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The Catholic Church And Child Abuse: Deja Vu All Over Again

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Catholic Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City has just been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse. The offender, one of his priests, apparently was a photographer of some considerable energy. According to the indictment, as reported by the New York Times, the bishop for some six months failed to report evidence found on the priest's laptop, and thus he is charged with ignoring "previous knowledge regarding Father Rattigan and children; the discovery of hundreds of photographs of children on Father Rattigan's laptop, including a child's naked vagina, upskirt images and images focused on the crotch; and violations of restrictions placed on Father Rattigan." Apparently during the six months, the priest went to children's parties, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided -- with the bishop's permission -- at the first communion of a young girl.

The bishop is fighting back. "We will meet these announcements with a steady resolve and a vigorous defense." No one is guilty until judged by their peers, but one gathers that the facts of the matter are not really in dispute. The question is whether the bishop is legally liable. Apparently a police officer was told about one of the pictures and opined that (even though the kid was naked from the waist down) he did not think that it would meet the definition of child pornography and that was that for six months.

In a way, this sort of thing has become so common that one is almost inclined to read with a sigh and turn away to other things. Which of course is precisely the action we must not have. Wickedness never ends and we must be ever vigilant. Edmund Burke was right: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Thank goodness the legal authorities in Kansas City are doing their duty and making sure that whatever has happened it is brought into the light and the guilty punished. And even if the guilty are not necessarily found legally culpable, then they are still shown to be morally guilty and deserving of condemnation. And thank goodness the legal authorities are recognizing that those in charge have responsibility, especially if through their actions they allow bad states of fares to persist.

But what do the rest of us say at a point like this? Someone like Richard Dawkins takes not pleasure but an almost salubrious satisfaction in the turn of events. It is what he forecast -- religion leads to virtually nothing but ill -- and the sooner it is eliminated the better. Others, and I include myself here, who may not have any belief -- I do not -- are not so sure but are really worried and upset nevertheless. I have no belief but I know that many of my fellow countrymen do, and I want to continue to respect and like them despite our differences at this point.

Moreover, I know that truly the relationship between religion and good and evil is far more complex than the new atheists allow. I still remember as a child my Quaker parents coming home at the end of a long day at work, grabbing a bite and going out to visit prisons or boys clubs and so forth -- things that they did because they thought that was what Jesus demanded of them. And also, as one of those despised people known as "accommodationists" -- people who think that science and religion are compatible -- I recognize that because some religious people do evil things, at least in part because the social structure of their church allows (there are those who would say makes for fertile ground for) such behavior, this does not at all impinge on the epistemological questions about the possibility of being for both science and religion.

Dawkins does have a point though. Too often, established religion does make possible evil things and clearly the Kansas City situation is one such case. The authority and attitude of the bishop makes what happened all too possible and common. I am not now condemning Roman Catholicism as a whole. As a philosopher I am much aware of the simply stunning intellectual advances made under and possible by the Church. As a historian I am much aware of the great social good that the Church has done over the years in the name of its savior. Think of the dedicated men and women -- ordained and lay -- who have given so much to America in the last two hundred years. The schools, the churches, the poor relief and so much more. However the hierarchical system of the Church makes possible abuse and it has happened and goes on happening. Dawkins wants to blow up the whole thing and he may well be right.

The tragedy is that it does not seem that things will change in our lifetime. Thanks particularly to the present pope and his predecessor, the hierarchy is manned -- and I use the word "manned" deliberately -- by conservatives, who frown upon women having full authority over themselves or in society, who are anti-gay (especially when it comes to things like marriage), who simply don't recognize that we are now in the 21st century. And when the present pope dies, given that the cardinals in place are all of this ilk, there is little reason to think that his successor will be much different.

Catholics, unlike Protestants, are big on miracles still going on today. Think of the conditions for sainthood. Is it too much to expect that if they are right, God might perform a miracle the next time the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope? And that the church may get someone like John XXIII than like Benedict XVI? Until then, I weep for the victims -- for the children, for those betrayed by their religion and for us all who are part of such a society with such corruption within.

Around the Web

Catholic sex abuse cases - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Child Abuse in the Catholic Church Essays and Articles at eNotes

Boston Globe / Spotlight / Abuse in the Catholic Church

Irish Catholic Church still hid child abuse until 2009 | Reuters

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