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The Catholic sex abuse scandal in the modern world

Let's begin with the obvious: no self-respecting Catholic of any stripe condones or excuses the abuse carried out by priests, and often covered up by bishops, that came to light in the early part of the 21st century.  It is wrong.  More than that, it is about people gaining positions of trust and then abusing those positions to fulfill deviant desires.

But what you will never hear in the media, or from those eager and willing to demonize Catholicism, is that this scandal has many more layers to it than they would have you believe.

I am going to get personal for a moment here because this is personal.  It is the most personal, intimate issue pressing on me at the present moment.  I converted to Catholicism in 2005, after stories of abuse and scandal broke out in the media, and did so inspite of detraction and criticisms of others.  I converted before my marriage, but not because of my marriage; raised in a mixed-faith household (Catholic mother, Lutheran father), I was brought up Lutheran but attended Mass as a child for family occassions or with my moth.  In high school I contemplated converting but did not want to hurt my father's feelings.  In college I fell away from practicing anything resembling organized religion and didn't attend any services for a couple of years.

I did not wake up one day and become Catholic; the process took about a year and involved meeting one-on-one with my husband's parish priest while doing independent study before being formally received into the Church in May 2005.  Having wandered through a spiritual desert, I made the commitment that - no matter how difficult - to believe that which I professed in my Confirmation.  I asked questions, I read a lot of material, I perused some wonderful blogs.  This was not a decision lightly made.

What drew me to the faith is the same thing that keeps me in the faith: it makes sense.  Theologically, and logically, if I am going to profess myself a Christian I am going to do so as a Roman Catholic.  This is not to say there aren't genuinely faithful, wonderful Christians of all denominations out there, it is merely a statement that I have found what I believe to be the truth.

So every time a story like this breaks, it cuts to the quick.  It goes right to the heart of what I believe is the correct way to have a relationship with God, the path I believe will lead me to salvation.  I could no sooner turn my back on it than I could abandon my young sons.

And this time, it's not only personal - it's local.  Rev. Laurence Murphy was a Milwaukee-area priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys between 1950 and 1975.  Murphy passed away in 1998 after appealing to then-Cardinal Ratzinger to halt the trial. 

Just as my conversion required research and study, I found myself asking questions about this abuse scandal.  Let me reiterate that it is wrong, horribly wrong, that priests used their vocations to commit sinful crimes against our youth.  It is also wrong that higher officials in the Church or hid this abuse.  But there are also some startling information you would never learn if you didn't look for it outside the traditional media.

First, there is the myth - long perpetuated and rarely questioned - that the sexual abuse scandal is caused by priestly celibacy and the all-male clergy.  It's not.  Public school teachers, law enforcement officers, swim coaches, and people from all walks of life engage in abuse - yet all of these professions are not made up only of celibate men.  Philip Jenkins wrote "The Myth of the Pedophile Priest" to dispel the notion that abuse was confined to Catholic clergy but does, in fact, occur in all religions denominations:

The Catholic abuse scandal - while most widely discussed - is not the only religious denomination to have problems.  Philip Jenkins (a non-Catholic) penned "The Myth of the Pedophile Priest" in which he writes:\Literally every denomination and faith tradition has its share of abuse cases, and some of the worst involve non-Catholics. Every mainline Protestant denomination has had scandals aplenty, as have Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah´s Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas -- and the list goes on. One Canadian Anglican (Episcopal) diocese is currently on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive lawsuits caused by decades of systematic abuse, yet the Anglican church does not demand celibacy of its clergy.

We are then led to believe that priests are pedophiles (abusers attracted to minors) and not ephebophiles (abusers attracted to adolescents).  Despite the politically incorrect nature of this statement, Jenkins' book points out that most of the abusers were men abusing adolescent boys.

There are also many issues regarding the timing of such instances and who is responsible for what.  Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland is blaming Pope Benedict for failing to act on Father Murphy's case despite the fact local law enforcement did not prosecute, and with - as of the date of publication - any evidence indicated Weakland contacted local law enforcement.  Murphy died only four months after his case was canceled.  (By comparision, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber, was set free on compassionate release in August 2009 after being told he had three months to live...Megrahi is still alive.)

Pope Benedict has, in fact, been one of the more vocal and harsher enforcers of Canon Law.  According to England's Abp. V. Nichols (via Damian Thompson and blog Dad29, emphasis the latter):

What of the role of Pope Benedict? When he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he led important changes made in church law: the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children, the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18, the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders. He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words."

It is frustrating that the Catholic Church will never, ever receive a fair deal in this scandal.  I repeat - again - that the abuse was wrong and the abusers should be punished.  However, aided and abetted by the media, just about every anti-Catholic in the world has condemned us en masse for the actions of a small minority of our members.

The attitude towards this scandal is simply this: since standards are impossible to live up to, it's best not to have any at all.  The Catholic Church is inerrant only in her theology, of which the central principles have not changed for two millenia.  They may be tweaked, adapted, clarified, or reiterated as the world thinks of new ways to sin, but never do they undergo so radical a change as to cast the faith in a fallible light. 

Her members, however, from the most anonymous member of the laity to the Pope himself, are human beings susceptible to the foibles and errors of the human condition.  These cases of abuse are that notion proved.

And one must pause for a moment and contemplate the outrage manifested toward the Church and the Holy Father in a world where some of the following are considered good and necessary (content warning):

The dichotomy is very glaring.  Why are these things listed above encouraged and, in some circles, celebrated while the Catholic Church is demonized?  Why are public schools often protected by statutes of limitation that are lifted when the Church is the body being sued?

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison says it best:

In order to be responsible for something, one has to have the authority to do something about it. And the very people who want to make the Holy Father responsible for everything heinous in the sexual misconduct scandal are the least likely to accept the Pope’s authority in any matter. They are the most disobedient people, in general. Yet they want to lay all the responsibility at the Pope’s feet. That simply makes no sense and we should not be fooled.

This has less to do with the abuse than it does with attempting to remove from the Catholic Church every moral teaching that defines it.  From the priesthood to contraception to abortion and marriage, this abuse is being used as a platform to undermine teachings because - time and again - it is these issues that are cited as "the cause" of the abuse.

It's not merely that people in positions of power misused that authority, not that people in positions of power everywhere can misuse that authority to abuse others in many ways, not that mistakes were made and need to be corrected - the fundamentals of a faith professed by billions of people the world over needs to be uprooted because of the actions of a small minority.

And this should be alarming as well.


  • Anne Rice 5 years ago

    I'm sorry, but I, as a loyal Catholic, cannot agree with the thrust of your post. I believe the Catholic church is getting a fair shake in the media and always has. But the media will not back down from investigating a scandal which the church itself has not handled properly and which has caused untold suffering in children who have been abused. We must remember that the Church is an international organization of unique scope, and the scope of the scandal is horrifying. I, for one, want answers. I want to know what Benedict knew and when he knew it. I want bishops who covered up clergy abuse to come clean about what they did, and where and how. --- I think you're being far too easy on the church for a whole variety of reasons here. I ask you to reconsider. Speak up, along with other Catholics, for reform in your church. Anne Rice, Rancho Mirage, California 92270

  • Lenny Figorski 5 years ago

    Amy, do you not see a pattern here? Witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, secrecy and darkness in the United States, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands. NONE of the bishops that perpetrtaed this outrage on their flocks has been punished, not one. If it were not the the "anti-Catholic" mainstream media, we Catholics would know nothing about any of this. I have come to the conviction that the single most important purpose of the Catholic Church is to ensure the continuity of the Church and to avoid scandal at any cost, including the immortal souls of the flock. God help us all.

  • owlafaye 5 years ago

    There is no fanatic quite like a convert to Catholicism. She swallowedf and the myth, hook, line and sinker. Lots of fools out there.

  • Jehovah Witness too 5 years ago

    Respected Jehovah's Witness groomed and molested young girls over years
    Yorkshire Post - Olwen Dudgeon - ?Dec 15, 2009?

    A RESPECTED Jehovah's Witness who served as an elder betrayed the trust placed in him by abusing young girls. ...

    Church Jehovah's Witness elder abused young girls Bramley Today
    ht t p://

    Jehovah's Witnesses proselytizer molest a child in their door to door 'witnessing'

    ht t p://

  • Mark 5 years ago

    I think you are right on this Amy. The Church has been targeted by the media. More effort is spent trying to tie the Pope to the scandal than trying to understand the pain that the victims went through and to make sure that it does not happen again. While this has and continues to be a painful lesson for the Church, it is also a lesson for society in general. These type of scandals have been swept under the rug in organizations from public schools to the boy scouts to within our own families.

  • Danny Haszard 5 years ago

    Jehovah's Witnesses have an absurd in house Church rule requiring 'two witnesses' to acts of sin.This makes it difficult to prosecute secret sins as child molesters rarely provide a 'witness' to their dastardly deeds.

    Moreover,members are discouraged from going to 'outsiders' the police and reporting sins.
    That's it,..this is what can make the pedophilia worst among the Jehovah's Witnesses group compared with other mainstream religions.

  • GRB 5 years ago

    Unlike the author of this post-I grew up as a Catholic-attended 12 years of Catholic grade/high school and other than the incredable meaness of the good sisters, made it all the way to 13 years old before the Principal of our High School molested me in his office. He later became a Bishop and is retired now (See Bishop L D Soens-Davenport iowa Diocese). At no time in my lengthy association with the Catholic Church did I ever see any real acts of charity or love come from the nuns or priests. Some of the people in the church were decent folks , and all the church cared about was the money in the plate.
    As a recovering Catholic it amazes me that people can still think that the path to spiritual well being and enlightenment lies within the Roman Catholic church. Perhaps I shouldn't be amazed-the church has been honing thier skills for hundreds of years.

  • Ness 5 years ago

    I'm glad this is written by a Catholic. I have a real problem with non-Catholics commenting on the abuse scandal. Until you understand the nature of Catholic forgiveness and penance (and with it the sacrament of reconciliation), you cannot understand why these crimes were covered up. Were they crimes? Yes. Were they covered up? Yes. Was it wrong of the pope to grant a dying abuser a request? No. He thought it was appropriate, and that's the end of it. The pope is not a child molester. I am not a child molester. Child molesters should be punished by the government, but the church should be allowed to make its own rules regarding its priests and members.

  • dad29 5 years ago

    After your outstanding essay was published, it ALSO became clear that Murphy's trial was NEVER 'stopped' by Rome, although Abp Weakland did request a "pause" in the proceedings.

    It's too bad that people of (apparent) good will like Ms. Rice are so adamantly ignorant of what has transpired in Church jurisprudence under Cdl. Ratzinger specifically in these cases.

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