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.)