In a statement of almost unparalleled cynicism, Pope Benedict tells us that, while the church must take some responsibility for the child abuse scandal of his church, “he also blamed a secular society in which he said the mistreatment of children was frighteningly common.” (Associated Press report here)
This is deeply cynical. Not only does it try to shift the blame for the church’s failure, but in the process blames the one thing that, more than anything, brought this failure to light. For, without a doubt, it is secular society, its openness and concern for justice, that did more than anything else to help focus attention on things long hidden under the brittle surface of gentility and the guise of sanctity.
The secular outlook is not relativistic – a slander frequently on the pope’s lips. While the secular outlook recognises no basis for absolute moral permissions or prohibitions, it does condemn anything that unnecessarily interferes with the possibility of human flourishing, and it has been very clear that the abuse of children, women, and homosexuals is morally unacceptable behaviour. Secularism, not religion, led to the condemnation of racism, ethnocentrism, even of cruelty to animals, and environmental depredation. This heightened moral sensitivity has made it more difficult to hide the abuse of children from the searchlight of public attention and criticism, and it is largely due to the secular understanding of these things that the church has been increasingly unable to keep secret abuses which the church itself failed to recognise as matters of serious moral concern.
The way that the church dealt with the sexual predators in its midst is a clear sign that it did not take child sexual abuse with sufficient moral seriousness. Many abusing clergy were transferred to other parishes and ministries where they abused again. The children themselves were reduced to powerlessness, forced to remain silent under the threat of excommunication. Public authorities were not notified, and clergy were protected behind a wall of secrecy.
In places where the church has operated without sufficient public scrutiny, it has been successful in hiding its misdeeds from an increasingly sceptical public, and where it can, it continues to do so. The Vatican is still a refuge for clergy, even cardinals, who are thought to be guilty of legal offences (in maintaining the coverup, for example) in their countries of origin, not the least of whom is Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. In places where secular concern for transparency, justice, equality and human rights have been stressed, the abuse of children has been increasingly a matter of serious public concern, a concern simply ignored by the church until the critical mass of abuse by church officials became so great that it could no longer be hidden from the public or ignored by church officials.
So when the pope seeks to blame this abuse on the idea that “pedophilia wasn’t considered an absolute evil but rather part of a spectrum of behaviors that people refused to judge in the name of tolerance and relativism,” he simply misunderstands how and why such abuse began to be taken seriously within jurisdictions where the secular outlook predominated in public life.
The suggestion is that the sexual abuse of minors is a contemporary problem, the product of secular society, and did not exist during the ages when religious faith predominated. The level of misrepresentation in this claim is stunning. Until the 1970s pedophilia and the extent of child abuse was not well understood. Freud, for example, dismissed, as psychological problems, many women’s claims that they were abused as children, not as accurate reports of what actually took place in those women’s lives. However, it needs to be on the record that earlier periods were well aware of the sexual and physical abuse of children, though this awareness began to dawn only as the church was losing ground to a mounting secularism. According to one report:
Although there have been many societal taboos about incest (sexual acts between close family members), it was not until the 16th century that legislation was enacted in England that began the process of protecting children from sexual abuse — boys were protected from forced sodomy, and girls under the age of ten years from forcible rape.
In other words, the pope is simply talking through is hat. But even if the past were simply silent about sexual abuse, this would not be an indication that children were not sexually abused in the past. The sheer volume of child sex abuse is staggering, and this is something that has only come to light in the last few decades because of the moral sensitivity of a more secular, humanistic outlook that, instead of condemning sexuality, understands it as an integral part of our full humanity. And this is not because sexual abuse is thought to be normal, but because it was so deeply buried, and is only now coming more fully to light.
During the ages of faith, sexuality was simply part of a hidden world, feared because poorly understood. Though one of the predominating features of human life and social interaction, religious fears and prohibitions about sex suppressed a closer study of sexuality. Sexual abuse was, as a consequence, largely ignored, because it dealt with dark, unruly, forbidden things. It began to come to light in the late 1960s, partly because of greater openness about sex, and studies of human sexuality that had been conducted (as early as the 1950s) in the light of this increased openness. Equally important, however, was the increased moral sensitivity that resulted from close attention to the moral value of the individual. From this standpoint it became clear, not only that the sexual abuse of children was more widespread than imagined; the effects of the unconsented sexual use of children by adults and authority figures was finally recognised as exceptionally destructive, and increased efforts were made to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse, and to help those victimised by it.
Apparently not by the church, however. Suppression continued to be the order of the day. It is simply untrue to say, as the pope does, that the church itself was simply absorbed into and tainted by secular relativism. It would be more true to say that the Roman Catholic Church simply misunderstood the seriousness of childhood sexual abuse, and downplayed its effect on children and their later development as they moved into adulthood. Nothing else can explain the callous disregard of the problem, the silencing of the victims, and the church’s continued conception of itself as the moral proctor of mankind.
The church’s actions are a sign, not of a mature moral concern, but of a failure of moral sensitivity. The idea that morality must be founded in the absolute prohibitions of religion is arguably at least one source of this insensitivity. When everything is either absolutely good or absolutely evil there is no room for sensitive moral discernment, for the kinds of inner conflict which underlie careful moral judgement. People are excommunicated for compassion, forced to suffer without mercy, and condemned without understanding. This is what moral bankruptcy looks like.
Further reports on this are available from the Belfast Telegraph. Victims of abuse are outraged by the pope’s remarks.
“In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised as something fully in conformity with man and even with children,” the Pope said.
“It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a ‘better than’ and a ‘worse than’. Nothing is good or bad in itself.”
The pope even goes so far as to say – speaking of the growth of child pornography – that it “has come to seem almost normal by society.” Victims of abuse are asking what company the pope has been keeping, and what could have prompted such a completely unjustified remark. Clearly, the pope wants to contrast secular society with society as it would be — at least in his imagination – if it took its guidance from the church. This, however, is not only challenged by the pope’s evident lack of familiarity with or knowledge of the contemporary society on which his remarks purport to be a commentary, but also by the manifest failure of the institutional church to remedy widespread moral failure amongst the ranks of its leaders.