

None of which, of course, does anything to defend or deny what happened. Douthat’s explanation goes no distance to explaining why the abuse in all its formed happened, but it doesn’t seem intended to; as an explanation of how the Church utterly failed to stop what was happening, though, I think it works pretty well, and certainly isn’t lazy.


Alex 04.08.10 at 12:08 pm

Depending on how you read this, it would seem to be the Party Line. (Note: the post is a two-reader at least)


Adam Kotsko 04.08.10 at 12:09 pm

I’m glad the Times decided to replace a Republican apologist hack (Kristol) with a Roman Catholic apologist hack (Douthat). Maybe once Douthat doesn’t work out they can hire Dobson or something.


Ceri B. 04.08.10 at 12:09 pm

Thirsty Gargoyle: The thing that keeps me thinking that Douthat deserves to be nibbled to death by rabid weasels or something of the sort is in the point you touch on with “He mentioned how he’d looked through files and found that allegations were handled properly, at least in terms of canon law, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but then this stopped.” The thing is that all this proper handling didn’t stop priests abusing children. Which, you know, sort of makes it less than satisfactory for those of us who prefer children not be abused by authorities.

I’m certainly willing to grant that there were some chaotic transitional times in there – The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Final Conclave got me interested in clerical history as an adolescent, so I read a fair amount, and have sympathy for people who find their whole cultural matrix shifting and shifting unexpectedly. What I can’t do is see that as at all explaining how all the prior institutions could be that great given that they’d institutionalized the abuse of children and the covering up of the abuse.

Douthat seems a lot more interested in impressive magisterium than in worth.


novakant 04.08.10 at 12:09 pm

I really don’t care about canon law or whatever – sexual abuse of children is a crime. Why can some institutions apparently claim they are above the law and don’t have to report such crimes to the police immediately?


sg 04.08.10 at 12:29 pm

because of the sexually permissive culture of the 70s, novakant. And because of the multi-culti hordes infesting our institutions…


Richard J 04.08.10 at 12:32 pm

because of the sexually permissive culture of the 70s, novakant

Which is why, of course, that 10% of women suffering from gonorrhea in the late 20s were under 13.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 12:38 pm

Ceri and Novakant, I think part of the problem now is that we don’t even know what Archbishop Martin’s point meant. For starters, he could have been lying. I don’t believe he was, but let’s face it, he’s presented no evidence. Still, without statistics and detailed evidence, it’s next to impossible to say whether handling things properly – in accordance with canon law, that is – achieved anything. It may well have stopped the accused priests from abusing further children. We just don’t know. It certainly won’t have stopped priests who weren’t accused, of course.

As for the reporting of crimes, I brought this up to a friend who’s a detective in the Irish police a few months ago, especially given that he’s dealt with abuse cases. It bothered me, on reading the Murphy Report, that bishops who received reports of abuse didn’t pass them to the police, but also that it was incredibly rare for parents to likewise go to the police. Given that in both situations, you were dealing with adults who’d been told of crimes against children by other adults, why weren’t they all culpable?

His explanation, in reference to the parents, was that their passing the matter on the priests’ superiors should be regarded as a valid and responsible way of handling the matter. Of course, the implication here is that dealing with it internally is – or at any rate was – okay. If so, this pretty much means that the Bishops etc who didn’t pass on the allegations would have been under no obligation to have done so . If the victims and their parents didn’t want to go to the police, should the Bishops have done so?

I don’t really see a way you can hold the bishops to account for this without likewise blaming the parents who didn’t go to the police.

For what it’s worth, though, regarding the recent story about that Father Murphy in Milwaukee, you can at least see some of the value of the church having its own internal procedures. In the 1970s some of Murphy’s victims reported his crimes to the police, but the authorities declined to prosecute. Despite the secular authorities not having found him guilty of anything, he was nonetheless removed from the school and given no further pastoral assignment for the remainder of his life, with no allegations ever being made about his actions from 1974 onwards. In other words, it looks as though the Church was able to keep a lid on him in a way that the police couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have done.


bianca steele 04.08.10 at 12:45 pm

What are they teaching at Harvard (these days)? Both Kristol and Douthat are Harvey Mansfield proteges FWIW: he of the reasoned theoretical defense of presidential “sovereignty” in the tradition of Plato.


Ceri B. 04.08.10 at 12:51 pm

Thirsty Gargoyle, as a general matter I have more sympathy for people who listen to authorities and are deceived than for authorities who deceive those looking to them for help. There were, of course, brave parents willing to stick by their insistence that the priests and cops and courts and everyone else were wrong, and I respect them, and would like to spread lessons to others in forming such resolve and acting on it. But I can’t quite expect everyone to manage that thorough a revolt – and I also think it’s a lot harder than, you know, managing not to abuse children in the first place.


Barry 04.08.10 at 1:38 pm

Apologist #5,456: “I don’t really see a way you can hold the bishops to account for this without likewise blaming the parents who didn’t go to the police.”

I’m tempted to say that you probably don’t, but that would be letting you off the hook. As Henry pointed out above, Ireland was a land where the Church hierarch had tremendous power. Please read the post before commenting.


theAmericanist 04.08.10 at 1:39 pm

A proposition: more sins are caused by REpression than by EXpression.

There is an argument, about which I simply don’t know enough, that Irish Catholicism had different roots and growth from Rome. It is certainly true that Patrick was the first missionary to go outside the Roman world, and Cahill (in the modestly titled How the Irish Saved Civilization) makes a point of how earthy and relaxed about sexuality the Irish church was at the beginning. He specifically contrasts Patrick and Justin with Augustine, who was anti-erotic in the self-righteous manner of the reformed sinner. The Irish church was largely independent of Rome for many generations, until Whitby, and communications being what they were it is easy to imagine a very different feel for Irish Christinianity for a thousand years or so. Some folks think that Bridget was a bishop, in fact ordaining priests, arguing for a very different role for women in the early Irish church. (Then again, the Church also destroyed the sheilah-na-gigs whenever they could find ’em, so….)

Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first cardinal (mid-19th century), is a key figure — he was Rome’s man, the guy who more or less created the papal infallibility doctrine, AND he fought for the Catholic Church to take over Irish education. Not a sensualist, this guy: but a major authoritarian — and he was the star of the Irish church during the Famine, the kind of catastrophe that alters values and institutions, generally in a bad way.

Thus, the proposition: more sins caused by repression than expression. 行 不 行 ?


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 1:39 pm

Ceri, obviously I agree with you regarding those who were deceived, but one thing that’s clear from the detail of the Murphy Report – I’m not that familiar with the American stuff, for example – is that while there there was a general tendency to sweep things under the carpet in the Irish Church, this can’t be put down to one thing. Certainly, there seems to be no evidence of a general tendency for the Church authorities to have deliberately deceived those who sought help from them.

The thing is, I don’t think this is a matter of sympathy and who we might feel sorry for. I think there is a legal problem here, as I really don’t see that you can take bishops to task for not reporting allegations to the police if the victims and especially their parents were not themselves willing to do likewise. It’s not even a matter of concealing crimes, as that’s only a felony in Irish law if you know the crime has been committed, not if you simply believe it, let alone have merely been told of one.

It seems to me that to have any kind of a meaningful discussion of this, and any attempt to deal constructively with the problem, we need to separate this into two broad issues. One is the abuse itself, in all the forms it took, and taking in as much statistical and other data as possible; the Douthat article doesn’t deal with that, and as such it’s not really relevant to this discussion. The other is how the Church authorities dealt with abuse allegations and why it did so. It’s this that the Murphy Report and the current claims about the Pope relate to, just as it’s this that Douthat addresses in the article we’re talking about.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 1:43 pm

Barry, I read the post, and I am Irish, and I know and am friends with far too many people who were abused in Ireland, sexually and otherwise, including one of the most prominent victims of the industrial school system. My point is that there’s a legal problem here, and it goes beyond our sympathy.


parse 04.08.10 at 1:45 pm

I mention in passing that Ross Douthat made a ridiculous claim about the causes of the Catholic priest pedophilia coverup

The permissive sexual culture of the 70s may have had near as much to do with the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests as pedophilia, which is not much.

The majority of the victims in the cases reported were adolescents, not pre-pubescents, and many of them were boys. But labeling the problem “the Catholic priest homosexuality coverup” would unfairly shift the blame from the individuals and institutions who were responsible.

Pedophiles do not choose their sexual orientation; instead, their sexual orientation presents them with a huge problem. Don’t they have enough to worry about without being forced to answer for the sins of priests who were guilty of sexual abuse?


James Conran 04.08.10 at 1:53 pm

The Pope’s Irish Letter fell back on the old Ratzinger theme of moral relativism/liberalisation/Vatican 2 being to blame for all our modern day ills:

“In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse…”

On the other hand in the following paragraph he does include “a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal” in a list of “contributing factors” explaining the abuse.


John Rynne 04.08.10 at 2:03 pm

While I agree wholeheartedly with your post, I would dispute your recollection of events in the 1980s; surely you mean the 1970s.
I was at Trinity from 1976 to 1980, when the Students’ Union installed a condom vending machine and managed to keep it in place, open to the public, even though it was burned several times. I don’t remember when condoms became legal in Ireland, but Wikipedia says it was 1978.

Then came AIDS, and the situation had changed so much by the mid-1980s that, on a return visit, I was amazed to discover condom machines in pub toilets with a message from the Department of Health urging people to use them.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 2:09 pm

I’m not sure where you’re going with that, James. He certainly talked of confusion in the Irish Church with a view to explaining how action was often taken without sufficient reference to the Gospel, in particular noting the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous tendency to favour pastoral approaches over disciplinary ones when dealing with priests who broke the Church’s rules – the only rules the Church is empowered to implemented.

By the following paragraph, you presumably mean the one that begins by saying ‘Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found’? The one which then goes to give a non-exhaustive list of four key elements:
1. Poor selection processes for seminaries etc.
2. Poor formation processes in seminaries etc.
3. A forelock-tugging deference in society towards clergy and other authority figures.
4. A misplaced concern for the Church’s reputation and the avoidance of scandal.
This still strikes me as a good analysis, especially when combined with the the previous observation about the Church effectively ditching the penal aspect of canon law.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 2:13 pm

John, I think Henry’s right on that. When I started in UCD in the early 1990s, there were serious concerns about student unions being bankrupted by the huge costs associated with late 1980s court cases brought by SPUC about condom machines on campuses.


Barry 04.08.10 at 2:17 pm

Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 1:43 pm

“Barry, I read the post, and I am Irish, and I know and am friends with far too many people who were abused in Ireland, sexually and otherwise, including one of the most prominent victims of the industrial school system. My point is that there’s a legal problem here, and it goes beyond our sympathy.”

Some of my best friends are [black, jewish, abused]!”


John Garrett 04.08.10 at 2:17 pm

A friend of mine was among the first here in the US to go public about his abuse by Fr. Geoghan. After it had gone on for months, with many of his friends abused as well, he tried to tell his parents. His father punched him in the face. Twenty years later they were together in a bar, all drunks, and one of them asked the others if they remembered. And the rest all came from there.


Henry 04.08.10 at 2:20 pm

John Rynne – according to a more in-depth Wikipedia article “your memories have to be mistaken”: While contraception was legalized in 1978, it was only available via prescription – Haughey’s famous “Irish solution to an Irish problem.” That said, my post was misleading in that it suggested that you still needed a prescription in the late 1980s. In fact, it appears that the requirement for a prescription had been relaxed in 1985 legislation, although you could still only buy contraceptives in a designated place (i.e. a pharmacy). Hence the student union fights – and hence the impossibility of finding them in pubs. The Virgin Megastore did, as I recall, start breaking the law by selling them somewhere in the 1989-1992 period, and effectively challenging the state to stop them.


Pinko Punko 04.08.10 at 2:23 pm


Why did you close comments in the Kerr/Greenwald post? Perhaps you were annoyed, but it was actually getting somewhere between 350 and 500, meaning even with difficult or scattered interjections on a number of topics, the core understanding of THE ARGUMENTS was being advanced.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 2:23 pm

I beg your pardon? You told me I ought to read the post before commenting, as I seemed to have missed Henry’s point about the prominence of the Church in Ireland back in the day, and I responded by making it pretty clear that I’d taken in that point and indeed am very very familiar with the issues.


Henry 04.08.10 at 2:26 pm

pinko punko – I didn’t. We have a script which automatically closes comments on posts one week after they have been published in order to deter comment spam.


P O'Neill 04.08.10 at 2:52 pm

That 1985 legislation is a key moment in modern Irish history. FF opposing, as they opposed everything the Coalition did, and the emergence of Des O’Malley as a dissident.


John Rynne 04.08.10 at 3:48 pm

I stand corrected. Must buy new memory chips.


mpowell 04.08.10 at 4:13 pm

Douthat has made it clear on multiple occasions that he is truly the scum of the earth. But his employment at the NYT is not surprising and encapsulates everything wrong with that organization and other similar ones.


Jim Harrison 04.08.10 at 4:58 pm

We’re all especially upset about sexual misbehavior right now because of the current moral panic about child abuse, but the church’s financial and political malfeasance may be more of a problem in real-world terms. Thing is, the root of the problem isn’t the neurotic sexual morality promoted by the faith and it certainly isn’t the obvious falsity of its doctrines—all religions, after all, are systems of superstition, but they aren’t all so socially destructive. Granted the closed and hierarchical structure of the Catholic church, abuses are inevitable as they would also be in a secular organization of like constitution.


M. Gordon 04.08.10 at 5:40 pm

Re giotto #13: “It is also worth noting, I would think, that there is probably nothing unique to Catholicism about any of this. This is what happens when powerful institutions are allowed to operate without accountability.” I think there is, in fact, something unique about this, that JoB at #21 put his finger on: the celibacy requirement. Having done no research, and having no proof at hand (please feel free to correct me) I think that the celibate priesthood is an excellent place for people who wish to suppress and bury their sexuality as far as they can. This is what the entire system not only encourages but demands, regardless of your sexual orientation. The fact that sexuality cannot be repressed for your entire life, however, leads inevitably to what we see: church scandals involving not only pedophilia, but “scandals” involving perfectly consensual relationships between priests and parishoners, nuns and monks, etc. I think the unique feature here is that the requirements for celibacy are especially attractive to those whose natural sexual inclinations are unrealizable within social norms, and so MUST be suppressed.


Barry 04.08.10 at 5:41 pm

Thirsty Gargoyle 04.08.10 at 2:23 pm

“I beg your pardon? You told me I ought to read the post before commenting, as I seemed to have missed Henry’s point about the prominence of the Church in Ireland back in the day, and I responded by making it pretty clear that I’d taken in that point and indeed am very very familiar with the issues.”

I assume that you’re addressing me. The reason I said that was because you were either supifyingly ignorant, or an apologist for the abuse; thank you for clarifying that you aren’t ignorant.


Maria 04.08.10 at 5:48 pm

On the condoms in Dublin universities in the early to mid 1990s question, I remember there being quite a difference between Trinity and UCD. It was easier to get condoms in Trinity – less hidebound by Catholicism, more political and active student union with the likes of Ivana Bacik involved – than UCD, as I recall.

As Henry points out, the Trinity students union was almost bankrupted by the right wing Catholic organisation, SPUC, for the heinous crime of providing phone numbers of clinics in the UK where women could get abortions. Not only was (and is) abortion illegal in Ireland, but information and freedom of travel were also proscribed. Take that, First Amendment fundamentalists… The many Irish people on this thread will remember all too well the horrific circumstances that eventually led to a referendum on those questions.

I suspect that if Ross Douthat had actually grown up in a country bound by the Catholic conservative dogma he seems to yearn for, he would have a very different opinion to those of us who did. It makes quite a bit of difference if, for example as a teenage girl you personally knew another girl who was sent by her family to a Magdalene house because she got pregnant. There is no such thing as compassionate conservatism when you have no choice but to live under it.


Maria 04.08.10 at 5:52 pm

Barry, what an uncivil comment. Thirsty Gargoyle’s question about parents/bishops may not be the central theme in this thread, but it’s worth a moment’s reflection and not reasonable to call him an apologist for abuse on the strength of it.


toby 04.08.10 at 5:58 pm

Ireland was changing in the 1970s and 80s, faster than Henry’s account allows.

Take the Pope’s visit in 1980. The two prominent clerics who orchestrated the “Youth Mass” at Galway both fathered children out of wedlock. David McWilliams has a hilarious account of his school’s attendance turning into a drunken romp, during which the daughter of one of his town’s solid citizens lost her virginity behind the Pope’s tent. If JPII only knew!

The abortion rate grew at a fast pace. More people were “doing it” than ever before, in or out of wedlock, but no one dared admit it. Doctor’s (not all, of course) could perscribe the pill for “the regulation of periods” to unmarried young women. Of course, which doctors would, and which would not, was common knowledge in every Irish town.

But Henry is right that the public standard was far from “permissive”. “Don’t get caught” was the rule, and to say that clergy were influenced by declining public standards does not stand up. However, paedophile clergymen may have been influenced by the lax standards of peers and superiors in their private sexuality. I am reminded of a priest who abused the child of a friend at the school where the priest was a teacher. At his trial, the priest offered the excuse, through his lawyer: “He felt he should have some fun in his life”.


Doctor Science 04.08.10 at 6:00 pm

sg asked:

since when did sexual permissiveness include having sex with children?

and Colin Danby said:

I lived through the 1970s in the U.S.; as a child and adolescent, and I really don’t remember the part about raping children being OK.

You don’t remember the time before the sexual revolution. And by “the time”, I mean “all of human history”.

Look at Hogarth’s Marriage a la mode, #3. The Viscount is with a prostitute who is clearly and obviously a child — who already shows signs of syphilis. Her youth (I think Hogarth’s accompanying text states that she is 12) emphasizes that the Viscount is licentious and depraved. But the picture doesn’t imply that the Viscount and the child’s madame are monsters beyond the bounds of human behavior: they’re bad in a very ordinary way. “Things like this happen, what do you expect?”

We now think of rape and child abuse as a horrible crime committed by one human against another, like cannibalism. Until very recently in human history, people tended to think of it as variably bad or nasty, but more like wretched butchery or abuse of livestock. These things happen, you see — and you’re disappointed, but you shrug.

Rape is traditionally — as, for instance, in the Hebrew Bible — considered first a crime against property. The crime was not thought of as “doing a horrible thing to another human being”, but as “taking without authorization, reducing the value of another man’s property”. That’s why one of the “punishments” for rape in the Bible is to force the rapist to marry the victim — because the raped woman was not thought of as the victim, any more than a stolen horse is the victim of a horse-thief.

When women are not-quite-human, not-as-good-as-human, second class, property, necessarily subservient to men, then rape becomes something that mostly happens to second-class people, and anyone who is raped gets some of the properties of a woman. A public service ad Sullivan recently highlighed shows that this is by no means an extinct point of view.

I’m trying to remember, and I honestly don’t know if there was an idea of “abuse”, in a general emotional/physical/sexual way, in common parlance before the early(/mid?) 70s. Adults hitting or tormenting children, husbands doing similar to wives — it might be *bad*, but I don’t recall understanding that it was considered a *violation*, an intrinsic wrong. As I said above, it was more like hurting animals than like cannibalism: bad, but not horrific or revolting. Not more than you’d expect.

My grandmother grew up in a convent/orphanage in Ireland, after her mother died. I don’t think she was sexually abused, but from her voice when she talked about the place I think we’d now say it was “a physically and emotionally abusive environment”. Kind of like hell.


mds 04.08.10 at 6:10 pm

Bloix, this been happening in the church for 2000 years.

since when did sexual permissiveness include having sex with children?

This is one of the tells of social conservative thinking, especially in the US, of which Douthat is a prime example. The notion of “consent” always seems to elude our noisy moralizers. Why, if people of the same sex can be legally married, what’s to stop pedophiles or practitioners of bestiality from claiming the same right? Never mind the moral bankruptcy of equating all those things; what’s missing is any acknowledgment of “consenting adults.” There’s a tendency for them to downplay rape in general using this reasoning as well.


mds 04.08.10 at 6:13 pm

See also: Doctor Science at 57. Must hit submit sooner if I’m ever to win.


Doctor Science 04.08.10 at 6:23 pm


Yes, conservatives have a lot of trouble with the idea that “consent” is central to sexual morality. I guess I’m saying that it’s because they are *conservative*, they’re going by pre-sexual revolution rules which are organized around respecting hierarchies.

The pre-Vatican II Catholic Church had a very strong hierarchy, a Great Chain of Being where some people were clearly more worthwhile than others. If someone high up the Chain shows human weakness, forgiveness is a good thing — the unforgiveable sin was to not respect the Chain itself.


Uncle Kvetch 04.08.10 at 6:33 pm

I suspect that if Ross Douthat had actually grown up in a country bound by the Catholic conservative dogma he seems to yearn for, he would have a very different opinion to those of us who did.

I don’t see why. As a man, he wouldn’t need to concern himself with things like being sent to a Magdalene houses or having to go to another country to get an abortion. As for birth control, it’s hard to imagine him having a problem with condoms not being freely available to college students — he’s already made his feelings on the subject very clear (and provided us more insight into his own sexual hangups than any of us could ever have wanted).

Douthat is a fool, an insufferable prig, and a moral wretch. The self-destruction of the New York Times continues apace.


Harry 04.08.10 at 6:47 pm

My grandfather attended a boarding school in northern england run by CofE monks. He was a devout anglican (low church, I think) his whole life. But he despised monks, and monasticism, and also despised homosexuality. (Dr Science’s comments about her grandmother reminded me of this). There is another story to be told here — the way that the church(es) promoted homophobia in a world in which the only direct knowledge many heterosexual males had of same-sex sex was abusive. The sexual permissiveness trope has two aspects — women being able to claim their own sexuality as authentic and worthy of respect (not someone’s property) and homosexuals being able to be out and proud.

I am not anti-Christian at all, and not anti-Catholic particularly, but the apologists for the church, including Douthat and the Pope, sound like cultists to me. Serious crimes within your own walls are matters for the secular law. I’ve found TG’s contributions here to be thoughtful and interesting, but the observation about not taking the bishops to task because not reporting a crime was only a felony if you had direct knowledge of it is rather desperate. Any Bishop who holds himself only the standard of non-feloniousness is in the wrong business (unless the church is a cult, in which case it is quite the right business).


bianca steele 04.08.10 at 7:07 pm

To add to what mds and Doctor Science say: It’s possible to find, even in literature of the early 20th century (and not limited to any faith tradition) a sense by a man that he is not responsible for his own sexual feelings, in effect that his arousal is the woman’s sin. You might be able to see this in some of the quotes Amanda Marcotte posted a week or two ago, rapists insisting that the woman “flirted with” them, after the men had propositioned them and they had explicitly refused. I would guess the emphasis on “temptation” has something to do with that. So in this sense, the woman would seem to be accused of being sexual without first asking the man’s consent for it.


Bloix 04.08.10 at 7:37 pm

Dr Sci and mds – you both make good points about the historical acceptability of the abuse of children and particularly of poor children. My question is something different: has the priesthood always had so many pedophiles, or is this something new?

I have a hypothesis that it’s something new, which is anticipated to some extent by M. Gordon at #52, who writes, “I think that the celibate priesthood is an excellent place for people who wish to suppress and bury their sexuality as far as they can.”

My hypothesis is that, so long as all sexuality was considered shameful, a fair number of heterosexual men found a calling in the priesthood. They could persuade themselves that celibacy was a renunciation of something disreputable. But as hetero sexuality began to lose its stigma, many hetero men lost interest in becoming priests because they were no longer convinced that repressing their own sexuality had any value.

So there was an increase in the percentage of priesthood candidates with socially unacceptable sexual desires – gay men and men with fetishes, including pedophilia. And as the percentage of pedophile priests increased, the odds of a child coming into contact with one increased.

That’s my evidence-free hypothesis, which may or may not bear some relationship to reality.


Colin Danby 04.08.10 at 7:38 pm

Let’s sort out the questions, Dr. Pseudonym.

The original Douthat claim is that there was a bout of cultural disarrangement in the 70s that caused people to forget that raping children was wrong, which infected the Catholic Church — in other words the hippies made the priests rape the children. I think we agree that’s idiotic.

But you seem to be making a kind of mirror-image argument to Douthat — that it was not until the 1970’s that the wrongness of raping children was understood. I think this is wrong too, and I’d ask for evidence.

As a matter of long-term social history, yes, clearly, there has been an awful lot of nonconsensual adult-minor sexual activity, and there is a lot going on to this day. (Another way of putting it is that contemporary heteronormativity has caused us to forget or suppress the fact that across human history, young/old and powerful/powerless have arguably been more important cultural organizers of sexuality than male/female.) But beyond a certain point these generalizations stop being helpful. The several thousand years that you roam over includes a lot of different societies and notions of personhood.


James Conran 04.08.10 at 8:47 pm

@ Thirsty Gargoyle,

In quoting Benedict I wasn’t going anywhere other than to point out that he sees the secularisation of Irish society and post-Vatican II liberalisation within the church as being the ” overall context [within which] we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse”.

I then acknowledged that he also acknowledged that what you aptly paraphrase as:

“3. A forelock-tugging deference in society towards clergy and other authority figures.
4. A misplaced concern for the Church’s reputation and the avoidance of scandal. ”

also played a role (among still other factors).

The problem (OK, one problem) with this is that historically you can’t really separate the process of challenging the earthly power of the Church (which is tied in with points 3 & 4) from the societal process of secularisation/liberalisation.


Andrew 04.08.10 at 10:12 pm

In addition to everything else, fantastic titular Larkin reference.


sg 04.08.10 at 11:47 pm

63, Bianca Steele and others – I was going to add to my comment that anyone who has read 19th century literature knows that child abuse was much more prevalent before the sexual revolution, due to overcrowding, repression, etc. Reading Jude the Obscure is a very eye-opening insight into how the supposedly morally upright Victorians really behaved.

I think in many ways the sexual liberation of the 70s served to make these sexual crimes much harder to commit, not easier; and that seems to be the conclusion of people studying modern children’s attitude to and knowledge of sexual abuse.


Substance McGravitas 04.08.10 at 11:55 pm

My hypothesis is that, so long as all sexuality was considered shameful, a fair number of heterosexual men found a calling in the priesthood.

I wonder how clear the transmission of dogma was when it was delivered in Latin to illiterates. Also the church likes to make a big deal over a lack of central control now; just fifty years ago things were a lot different in terms of distance it was possible to travel easily and communications from one place to another. A further near-useless wondering is what Boccaccio’s stories would have been like if he had felt free to write as he wished.


bianca steele 04.09.10 at 12:17 am

@68: I think in many ways the sexual liberation of the 70s served to make these sexual crimes much harder to commit, not easier

Exactly as you’d expect.


bianca steele 04.09.10 at 1:37 am

Two of my close friends when I was younger read Jude the Obscure while I knew them. One decided to write a column for the paper expressing angst over the inevitability of Immanent Will as it accosted her in the elevator. The other decided to become a nun.


Substance McGravitas 04.09.10 at 2:53 am

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A former Catholic bishop who is already facing child pornography charges is now accused in a civil lawsuit of sexual abuse.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.09.10 at 3:17 am

James, I see what you mean now. Sorry if I sounded stroppy. In terms of how liberalisation within the Church contributed to what happened in Ireland, I reckon it’s fair to say that a preference for pastoral and therapeutic approaches – over penal and disciplinary ones – towards abusive priests was a new thing from the 1960s on, and proved the final crucial element in the perfect storm that seems to have flared up in the 1970s. And yes, I think you’re right that secularisation is necessary – aside from being inherently desirable – in terms of dealing with the excessive deference to clergy that marked Irish society for so long. I think it’s safe to say that that’s well underway now.

Harry, I completely agree that serious crimes are serious crimes, and matters for the state to deal with, and also that ‘any bishop who holds himself only the standard of non-feloniousness is in the wrong business’. I’m not trying to defend them, and I hope there are very few who take that line now. Given how things have been handled in Ferns over the past few years – and that’s the only diocese I’ve seen the figures for – it does look as though doing the bare legal mimimum is no longer good enough. Still, my point is that I suspect any bishops who failed to report things may well be utterly in the clear, legally speaking; how they square this with their own consciences is a very different matter, and I’m disappointed there haven’t been more resignations.

Perhaps the thinking is that they’ve caught up with reality now, and feel it’s better to remain in position and actually do their jobs, rather than to step down and throw the institutional church into further chaos, given the possibility of dioceses being merged around the country over the next few years in order to have a smaller number of good bishops rather than a brigade of mediocrities. I just don’t know, but I think the impending Apostolic Visitation may well make things a lot clearer.

Maria, thank you.

Barry, I’m no apologist for what’s happened. If you knew me, you’d know that. Anything but, in fact. I think about this far more than I like, and I’ve read immense amounts about it, including trawling through the whole of the SAVI study, the Ferns Report, the Ryan Report, and the Murphy Report. I don’t believe that trying to understand what’s happened and the extent to which there are degrees of culpability should be construed as trying to excuse or defend what’s happened.

Like I’ve said, it seems that almost a quarter of all Irish adults experienced some form of sexual abuse during their childhood or adolescence – this is a blight that’s ravaged and even ruined hundreds of thousands of Irish lives, and doubtless it continues to do so. I think we have an obligation to try to work through the whole mess, and I fear that in concentrating on clerical abuse to the extent we are, we seem to be neglecting the much bigger problem. Indeed, I suspect that we may even be making it worse by conjuring up clerical bogeymen and glossing over the reality that 59 out of every 60 Irish adult survivors of child sexual abuse were abused by people who weren’t priests. Their voices are still almost unheard.


Anders Widebrant 04.09.10 at 6:41 am

I don’t really see a way you can hold the bishops to account for this without likewise blaming the parents who didn’t go to the police.

Sympathies duly aside, I still can’t fully agree with this (the word “likewise” seems particularly wrong). The parents went to the church in the belief that it would “deal with its own” and, as I understand it, from their perspective it must have at least some of the time seemed to work, as priests were removed from the vicinity of their children.

The bishops were making their decisions not to go to the police in a very different environment. They had access to an aggregated view of the volume of abuse and were privvy to the details of how priests were re-assigned within the organization. They can’t reasonably have been under the impression that they were effectively dealing with the abuse.

And beside the issue of knowledge, I think there is a basic power hierarchy that may have legal repercussions as well: apart from any general duty to report illegal behaviour, parents are first and foremost responsible for their own children, while bishops have taken on a responsibility for member priests.


bad Jim 04.09.10 at 9:52 am

Indeed, I suspect that we may even be making it worse by conjuring up clerical bogeymen

Conjuring up? As in

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Here there are monsters. We aren’t talking about urban legends any more.

and glossing over the reality that 59 out of every 60 Irish adult survivors of child sexual abuse were abused by people who weren’t priests.

Well, no problem then! Tu quoque and it’s down in the noise region, no big deal, everyone was doing it …


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.09.10 at 10:57 am

That’s not what I’m saying, Bad Jim. There was a time when everyone thought child sex abusers were strangers, and so people weren’t vigilant enough with their children regarding those people who they knew – family members, friends, neighbours, and authority figures. The stranger was a bogeyman, whereas the real threat was usually far closer to home. Nowadays the threat is still very close to home, and I fear our constant focus on clerical abusers obscures that fact.

Back in mid-February I did a (highly unscientific) scouring of Irish Times archive for articles since the start of 2010 that mentioned child abuse; predictably, articles referring to or about clerical sex abuse vastly outnumbered those about sex abuse committed by people who weren’t clergy, and the latter group had been uniquely and massively increased by the glut of articles about Gerry Adams and his family. To read the Irish newspaper of record, which seemed to be going out of its way not to report on particularly horrible cases running in the courts at the time, you’d have thought that far more than 2 out of 3 cases of child sexual abuse in Ireland was committed by clergy, rather than the 1 in 60 figure that the SAVI report revealed.

What’s happened in the Irish Church is monstrous, but we mustn’t let that obscure the fact that the problem is deeply ingrained in Irish society in general.

I think that’s a good point, Anders, and I agree that ‘likewise’ was a poorly chosen word. ‘Also’ would have been better. Although section 1.16 of the Murphy Report unambiguously states that there was and is no legal requirement for bishops to have reported allegations of abuse to the police, section 1.34 argues that bishops were responsible for ensuring that offending priests were not protected by their status and were not facilitated in terms of privileged access to children.

I think it’s in the context of that responsibility that the Church’s complete failure to apply its own internal processes (esp. 1.15, 1.25, 1.62, 3.50, and chapter 4 in its entirety) was particularly reprehensible.

It’s reasonable, I think, to make a distinction between those bishops who had an aggregate of information about particular priests and those who believed instances of abuse were isolated instances or episodes. The standard way of handling abuse allegations seems to have been to ignore canon law completely and to deal with the offending priests by providing therapy with the aim of rehabilitation (Murphy 1.81) and then moving the offenders to new environments. This policy was clearly disastrous, largely because of the shockingly poor communications within the Irish Church (Murphy 1.63-69), but I don’t think it should be construed in the latter cases as being as callous, machiavellian, or wilfully naive as in cases where bishops knew priests were serial offenders.


Barry 04.09.10 at 2:36 pm

“The bishops were making their decisions not to go to the police in a very different environment. They had access to an aggregated view of the volume of abuse and were privvy to the details of how priests were re-assigned within the organization. They can’t reasonably have been under the impression that they were effectively dealing with the abuse.”

Aside from the bishops having more knowledge about this than anybody else, they had the power to deal with it with little public outcry, if they had so chosen [note to any apologists – I don’t mean 100% elimination of the problem with 0 public outcry, I mean eliminating the vast majority of the problem, with little public outcry].

It’s clear that when the bishops went to the parents, police, editors, politicians and bureaucrats, saying ‘please be quiet; we’re working on it, and Publicity Will Harm The Church’, they largely got their way. Now, if they had backed up those words with actions, moving problematic priests to positions where they’d have limited contact with minors, and were under supervision, they could have minimized this problem (in terms of both publicity and damage to people), and gotten away with it. There might have been some minor problems, but the first such priest who was defrocked and sent to prison for a few decades (for failing to cooperate) would have been the last, due to the example which was set.


joel hanes 04.09.10 at 3:39 pm

Adults hitting or tormenting children, husbands doing similar to wives—it might be bad, but I don’t recall understanding that it was considered a violation, an intrinsic wrong

Ralph Kramden regularly threatened his wife with physical violence.
“To the *moon*, Alice”
No one seemed to find this appalling.
Everyone laughed, and I can only assume that they recognized a familiar pattern.


clew 04.09.10 at 7:13 pm

Forgive me if I repeat someone —

Isn’t this a `natural experiment’? In the 1950s, the Irish church and secular society agreed that almost all sex was dreadful; now secular society largely agrees that consensual adult (hetero-?)sex is at worst regrettable, but child abuse is still dreadful.

So has the handling of sex of these two kinds, within the Church, become more or less similar?


Ciotog 04.09.10 at 9:21 pm

Thirsty Gargoyle, it may well be the case that sexual abuse was endemic in Irish society. It’s also the case that for 120 years, Irish society was one of the most intensely Catholic that has ever been seen in human history, and it was a particularly reactionary brand of Catholicism at that. I’m not sure you can separate “secular” sexual abuse from “clerical” sexual abuse in the case of Ireland.


PHB 04.09.10 at 11:20 pm

“The problem with…”

THE problem? THE? You think there is only one problem with this stupidity?

I really think that the apologists for the pedophile Pope should stop digging. They really aren’t helping at all here. All they do is to prove that neither the church nor its apologists get it.

For apologists for the church to pretend that something about Irish culture was the cause here is beyond ridiculous. In the first place the scandal is by no means unique to Ireland. It has occurred in Germany, the US and pretty much every other country where the Catholic church has a secure place in the establishment of the country. What is rather more interesting is where the scandals have not erupted (so far) : Protestant countries where the Catholic church could not expect the complicity of the authorities.

If the reason for the scandal was the ‘permissive society’ then where were the pedophile scandals in the Anglican and Baptist priesthoods? The only comparable scandal in Ireland would be the Kincora Boys Home which was run by a Protestant sect that was very bit as authoritarian as the Catholic church. There has been a similar scandal in the US ultra-orthodox community, again the basis being authoritarianism rather than permissiveness.

Hypocrisy, not permissiveness is the root of this scandal.


Thirsty Gargoyle 04.10.10 at 2:04 am

PHB – I’d be very careful about trying to play the Catholic card on this one. It seems that half of all girls fostered in historically Protestant and by then supremely social democratic Sweden in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, were abused. Yes. Half. There’s a massive investigation going on into this now, and it looks as though its going to rival the Ryan Report as a catalogue of horrors. Similarly, for all the news that’s recently broken about abuse in Catholic schools in Germany, one point that’s had very little attention has been how abuse was also rife in the Odenwaldschule, Germany’s most prominent ‘progressive’ school, during the 1970s and 1980s. What statistics there are seem to show broadly the same rates of abuse among ministers of other religions as among Catholic priests, although for some reason they don’t seem to get the same levels of media attention.

For all that, though, Ciotog raises a question that deserves very serious consideration, I think. Of course, there are those – such as Vincent Twomey in his 2003 study The End of Irish Catholicism? – that argue that Ireland over the last century or so hadn’t been properly Catholic at all. I think that may be going to far, but it’s certainly worth asking whether Irish Catholicism might have been a particularly poisonous stream of Catholicism. I don’t think, though, that we should just automatically assume that this was the case. One thing that serious examination of the detail of this stuff shows is that there are no straightforward explanations, and there shall probably be no simple answers.


hix 04.10.10 at 2:48 am

How is abuse and sexual abuse defined in those statistics cited here?

If beating children at school counts as abuse, 100% looks like a good number for over 60 year olds in Germany for example.


Aaron Baker 04.10.10 at 6:01 pm

Douthat has always shown a noxious mix of arrogance and cluelessness. Here he ventures into genuine depravity. Thank you for beating him as he deserves.


Bloix 04.10.10 at 11:33 pm


politicalfootball 04.11.10 at 12:08 am

I’m not sure if Douthat understands it, but he’s right to connect the abuse scandal to the sexual empowerment of the 60s and 70s. These stories would never have come to light were it not for the changes in the public dialogue about sex. Douthat notices that there was a time when priests weren’t accused of such things, and he’d like to return to that era.


politicalfootball 04.11.10 at 12:56 am

Yes. Half.

TG, the link you provided for this isn’t an actual source, nor does it provide a source other than “it was reported.” Where does that data come from? (I couldn’t find it via Google.)

Odenwald, I’d argue, is a fine example of how the Catholic Church’s stance is unique in this. Has a columnist out there suggested that Odenwald shouldn’t be singled out because of the broader problem of abuse? Yet the exact column you link offers that apologia for the Church.

For what it’s worth, the Catholic Church didn’t invent systemic child sexual abuse, nor is it the sole practitioner today. But the ordinary process of cleaning up scandals like this involves the leadership of corrupt organizations being disgraced, and often jailed. If Ratzinger steps down, Bernard Law returns to Boston, and the Church gets the sort of top-to-bottom scrutiny that Odenwald is getting, the scandal will die down eventually.

I don’t think anybody expects any of those things to happen. One of the problems with fostering systemic sexual abuse of children is that your organization might develop a reputation for systemic sexual abuse of children – especially if you stonewall instead of coming clean. That’s Ratzinger’s choice. He and his Church will have to live with the consequences.


Yarrow 04.11.10 at 2:01 am

Here a link to a story about the abuse in Swedish foster homes and orphanages. It says:

More than 250,000 Swedish children were placed in the state’s custody in the last 50 years. . . . According to the preliminary findings, 61 percent of women and 42 percent of men were subjected to sexual abuse during their time in foster homes or orphanages.



politicalfootball 04.11.10 at 4:07 am

88: Wow. How awful.


Anders Widebrant 04.11.10 at 1:31 pm

As it turns out, the Swedish figures are from a study of individuals who voluntarily came forward to witness about abuse in foster care. The 61%/42% portions are out of those interviewed only (404 individuals, 100% of which were abused in some way). The study does not as far as I can see make any attempt to apply its findings to the foster care population as a whole.

I posted an excerpt from the study here with a link to the whole thing.


Yarrow 04.11.10 at 2:39 pm

Thanks, Anders. No less horrifying for the people who were abused.

And also “No. Not half.”


Benthead 04.11.10 at 3:29 pm

Regarding the question of the consequences for the Catholic church: I am a non-believer who tended to view the Catholic church in fairly benign terms. I was pretty appalled at the church’s efforts to block condom use in Africa; it meant they had the blood of millions on their hands. But I saw that as a terrible (and unnecessary) extension of an understandable conservatism, a conservatism inherent in an institution that transmitted existential meaning to huge numbers of people, over several centuries. Anthropologically, the wish of both leaders and members to sustain this fabric of meaning, social support, and sensory experiences was wholly proper–that’s the kind of animals we are. (We are also animals that reason and argue and try to persuade one another, so attacks on Catholicism as “superstition” seems wholly proper, too.)

But this new stage of the cover-up crisis has really changed the way I look at Catholicism. Reading the clueless, contemptible comments by church leaders is shocking. It’s hard to see any other explanation but that, for them, the church exists above all as a institution for shoring up the prestige and power of officials, even at the expense of lives, efforts, and money of the members. Disgusting.

It’s doubtful the Pope will resign, or that there will be a deep change in church governance. But if my experience is common to lots of other people, the Catholic church will take a huge hit in terms of public regard. And, if that’s the case, it will erode drastically the power the church has in the secular world. I have respect for Catholic lay people as ordinary folks and believers; but I am beginning to have deep contempt for the Catholic leadership, and would be in favor of curtailing their privileges and public credibility at every turn.


Hans Lussenburg 04.12.10 at 9:28 am

Great commentary. Thank you!

I think it is important to point out that any time the Catholic Church professes sympathy for, or apologizes to, a victim of pedophillia and then follows the statement with a “but …..” or a “however ……” this totaly negates the sympathy or apology expressed and merely demonstrates to the victim how incredibly insincere and insensitive the Catholic Church really is.

In Civil & Common Law when one has wronged someone or some entity, the only defense is to throw oneself to the mercy of the court and to to profusely and sincerely apologize; as well as making amends as best one can. Thanks again.

Best regards,

Hans Lussenburg
Vancouver Island, BC, Canada


Lian 04.12.10 at 3:11 pm

There is an even broader point, applicable to the countries that did have loose sexual cultures in the 1970s. Which is to say, how on Earth can one equate consensual sex with pedophilia?

The problem is that the Church hierarchy has long been more focused on itself than the laity, or the world at large, and that its approaches to problem solving reflect that mindset.


AlanDownunder 04.13.10 at 12:12 am

Jim Harrison @51:
“Granted the closed and hierarchical structure of the Catholic church, abuses are inevitable as they would also be in a secular organization of like constitution.”

True, but the USDOD affects innocent civilians, journalists and prisoners and Goldman Sachs affects marks, patsies and treasuries while the Church affects students, orphans etc.

Also, the USDOD selects for video game cruelty and Goldman Sachs selects for sociopathic greed but, with celibacy, the Church selects for sexual deviance.


AlanDownunder 04.13.10 at 12:21 am

The pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, begs to differ – and pushes back:

“Many psychologists and psychiatrists have shown that there is no link between celibacy and pedophilia but many others have shown, I have recently been told, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia,”

Douthat is small beer.

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