This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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 cover-up 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, “Hmmm. 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 I think it’s a complicated question… and I want to 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 cover-up — that’s 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 I want to look 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.
How Much Worse Was It?
1: Scope. At Penn State, one man, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with the rape of seven children. In the Catholic Church, over 4,000 priests raped over 10,000 children. That’s in the United States alone: not in Ireland, or Germany, or Italy, or Belgium, or Latin America, or Africa, or… And that’s according to conservative estimates. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher.
And at Penn State, about eight school officials and staff members are currently thought (according to grand jury records) to have turned a blind eye to the alleged rapes. In the Catholic Church, the Church officials who either ignored the rapes or deliberately acted to conceal them number in the hundreds — going all the way up into the top echelons of the Church hierarchy.
That is a huge freaking difference. To be comparable in scope to the Catholic Church child rape scandal, the Penn State scandal would have to extend to multiple major universities across the country, with a deliberate campaign of concealment extending throughout the Association of American Universities and into the top levels of the Department of Education. And as appalling as the recent events at Penn State are, that’s clearly not what we’re looking at.
Have non-religious institutions sheltered and defended child rapists? Yes. But have any of them done so on anywhere near the scale that the Catholic Church has? Not to my knowledge.
And it’s hard to see religion as irrelevant to that. Religion is uniquely unfalsifiable — and it thus has a unique lack of any sort of reality check. And most religions have a belief in a perfect moral authority, and a belief that it understands the wishes of that moral authority and knows the right way to interpret them. So because of this lack of reality check, and because of this belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that trumps human morality, religious institutions have a uniquely powerful armor against any sort of criticism or self-correction. And because of that armor, appalling situations — like the widespread rape of children by priests — have the capacity to spin wildly out of control, with a scope that’s hard to imagine in secular institutions.
2: Duration. As far as we know, the alleged rapes of children by Sandusky at Penn State, and the conspiracy of silence about them, have been going on since about 1996. The rapes of children by Catholic priests had been going on for decades — possibly centuries — before people finally began talking about them.
That, again, is a serious difference. And again, it’s hard to see religion as irrelevant to that. Because of religion’s lack of a reality check, and because of its common belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that trumps human morality, grossly immoral behavior within its ranks is protected. So it can go on for much, much longer before people are able and willing to see it, and to speak out against it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people finally began speaking out about child rape in the Catholic Church only after religion had begun to lose its grip on society: at a time when society was beginning to be more secular, and when criticism of religion was beginning to be more accepted and more common.
Again: Have non-religious institutions sheltered and defended child rapists? Yes. But did any of them get away with it for anywhere near as long as the Catholic Church did? Not to my knowledge.
3: Degree of authority and power. I will confess: The degree to which people see sports figures as epic figures of heroism and power is somewhat baffling to me. But I recognize that it exists. And I also recognize that, for people who want a career in professional sports, coaches have real power and authority, as well as the perceived kind.
But the Catholic priests who were raping children weren’t just seen as heroes, or as people with real-world authority and power who could improve or screw up your life. They were seen as the Earthly representatives of a perfect, all-powerful God. They were seen this way by their victims… which made those victims far more vulnerable to their abuse. They were seen this way by the people in the communities… which made those communities far more trusting, and far less willing to believe the charges when they started to come out. They were seen this way by other church officials, by cardinals and bishops and other priests… which made those officials more inclined to defend and protect them.
And this gave them a degree of authority and power undreamed of by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.
This doesn’t just apply to the child-raping priests, either. It applies to the Church as a whole. The Catholic Church teaches its followers that the Church is the one true conduit to God and salvation, and that without it your soul will be lost forever. So many of its followers are terrified to leave it, or to call the cops on it, or even to speak out against it. And this, once again, armors the Catholic Church — and other religious institutions — with a degree of bullying, terrorizing power, enabling them to commit unspeakable crimes with impunity.
4: Moral authority. Colleges and universities can, and do, take on an air of superiority. Students and alumni, faculty and staff, administrators and boosters, often imbue their school with a hazy golden aura, and treat other people associated with the school as an elite cadre of the best and the brightest.
But Penn State, to the best of my knowledge, has never presented itself as the ultimate authority and arbiter of universal human morality.
The Catholic Church has. And does. And will continue to do so.
That’s an important difference. And not just because of the whole “greater degree of power and authority/ greater capacity for abuse” thing. It’s different because of the hypocrisy. It’s different because, when an institution presumes to position itself as the ultimate moral authority and infallible interpreter of God’s moral teachings — and when it takes legal and political action to enforce those mores and turn them into laws controlling even people who don’t share the faith (such as pressing for laws banning same-sex marriage) — then their reprehensible behavior takes on a whole new shape of grotesquery.
Admittedly, the lack of any special moral authority on the part of Penn State does make the fervency of its defenders seem, shall we say, disproportionate. You can understand — almost — how people would become righteously outraged at accusations of immorality against the divinely appointed representatives of their perfect loving god. But against their football coach? Really? I mean — really?
But as long as the Catholic Church presents itself as a moral authority — not just a moral authority, but the moral authority, the ultimate and final authority on how all human beings should and should not behave — then, when it acts in ways that would make any sane human being retch in revulsion, it automatically adds the offense of hypocrisy to its already overwhelming litany of turpitude. And this hypocrisy becomes especially vile when you look at the obsessive degree to which the Catholic Church aims its moral outrage at entirely consensual adult sexual behavior… and contrast it with its willingness to shelter and enable and rationalize the rape of children.
Is Religion To Blame?
Now. Most of these differences are, I’ll grant you, differences of degree and not of kind. The scope of the Catholic Church child rape scandal is larger, it’s lasted longer, it took longer to be exposed, etc.. So people might argue that, compared to the Penn State child rape scandal, the Catholic Church child rape scandal isn’t really all that different. It’s really just a difference of degree.
But that’s a pretty fucking big difference of degree. We’re not talking about taking an all- too- common moral failing — the human tendency to rationalize bad behavior when it’s done by people we admire — and dialing it up a notch or two. We’re talking about taking an all- too- common moral failing, and cranking it up to eleven.
And not all these differences are differences of degree. The fact that the Catholic Church — both the child-raping priests and the officials who protected and defended them — are claiming God on their side, the fact that they claim to have a moral authority that comes from the perfect creator of the entire universe… that makes them categorically different from the culprits at Penn State.
These are significant differences. And when you look at how much worse the child rape scandal was in the Catholic Church than it was at Penn State, it become clear that religion is at least partly responsible. The basic idea of religious faith — the idea that it’s not only acceptable, but positively virtuous, to believe things you have no good reason to think are true — is a fundamentally harmful one. The belief in a perfect supernatural moral authority that trumps human morality is a fundamentally harmful one. And it doesn’t just do harm to the people who believe in it. It enables people to do terrible harm to others. Other institutions do that as well, of course — but religion does it in ways that are categorically different, with an absence of a reality check that allows this harm to flourish to a grotesque degree.
Atheists are often accused of blaming religion for every bad thing that people ever do. But I don’t know any atheist critic of religion — even the most fervent and hard-core — who does this. Atheists understand that human beings can do appalling things, for a wide variety of reasons: from grotesque sociopathy and a profound failure of even the most basic empathy, to the contortion of the entirely understandable tendency to be loyal to those we admire. Atheists even understand that horrors done within religious institutions are complex and multi-factorial, with motivations and after- the- fact rationalizations that are mirrored in secular life. We get it. Religion is not solely to blame for the horrors committed within its institutions and in its name.
Religion just makes it worse.