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The Long Scandal: A History of Abuse

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It would be hard to envy the Vatican's current political position. As it is well known, the last several decades have seen a seemingly endless litany of abuse scandals rock the Church to its very core. Each successive blow has added to a growing global discontent against a Church that claims to know God yet in these affairs seems to lack even basic human decency.

There has been much suffering and pain at the hands of the Church against the most innocent and defenseless in human society, children. Indeed, the numbers speak for themselves: in the last 50 years some 30,000 people in 25 countries have reported abuse committed by the Church's many workers. Considering that rape is the most under-reported of violent crimes (only one-third of victims report), this statistic is nothing less than horrifying. Tragically, the odds are quite high that there are children in the world this very day who will be sexually abused by their priest.

Among the multitudes of difficult questions this raises, one that begs to be answered is whether or not child abuse is a new problem in the Church. If rampant crime against children by priests is a modern problem, then it follows that it might be clearly rectifiable. In other words, it would be possible to return to policies in place at a time when the Church was effective at preventing child abuse. As this essay discusses below, it does not appear that there was a time that the Church was effective at preventing child abuse -- this is a problem that reaches back to the earliest days of its formation and practice.

The current Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, has stated (in a letter to the much-abused citizenry of Ireland), that part of the blame for the abuse scandals and their handling by the Church of Ireland was due to "rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society." This statement is not just morally offensive, it is logically fallacious. It appears the Pope was trying to place at least partial blame onto the modern world for the crimes, thus deflecting the Holy See from full responsibility. Additionally, by attacking recent changes in "modern society" he made the scandal modern, implying that this is a new difficulty for the Church.

On this point, the Pope is clearly wrong. Religious documents dating back to before the writing of the New Testament highlight problems inside the Church regarding sexual rule-breaking and the abuse of boys. The Church has hung itself with its own paper trail and history.

One must only examine the Didache, a very early theological text which is usually dated around 70 A.D. Far from being some cheap forgery doctored to cast a negative light on the Church, this tract is foundational and has been accepted by Catholic Church into the collection of the Apostolic Fathers.

Children come up repeatedly in the Didache, usually for their protection. Actions against children that are banned in the document include their abortion in the womb, their murder after birth, their use in fornication, and their employment in rape and pederasty. While these commandments are only part of the document, their message is clear: leave the children alone. One has to wonder, why the special focus? One purpose for making a moral commandment is to amend behavior and set a better path forward; from this it is not hard to infer that some child abuse took place in the earliest Church. This is a good start for the Christians, to speak out against abuse, but sadly their first pronouncements did not stick.

By the Council (or Synod) of Elvira in 309, the problem of child abuse had become large enough for special punishments to be put in place. One particularly strong proclamation was as follows: "Those who sexually abuse boys may not commune, even when death approaches." In those times, this was fairly severe punishment. Unfortunately, the actual punishments didn't match the guidelines laid out.

As inferred above from the Didache, child abuse was a problem during the first days of Christendom. In the year 309 there were new punishments created to enforce previous edicts. This could suggest there were little or no punishments in force before 309. Furthermore, when the Council of Elvira did decide that punishment was required, a theological slap on the wrist was ordered. In the eyes of the Church, an appropriate punishment for raping a child was the legal equivalent of being disbarred. Note that there was no secular reporting or punishment required. The issue was seen in spiritual terms and treated as such. It is doubtful that the children who were molested found that to be a satisfactory reprisal. Further, and obviously, the punishment failed to mitigate the problem.

Leaving the earliest years of the Church, we move to Saint Peter Damian and his view of the very Church by which he was later sainted. Saint Peter described the Clergy of the Church at the time to be a veritable cesspool. He was so outraged by the Men of the Cloth that in the year 1049 he wrote the "Book of Gomorrah," and dedicated it to the Pope. In the tome, he railed against the Priesthood of his time, specifically condemning sodomy against both children and young priests. This is damning evidence from one of the Church's own saints indicting them for rampant abuses from as early as the advent of the second millennium.

By the year 1600, a familiar system had been developed: the quiet moving or promoting of priests out of locations where they had been abusing the local children. This system continues to this very day.

Clearly, two patterns emerge: the Catholic Church has been struggling with the abuse of minors (usually boys) by members of the Priesthood since the earliest days of the church; and the Church tended to deal with the problem both internally and ineffectively.

To bring the discussion to our current day, we must revisit Ratzinger, the current Pope and Vicar of Christ on Earth. In 2001 he made it plain in Church doctrine that child sex abuse cases should not only be kept internal, but should be dealt with under the deepest cover that the Church has, Pontifical Secret. Ratzinger advocated, and one can only suspect still wishes, to keep abuse in the dark. This is a continuation of Catholic policy for nearly the extent of the Church's history.

Finally it is argued that although tragic, rape and abuse are merely parts of human society, and that it is therefore unfair to point a finger at Catholic Church. After all, to err is human and so forth. This would be fair criticism if the Church claimed to be no more than merely a collection of persons, but this is not the case. The Church claims to occupy a moral high ground, own the answers to life's largest questions, and know the only pathway to Heaven. Systematic direct and indirect sexual abuse of children is one of the many symptoms of a diseased Church that should no longer be allowed to claim moral superiority.

When a priest rapes a child entrusted to him, he not only shatters a life but becomes a felon and a hypocrite. It is high time that we begin treating abusive priests and those who enable them as exactly what they are -- criminals.

The Catholic Church is in trouble today, but they should be prosecuted in the public mind for millennia of wrongdoings against children. It is a long scandal, a heartbreaking history of abuse. "There is nothing new under the sun," the Bible tells us, and the Catholic Church has confirmed it.