Father Scapegoat

Catholic priests have become the poster boys for paedophilia.
—Lin van Hek

Lately Catholic priests have been in the news again on charges of child sexual abuse. Julia Gillard, under enormous pressure, has announced a royal commission into institutionalised sex abuse. Tony Abbott said he would support the inquiry if it was broadened to include all churches and institutions for children. Gillard agreed.

Contrary to popular media stories and gossip, the commission’s inquiry has been extended to Protestant churches and religious institutions of every creed, all state-based organisations, public and private schools, non-profit groups, scouts, sporting clubs and community groups. Yet the media publicity surrounding the announcement has focused, once again, ruthlessly on the Catholic Church.

Although the royal commission will look into sexual abuse of children in institutions, which is, thankfully, a step in the right direction, research shows that 75 per cent of child sexual abuse occurs not within the kind of institutions identified by Gillard but outside them, at the hands of family members and others in the victim’s immediate circle of trust.

I was raised a Catholic—now I am well and truly lapsed—and although I was never touched up by any of the priests, I was certainly embarrassed by them as a kid in the confessional over my fledgling sexual curiosity and experiments too many times to count. The very words you have to speak going into the Holy Box set you up for a Fall: Father forgive me for I have sinned, it has been two weeks since my last confession. You are already admitting that you are guilty of sin in something or other—so why not spill the beans and get the whole spiritual slate wiped clean? I mean you couldn’t really go in there and say: Father you don’t have to forgive me for anything for I have not sinned—just thought I drop in and say hello so I could take Communion tomorrow morning.

The confessional was not something I ever looked forward to, especially in post-puberty years and having to confess to the grave sin of masturbation. Thou Shalt Not Flog the Bishop, so to speak. Paradoxically, Martin Luther probably made the most definitive, but to me unintentionally humorous, comment about masturbation I’ve ever heard: “Nature never lets up. We are all driven to the Secret Sin. To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn’t go into the woman, it goes into your shirt.” Crude is an understatement.

Those intimate conversations in the Dark Confessional Booth of my Adolescent Soul where I had to recount the most precise details of how I touched myself, what kind of magazines I used for stimulation and so forth, ended with the priest, sometimes breathlessly (I was very descriptive) finally asking me just exactly what happened next … I always hesitated here … to which Father would never fail to help me out: and then the white stuff came out? which I would, utterly embarrassed, thankfully affirm. Holy whew! Then he would conclude: for your penance, my son, say: Ten Our Fathers, Ten Hail Marys, and go and sin no more. And Saint Bob’s Yer Uncle.

I never discussed this kind of sexual stuff with anyone. Not my family, not my brother (my childhood best friend) nor any of my schoolmates. The priest and I had a special confidential relationship on matters sexual.

When I started out to write this essay, I intended to offer some of my insights as to why Catholic priests seem to be so susceptible to touching up children. It was pretty clear in my mind. We all read about it just about every day in the newspapers. I think I understood a few of the reasons.

The first reason was this unique confidentiality of the confessional that priests have with children. It’s very therapeutic in some ways, to be able to discuss topics you cannot discuss with anyone else. A bond of trust is forged here between adult and child that can be exploited for other purposes.

The next reason was the strange relationship the priests have with nuns. In my childhood church of St Mary’s, the nuns ran the material world. They taught the kids religious classes every Saturday morning, they cleaned, they cooked, they organised the rituals of Communion and Confirmation that every Catholic child passed through—they did many of the things that the traditional wives of traditional husbands did—except that they were more like mothers than wives. They administered all the corporeal discipline and did so freely. Once a nun hit me at fifty paces with a chalkboard eraser for laughing when she told us Adam and Eve ate bugs and insects in the Garden of Eden. Another nun slapped me across the face during Confirmation rehearsal for talking to the boy next to me. The priests never hit me—or touched me up either.

I never heard of the priests ever having sexual affairs with the nuns. The papers never reported this kind of thing. I don’t think the priests were attracted to the nuns in that way. Perhaps the nuns acted as surrogate mothers for the priests? This maternal influence might certainly be oppressive over time to the men, especially if they had overly dominating mothers, and perhaps the semi-segregated environment of the rectory and convent regressed them psychologically to an earlier childhood place where they identified with the children as playmates again; but now, eroticised playmates. (As a lot of older businessmen and writers do—the young-younger-youngest wife syndrome.)

Then, of course, there was the odd matter of celibacy itself. Catholic priests are not allowed to marry, unlike their Protestant or Jewish counterparts. This repression of the basic sex drive surely must contribute to the problem.

I felt certain that all these elements combined to create a unique spiritual cul-de-sac where children could fall under the spell of priests and be taken advantage of. With these thoughts in mind, I hit the internet hard and started researching whatever I could find to shore up my argument. What I found was practically the opposite.

Celibacy is not exclusive to Catholic clergy. The belief that religious figures should be celibate began long before the birth of Christianity. Ancient Druid priests were thought to have been celibate and Aztec temple priests were expected to remain sexually abstinent. The early Christian church had no firm rule against clergy marrying and having children. Peter, a Galilee fisherman, whom the Catholic Church considers the first pope, was married. Some popes were the sons of popes. The Church was a thousand years old before it definitively took a stand in favour of celibacy at the Second Lateran Council held in 1139, when a rule was approved forbidding priests to marry.

There are exceptions to the rule of unmarried clergy. Anglican ministers who were already married when they joined the Catholic Church are allowed to remain married if they choose to join the priesthood. An essay from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance states:

When the Episcopal Church decided to ordain females, about 95 Episcopal ministers in the US were so distressed by the idea of sharing the priesthood with women that some converted to Roman Catholicism in order to remain in a purely male priesthood. The church allowed them to remain married.

Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote that “Paedophilia is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty, but the vast majority of clergy misconduct cases involve priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often 16 or 17 years old.” Someone once remarked that if the age of consent for boys was lowered to sixteen, most of the charges against Catholic priests would vanish. Jenkins writes:

while 0.2 to 1.7 percent of Catholic clergy have been found guilty of paedophilia (… particularly of boys) a whopping 10 percent of Protestant ministers have been found guilty of sexual misconduct with a 2–3 percent paedophilia rate.

The three major insurance companies for Protestant churches in America say they typically receive 260 reports each year (thirty-two more than in Catholic churches) of minors being sexually abused by Protestant clergy, staff, or other church-related relationships. So why don’t we hear more about the Protestant clergy in the news?

Protestant churches are far less organised than the Catholic Church and the lines between clergy and laity are blurred in many Protestant organisations. Protestant churches are also more decentralised:

particularly those of the Evangelical kind. Laypeople frequently function in pastoral roles in Protestant churches especially as Bible study leaders and children’s ministry volunteers. For this reason, sexual abuse is much harder to track in Protestant organizations. Laypeople come and go, serving in one ministry then moving on to the next … Combine that with the fact that many Protestant churches (particularly Evangelical) have virtually no hierarchal structure at all, keeping little records (if any), and often meeting in informal places, you have the perfect recipe for unchecked abuse to occur.

The Presbyterian Church in the USA formally adopted constitutional changes aimed at preventing and punishing sexual abuse by clergy including eleven constitutional changes by presbyteries, or regional governing bodies, of the Louisville-based denomination three years after a report on the sexual abuse of children of missionaries at boarding schools in the Congo.

What about Judaism? Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer is a professor of law and ethics at Loyola Marymount University. He says that sexual abuse among rabbis approximates that found among the Protestant clergy.

So why is the popular media predominantly focusing on the Catholic priests? And why do we assume that the Catholic priest, out of all clergy, has some particular disposition to sexually abusing children? Father Jonathan Morris says:

It should also be noted that we are more likely to hear about these church-related cases because they tell a more salacious story—what should be white is black, and so on. The Catholic Church is the best story because the blame (and the money trail) can go all the way to Rome.

In the past ten years, the Catholic Church has been pro-active in accountability and bringing sex offenders to public notice. In 2004, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a study, The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, known as the John Jay Report, based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States.

Researchers now know that the sexual abuse of minors, and its cover-up, is not a church problem, not a religious problem, and definitely not a Catholic problem. It is a society problem affecting all the institutions of society, which includes churches and, predominantly, schools.

I sent an inquiry to an organisation called Broken Rites Australia that investigates church-related sexual abuse, with offenders being clergymen, religious brothers or church-school teachers. They have an extensive website where they track the progress of the trials of priests and ministers who have been charged with offences. They name names.

I asked whether Broken Rites Australia had access to Australian national statistics comparing levels of child sexual abuse amongst the different Christian denominations and other faiths such as Jewish, Muslim and Hindu; also in other professions where child sexual abuse is reported such as teachers, coaches, daycare staff and in Aboriginal communities.

I received a very unhelpful and terse response to my request—unsigned. The anonymous writer’s reply stated that no statistics were available and they did not have them for “butchers, bakers, or candle-stick makers”. The nameless writer said the very idea of my essay was “methodologically inept”. Broken Rites Australia, riding on their high horse of sacred righteousness, focus on cover-ups in the clergy. They say that when someone like a taxi driver sexually abuses someone, it gets reported to the police; but priests, with their special spiritual dispensation, have it swept under the carpet.

Broken Rites Australia doesn’t seem to notice that the sexual abuse of children that happens in schools, daycare and the indigenous community is also hushed up. According to their website, they act on any complaint, no matter what denomination, but that 90 per cent of the people who contact them are Catholics. This is contrary to US statistics, which show that most child sex offenders in the church come from Protestant denominations, not the Catholic Church.

The writer of an online forum, The Catholic Knight, who also prefers to stay anonymous and is himself an avowed former Evangelical and Anglican and a convert to the Catholic Church, and is married and has children, suggested some reasons: 

Our kids are bombarded with sexual images in advertising, television, magazines, and the Internet. Our clothing and fashion trends reflect the attitudes of an over-sexed people—less is more and tighter is better. Everywhere we turn we see sex—more and more of it … and somehow in the midst of all this … we are surprised when a small segment of our society goes off the deep end and turns into sexual predators … rather than blame our own lax attitudes, and the permissive behavior of our society, we instead look for the scapegoat, somebody else to blame.

The Ancient Greeks used to choose a pharmakos, or scapegoat, to be cast out, in response to a natural disaster, crop failure, or whatever else they determined afflicted them—and the scapegoat would be stoned, beaten and driven from the community. A scapegoat today has come to mean a person who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.


According to whole community statistics, the education system, not the church, is the profession of choice for child sexual abusers—by an enormous margin.

Data [was] collected in a national survey for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000. Extrapolating data from the latter, Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University estimated roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a school employee from a single decade—1991–2000. That compares with about five decades of cases of abusive priests. Such figures led her to contend “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests”.

Shakeshaft’s research showed the following percentage breakdown among school employees. Teachers formed 18 per cent of offenders, coaches 15 per cent, substitute teachers 13 per cent, bus drivers 12 per cent, teachers’ aides 11 per cent, other school employees 10 per cent, security guards 10 per cent, principals 6 per cent and counsellors 5 per cent. Many of these educators are the most celebrated in their profession and they do not fit the stereotype of an abuser that would be easily recognisable as a danger to children. They range from twenty-one to seventy-five years old with an average age of twenty-eight.

Some of the children who are sexually abused by educators do not characterize what is happening as abuse. That is not to say they don’t identify what is happening as shameful, unwanted, wrong, or frightening. In many cases, they are told that what is happening is love. Many abusers of children at all ages couch what they are doing to the children as love, both romantic and parental. Offenders work hard to keep children from telling. Almost always they persuade students to keep silent either by intimidation and threats (if you tell, I’ll fail you), by exploiting the power structure (if you tell, no one will believe you), or by manipulating the child’s affections (if you tell, I’ll get in trouble; if you tell, I won’t be able to be your friend any more). Thus, childish or adolescent naivety is taken advantage of to keep children silent.

When I was about twelve, the old geezer who operated the comic book and news agency in my hometown of Painesville—I called him Mr Q—would come up near me whenever I would come into the shop and start tickling me. At first it was playful and innocent, but later, when I crouched down to browse through the comics, he would come directly behind me and squeeze me, sometimes rubbing his bristly face against my cheek. Creepy-city. But somehow I was strangely fascinated by Mr Q and always kept going back. Of course, I had a huge addiction to collecting comic books, so that might have overridden my uncertainty. One day, Mr Q put his hand right between my legs and squeezed hard. I pushed him away and told him to stop. Some of my friends told me later that Mr Q would take them down into the basement of the comic shop and persuade them to take their pants down and let him play with them in exchange for five or ten dollars. I never did this myself and he never asked. (Five dollars bought a lot of comics in those days, so this would have been a big temptation.) The last time I visited my old hometown, I inquired about what had happened to Mr Q. Everyone in town knew what he was up to but nobody ever stopped him. I was recently told that he had moved to another small town and was eventually busted by the police.

Sexual misconduct … occurs in the school, in classrooms (empty or not), in hallways, in offices, on buses, in cars, in the educator’s home, and in outdoor secluded areas. Sometimes the abuse happens right in front of other students. Within the documents found in case law, there are instances where a teacher has taken a student into a storage room attached to the classroom and had sexual intercourse while the rest of the class does seat work. Often teachers touch students during movies.

Priests may appear more likely to molest children because cases of abuse come to light in huge waves.

However, in fact, family members are the ones most guilty of sexually abusing children.

Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in ten. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in five. But in either case, the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than these national estimates. The public also doesn’t realize how “profoundly prevalent” child sexual abuse is, adds Smith. Even those numbers may be low.

Most child abusers have one thing in common, and it’s not piety—it’s pre-existing relationships with their victims. That includes priests and ministers and rabbis, of course, but also family members, friends, neighbours, teachers, coaches, scout leaders and doctors. According to federal studies, most abuse occurs at the hands of family members or others in the victim’s “circle of trust”.

The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems, developed by the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Human Services, found that of the approximately 903,000 children who were victims of child maltreatment, 10 per cent (or 90,000) were sexually abused. The breakdown of perpetrators is:

  • family friends and acquaintances (28 per cent)
  • stepfathers and boyfriends of the child’s mother (21 per cent)
  • uncles and cousins (18 per cent)
  • brothers (10 per cent)
  • biological fathers (10 per cent)
  • grandfathers and step-grandfathers (7 per cent)
  • strangers (4 per cent)

But, if we are to believe the media, none of this matters. What is important is to get those damn pervert Catholic priests.

Paul Loveday, on the ABC website Religion and Ethics, said this:

figures from around the world tend to indicate that approximately 5 per cent of the Catholic clergy are child molesters; that means that 95 per cent are not. I am immediately reminded of the oft quoted, “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”. And there is the problem, the good men in the Church have been doing nothing.

Why are so many good men and women, priests, and the majority of everyday Catholics, many of whom have their own children in Catholic schools, doing nothing to loudly and publicly refute this distortion of reality? Most people are fearful of putting their head up in such an intimidating climate of mob hate. Perhaps we fear the truth and just hope, to avoid community embarrassment, that it will all go away and so what if a few priests fall on their swords for the good of all—that will appease the mob bloodlust—just leave us alone.

Unfortunately, there is also a historical proclivity amongst some Catholic clergy—an almost suicidal romantic yearning—for martyrdom, in the spirit of the martyrdom of Jesus. The contemporary Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe once said that he looked forward to being sent to “heathen” Japan where if priests were fortunate they might be martyred for their beliefs. To me, that is passive and cowardly. Real martyrdom would be more along the path of the social activist, the path that Jesus actually walked, speaking out against the lie and taking whatever consequences.

Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, supports the royal commission, as he is confident it will expose the exaggerations. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has already lost the media war. Some people have referred to Cardinal Pell as a public relations nightmare (although I was particularly fond of a comment he made in his debate with Richard Dawkins when he said that an atheist could most certainly go to Heaven).

But the royal commission has already degenerated into warfare against Catholics via the press. Its raison d’être was supposed to be to protect children from child sexual abuse, not with sensationalism, jockeying for political advantage, or selectively creating scapegoats to appease public anger. I say political advantage because Julia Gillard needs to stand up and say to the popular press who are distorting the larger goals of the commission in their tar-and-feathering of the Catholic Church: “You are misrepresenting our charter. We are not just looking at the Catholic priests, we are not just looking in the institutions, but we are looking at you, at your Uncle John and Aunt Janice and the smarmy stepfathers who touch up those children entrusted to them, and your school bus drivers and the principals of your schools and the coaches of your sports teams. The places where the real numbers of child sexual abusers lie hidden.” But, no, it’s less painful and embarrassing to keep our own dirty laundry hidden and instead sacrifice a few old priests. Sadly, our children are the ones who will suffer because of this moral cowardice.

Women were scapegoated and tortured and murdered as witches in the Dark Ages, Hitler used the Jews as scapegoats, McCarthy the communists, Muslims are scapegoated as terrorists, Marx blamed capitalism, Freud sex. When we scapegoat someone, we characterise an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small number of individuals belonging to that group. This is also known as stereotyping. Scapegoated groups throughout history have included: genders, religions, people of different races or nations, and people with different political beliefs. The chosen individual, or group, becomes the scapegoat, or sacrificial offering, and their public flogging, exile or death becomes the redemption for the larger group’s real unacknowledged problem that remains unaddressed and dormant. Until the next time.

Several of Joe Dolce’s poems appeared in the December issue; more will come this year.

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