Sunday, December 28, 2008

When did the Catholic Pedophile Priest Problem begin?

(updated two times, see below)

I've been meaning to do this post for a while so here goes...

By now, most folks who own a TV or subscribe to a newspaper know about the Catholic Pedophile Priest Scandal. Even the Catholic Church's own numbers from the scandal are shocking:

  • 4,392 US clerics accused of abuse from 1950-2002:
  • About 4% of the 109,694 priests serving in the U.S. during those 52 years were charged with abuse.
  • Over $1 billion in settlements to victims of these priests.

The likelihood is that these numbers are a dramatic UNDERCOUNT of the actual problem. John Walsh reports that more reliable estimates peg the number of pedophile Catholic priests in the U.S. at closer to 10,000.

Okay but here's my question: When did the problem of pedophile priests begin in the Catholic Church?

We know from accounts of survivors and confessions by priests of cases that go back as far back as the memories of anyone living today (basically to the start of the 20th century). The statute of limitations is such that once an accused priest has died, the pending cases against him are dropped (which limits our ability to know about cases going back further in time). But surely the problem didn't magically start 80 years ago. Rather it seems more likely that this has been going on for a long long long time.

Those who know they can get away with a crime are more likely to commit one aren't they (power corrupts and all that)? So it seems likely that when the Catholic Church ruled all of Europe, taxed people through indulgences, and routinely tortured and burned people at the stake (particularly women) -- that sexual abuse was likely widespread too. When the church is the law and above the law at the same time, wouldn't abuse have been rampant -- even worse than today? And if the person abused is more likely to become an abuser, isn't it likely that the cycle of abuse in the church has been going on for over a thousand years? Literally.

So what's changed is NOT that the church suddenly developed a pedophile priest problem overnight (or even in the last 80 years). Rather, what HAS changed is that the rights of victims and the rights of children have become more advanced in the last 50 years -- allowing a problem that has always been there in the church to finally come to light.

The craziest thing to me in all the reporting on the pedophile priest problem is NOT ONCE have I ever heard a reporter ask the question as to when the problem began. It would seem in fact that any common sense guess as to the origins of the problem would trace it back to a time when the church first gained the power to commit abuse and get away with it -- which would trace it back at least a thousand years and even as far back as 1700 years ago.

Update #1:  Melinda Henneberger, on the March 19, 2010 Real Time with Bill Maher (Episode 177) on HBO said two things that support the assertions in this post.  Henneberger, a practicing Catholic, is the editor-in-chief of and was the Rome bureau chief for The New York Times.  She said: 1.) that 'Catholic priests don't view sex with boys as actual sex' -- just as some American politicians don't view oral sex as actual sex.  2.) 'that it has always been thus'; namely that the Catholic Church has had a problem of priests molesting boys for its entire history.  I found both of those details shocking, but Henneberger presented the information in a nonchalant -- everybody already knows this -- sort of way. Wow.

Update #2:  So now we have confirmation that Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was aware that a pedophile priest would be returned to pastoral work and did nothing to stop it.  "Pope Was Told Pedophile Priest Would Get Post: Informed as Cardinal Document Trail Shows Benedict Got Copy of Church Memo." March 25, 2010.  "The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish."   If you drive the get away car in a bank robbery, you go to jail because you are an accessory to the crime.  So too, Pope Benedict, by not preventing a known pedophile priest from being transferred to another parish where he would strike again, should go to jail. 


goliah said...

The answer to the question is: from the very origins of an institutional church, which according to a new manuscript/book pubished and circulating the web, probably has nothing to do with Christ, nothing to do with God and however implausible this may sound, may be about to fall from its own contradictions: This maybe the only way to end the plague of priestly pedophilia. Check the link:

Peter T said...

The problem of pedophilie has been magnified by the fundamental change in the sexual morals in the last century: Before 1920, certain practices like incest, sex with children and homosexuality were EQUALLY forbidden, out of tradition and disgust by the bourgoisie of the "unnatural decadence" of the nobility. The fight for the rights of homosexuals and other adults to live their live as they please weakened traditional morals, and taboos against sex with children were weakened along. I remember campaigns in Europe for the sexual "self-determination" of children in the 70s. Only new sexual morals, based on consent and safety, allowed to distinguish between homosexuality (good) and sex with children (bad, because consent is impossible).

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Peter T:

Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment too. You and I just see this really differently.

I think you and I would both agree that power corrupts, correct? That's a fairly noncontroversial point. And one of the reasons we wanted to get rid of kings was because, in the absence of elections, we could never hold kings accountable, and they could basically get away with anything.

So, for me then, it would follow that theocratic institutions -- like the Catholic Church, certain fundamentalist sects, and even some new age and Buddhist groups too -- that operate without transparency and without any forms of checks and balances are likely to be the source of a great deal of abuse. Secrecy is the ally of abuse. Openness and transparency help us rid the world of abuse.

It is only the transparency that has come about just in the last generation or two, where kids are listened to and can testify in court, that the problem of abuse by Catholic priests has finally come to light.