The Context Of Priestly Child Abuse

A reader writes:

I agree with your anger at Benedict/Ratzinger. His reactionary policies have been damaging to the church and to everything that it touches. The role of his American allies in the U.S. debate over health reform was an unexpected demonstration of their power to interfere with our daily life in inflammatory and destructive ways. Moreover, like everyone else I have been horrified by the stories of children whose lives were ripped apart by clerical abuse. I readily accept your argument that such abuse was often the product of sexual repression. As a non-Catholic the lex continentiae strikes me as an obvious sham, with no support in the New Testament and such regular appearance in canon law, all the way up to Trent, that refusal to abide by it seems more like the rule than the exception. As if the Counter-Reformation was cooked up by continent men. I mean-- Julius III!

All that said, everybody's rage at the hierarchy for their response to reports of child sexual abuse in the 1970s is totally anachronistic. As B.J. Nelson makes clear in his 1984 book "Making an Issue of Child Abuse" (University of Chicago Press) it wasn't even categorized as a matter for public policy, let alone a legal matter, until the Social Security Act began funding child welfare agencies in 1962.

This was followed by a 1967 Supreme Court decision (in re Gault) which extended the protection of the Bill of Rights to minors. It was during this five-year period that laws were first passed in all 50 states mandating that child abuse (including sexual abuse) be reported. But when Congress tried to pass Federal legislation Nixon vetoed the first attempt, saying that it "would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over (and) against the family centered approach." His position had overwhelming public support. National legislation on child abuse (sponsored by Walter Mondale) was not signed into law until 1974.

What all this points to is a bitter struggle between the American state and those of the church and other competing institutions, going on at the very moment that the molestations we are now reading about took place. The insistence of bishops on dealing with child abuse "in-house" was not only dictated by their pre-1960s conceptualization of the autonomy of the child, but were almost inevitable given their very accurate sense of a power play in the works. How could they possibly hand priests over to secular institutions that had defined, catalogued, and begun to litigate social boundaries in a way that fundamentally undermined their authority? Naturally they "swept it under the carpet," which is to say, treated it as a matter for penance, not prosecution.

Taking Obamacare as the logical conclusion of the Social Security Act, it seems amazingly providential that it came up for a vote in the same week that the news about Ratzinger broke. The bishops' stance on universal health care and their reactions to molestation in the 60s, 70s and 80s stemmed from exactly the same resentment: of Great Society programs that destroyed their hold over family law. So the apparently incomprehensible freakout of their allies in the Republican Party over the past few days begins to make a bit more sense. Mitch McConnell is proceeding from the same calculus as Archbishop Rembert Weakland when he covered up Father Murphy's abuse. There is a deeper game being played.

I'm not a moral relativist. I don't think the fact that community standards change over time, are the product of new laws and social measurements, and subject to bitter struggles, means they're meaningless. Nobody should be hurt like those children were hurt; since the church and other "traditional" institutions were promoting it, I'm proud that the American state stepped in. But we need to recognize social change for what it is, otherwise we can't understand the behavior of those whose values and institutional commitments we oppose. The bishops were proceeding under an old standard, which was replaced by the Great Society. It's the merits of these two *frameworks* that we should be debating.

This is getting totally lost in the personal denunciations of B16, and it's a real loss for our public discourse.