The Catholic Church; a haven for pedophiles

  • Why did it happen?

  • How did we get here?

  • What drove one of the oldest, most prestigious, and widely followed institutions in the world to become a safe haven for pedophiles.

  • Is it still this way, or has it changed?

  • Will it EVER change?

First I’d like to address, upfront, two arguments people continue to make:

  1. The rate of sex abuse among clergy is normal relative to the general public

  2. Celibacy causes pedophilia

Articles like this argue that the rate of sex abuse among priests isn’t any more than the general population. This is irrelevant. The fact that there are ANY sexual predators in an organization that claims and preaches a high standard of moral values is horrifying. The fact that such predators received protection from Church leaders is even worse. Which brings me to my next point.

Celibacy (whether of Catholic Priests or laypeople) does not appear to be linked to pedophilia. This research study came to such a conclusion. This is further upheld by resent (and controversial) studies in psychology that point to pedophilia as a sexual orientation; meaning the individual does not choose to be sexually attracted to children. The individual CAN and should choose not to act on his urges, but they can’t help having them in the first place. Lastly, research also points to the fact that far more pedophiles (around 98%) are men than women. If anything it’s the fact that all priests are men that, unfortunately, can contribute to a higher chance of them being pedophiles. Not abstinence.

Now on to the questions:

The simplest answer to “why” this happened is power. The Catholic Church had, and still has, a lot to lose by admitting that so many sinners are among its leaders; the worst kind that pray on children. Its power has slowly waned in the last century; this decline increased in acceleration in the new one.  Naturally, the “higher-ups” want to protect what’s left of their organization’s prowess. It’s why the Catholic Church spend millions to keep the statute of limitations for sexual assault unchanged. So how did we get to a point where the Catholic Church has become, in essence, a guardian of pedophiles who choose to act on their urges?

The answer is that they don’t see it this way.

To the highly religious (Catholic priests among them), laws created by governments are not above those of their own religion; Catholicism comes above the rule of secular law. Its priests are given authority to decide the forgiveness of sins. They are also forbidden to discuss said sins, when they are confessed.

Under Roman Catholic law, it is forbidden for a priest to disclose information — under any circumstances — obtained in the form of religious confession. If a priest breaks what’s called “the sacred seal of confession,” he will be subject to excommunication from the church.

Viewed through this lens, it shouldn’t come as a shock then, when a criminal confesses and his or her sins are kept confidential. The criminal is seen as a “sinner”. All sins can be forgiven. Cooperation with the law isn’t necessary; and thus such matters are handled extrajudicially. 

Clergy of the Catholic Church see Church premises as a country within a country; something akin to an embassy, where the property itself doesn’t belong to the country it stands in. It’s exempt from the country’s laws under the guise of diplomatic immunity. Pedophile priests, rightfully so, take center stage when discussing this dynamic. But it isn’t the only example:

Jose Fornes was never tried after convicted he murdered someone to a priest. He was only “turned in” after his death. The killer living a full life with no reprisal.

Robert Hansen, a spy, confessed his transgressions early on to a priest; who kept it secret in spite of the consequences of Hansen’s actions. It is still unknown how many of our own agents died as a result of him giving over classified documents to the Russians over the course of the next 15 years; fathers, mothers, sons, real people who likely died deaths of unimaginable suffering at the hands of our enemies.

There are many other examples where Catholic Law permits the bypass of local laws. While many of us are shocked that someone would “hide” such horrible behavior, it just plain makes sense within the confines of Catholic Law. Priests are simply saving souls. That’s how we got here.

This brings us to the “what”. What drove the Catholic Church to become a safe haven for pedophiles?

To answer this question, we need to visit the psychology of pedophilia; a depressing, taboo but vital field of research in combating this phenomenon. To this end, a German psychology student recently gave a TED talk about this dark topic. I don’t intend on dissecting her lecture, however, there is one point she made that I thought of while writing this article. Unfortunately, her lecture was removed because of the controversy so I I’m forced to paraphrase:

“It’s important to treat pedophiles in a way that makes them comfortable to come forward and get treatment. Otherwise, they remain in the darkness; where they will surely find other pedophiles and consequently succumb to their urges”

Whether you agree with the first part of the statement or not, it’s not difficult to see how the second can be true. Think about any urge you’ve had. You’re much more likely to do it when you’re in a situation that promotes that behavior. This includes walking into a store, watching TV and/or being among others who engage in the same act and/or are encouraging you to do it. For example:

  • Being unable to sustain a diet because you’re at a dinner with friends

  • Doing Drugs when succumbing to peer pressure

  • Drinking with colleagues even though you’re trying to quit

The list goes on and on.

A psychologist I know put it this way; "people who don’t cheat on their wives, alcoholics who stop drinking, these people don’t necessarily resist urges. More often than not, they’re people who avoid putting themselves into such situations in the first place. They won’t follow a colleague up to his or her hotel room for a conversation, during a business trip. They will take a route home from work that doesn’t have a bar along the way." They’re experts at being able to avoid the dilemma.

Now replace any of these urges with pedophilia. You have this dark urge. Maybe you escaped to the priesthood to avoid it. Now, you’re around others who not only succumb to it, but choose to seek out such behavior and protect those who get caught. You now have a safe space to do as you please. Whatever it was before that prevented you from doing such things is now gone. That’s what happened in the Church.

Is it still happening? Will anything change?

Some say that all these “new” cases are really from a specific period in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Church is, supposedly different now. I don’t buy it, and I’m not going to hold my breath for change.

On October 3rd, 1992 singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor stunned Saturday Night Live (SNL) viewers by tearing up a picture of the pope, at the end of her performance. She did it to make a statement about sexual abuse in the church. People thought she was nuts. She paid a price for her actions. She was banned from SNL forever, and became a pariah in the entertainment industry. Except she was proven right. For the following, nearly three decades, cases began to come to light; with what seemed like increasing periodicity. The wave hasn’t stopped or slowed down in the least. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

In Pennsylvania 300 priests have been indicted on charges related to sexual assault. NY now appears to be doing the same as the state indicted 70 priests in Buffalo; with some cases going back to 1950.  These priests have not only been getting away with it, but were protected for decades by Church leadership; even decades after revelations started coming to the attention of the general public. Many of these pedophile protectors are still in charge and there’s nothing to indicate that the leadership culture is changing. The pope urged silence and prayers. There’s no reason to believe they would act differently now, then they did before. Especially given the degree to which the Catholic Church has gone to lobby against reforming sexual assault laws. It’s not something that started yesterday, and it isn’t going to stop tomorrow.

If it does change, it will only change in countries with strong and reliable legal systems. This will continue to be a problem in the third world, for example, where the Catholic Church holds more sway and governments are less effective. That’s what happened with the tobacco industry back in the ‘70s. After various legal battles and information campaigns, smoking began to decline in the US. However, it picked up or stayed steady in other parts of the world; where governments had less strict guidelines.  

To top it all off, the Catholic Church is facing a serious priest shortage. Pittsburgh, for example, may have to consolidate 188 parishes into 48. I can’t find it now, but I read an article a few years back that talked about how some towns in Ireland were consolidating Church services to once every two weeks, instead of every Sunday. So it’s not as though the Pope is in a position to simply relocate priests from other countries; assuming, of course, they’re not transplant pedophiles.

This is a multi-dimensional crisis.

To be fair, the Catholic Church isn’t the only religious group to have problems of sexual assault among it’s members. Here’s a good article about the overall issue. It’s also important to keep in mind that an overwhelming majority of Catholics don’t have this problem. But what-about-ism isn’t relevant to this discussion. “Rabbis and Imams, do it too” and “most Catholics are good people” doesn’t help the victim of a priest. Such arguments don’t help change the organizational culture that so badly needs reform.

Yet, there’s no telling if the Catholic Church will succeed in repairing itself; even if attempts are made. It’s an institution that previously split rather than reform. True, it has made some changes with the times. Mostly however, it’s core values, traditions and concepts have remained relatively unchanged throughout two millennia. So the question still remains; will the Catholic Church reform, remain the same or fall the way of the Soviet Union during “perestroika”; where the attempt to reform unintentionally tore the organization apart?

Only time will tell.