The Sex Abuse Witch Hunt Frenzy

I was hoping that as the latest sex abuse media frenzy progressed, it would get a bit more introspective. Something this happens: at first, tea partiers were depicted as a bunch of ignorant white Southerners who were a white hood away from reorganizing the KKK. As the media coverage continued, you started to see glimpses of a more complex reality: data now shows that tea partiers are better educated than the average American and more financially successful (although obviously, it’s drawing from all socioeconomic strata); then came news profiles on individual African-American tea party members, motivated by concern over fiscal irresponsibility, and how they were called racial slurs from the Left, and accused of being “race traitors” for not supporting Obama; an so forth. While the “ignorant white Southerner” stereotype is still bandied about, it’s become complicated by the fact that (when reporters don’t seek out the whackos) a lot of Tea Partiers can articulately explain what they’re protesting for, and why.

Something nearer the opposite of that has happened with the sex abuse scandal. Two recent reports show how this is entering “witch hunt” mode, where all priests are guilty until proven innocent of sexual molestation:

For some reason, Bloomberg updated it to now read: “Catholic Donors Give While Priests Abuse Children.” I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be more or less sensational?

This is the first time I’ve seen tithing made out to be so evil: it’s as if they’re accusing the Catholic laity of paying priests to abuse kids. Of course, the headline doesn’t reflect the reality that they’re even talking about: the cases in question occurred in the 1980s or earlier, so they’re hardly giving “while” the priests in question abuse children — the cases are long over, men of the men in question are dead (like Murphy) or defrocked, and no long priests capable of abusing children. A more accurate headling would be: innocent Catholic donors keep cash flowing to pay for victim’s abuse settlements. It’s still a bum deal for innocent Catholics, but somebody needs to compensate them for the terrible things which happened to them. If Bloomberg succeeded in getting Catholics to cut off tithe money to the Church, the first people to suffer would be the poor, the homeless, those who rely on Catholic social services to make ends meet, and retired priests; down the road, you’d start to see sex abuse victims not being able to recover financially, and so on.

The body of the article was just as bad, perhaps worse:

Loyalty such as McSherry’s to the world’s oldest Christian denomination, with more than 1 billion followers, helps explain why anger at the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI for failing to prevent priests in five countries from abusing children won’t lead to a drop in Sunday collections and donations to local parishes, said Joseph Claude Harris, a Seattle-based expert on Catholic finance.

Which case was it again that Pope Benedict failed to prevent a priest (any priest) from abusing children? In what case has any evidence been discovered that he allowed abuse to continue? I’ll confess: I do like that they acknowledge us as “the world’s oldest Christian denomination.” Hear that, Orthodox? Schism’s settled, c’mon home.

“People basically deal with the church on an extraordinarily limited, local level,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “There is not a Catholic bishop on this planet who drives a smaller car or does his own laundry or takes fewer vacations or has suffered any tangible consequences.”

This is factually wrong, of course. Cardinal Law had a mansion. It was sold to pay for the abuse he allowed to happen. His successor, Seán Cardinal O’Malley, lives in an apartment in South Boston. So I’d say he (although personally innocent) suffered a tangible consequence for his predecessor’s malfeasance. Still, Clohessy’s sort of stumbled into the fact that cutting off tithes hurts the innocent instead of the guilty, although he doesn’t seem to grasp that’s what he’s saying.

What’s your first take as to what this means? Sex abuse of children. Obviously. It’s the “abuse claims” that they’ve been talking about constantly. And the article’s subtitle makes that more obviously what they want you to think: “A close friend and ally of the Pope Benedict XVI, has offered to resign over allegations that he abused children in his care.

Turns out, Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, Germany admitted that he “may have” slapped children “while a priest decades ago. ” The paper wasn’t unaware that they were misleading people into thinking “child rape” instead of “corporal punishment.” In the seventh paragraph, they say:

The case does not involve allegations of sexual abuse. However, the bishop,
who was appointed by the Pope in 2005, is a controversial figure who has tried
to explain paedophilia in the Church by claiming the sexual liberation movement
must share a “significant” part of the blame.

Of course, the sexual liberation movement DOES share a significant part of the blame. It certainly doesn’t accuse any sex crimes, but it would take a fool to be blind to the fact that sex crimes – virtually all sex crimes – were dramatically higher in the West in the sexual revolution period and its aftermath than before.

Most of the abuse happened at a time when “sexual exploration” was praised as liberating from the stodgy rules-laden confines of traditional Christian moralism. And most of the abusive priests bought into the zeitgeist, not just on this issue, but on other issues in which the world and the Church disagreed. The responsibility is theirs to bear, absolutely. But to deny that factors influenced their devolution into sexual predators just isn’t serious.

The fact that there was even controversy over the idea that sexual liberation might have had some negative effects (like men, including priests, feeling “liberated” to molest kids) is part of a deeper trend. The media has painted a picture that the Church is full of abusers (or at least, more full of abusers than general society, which is factually untrue), and that the highest echelons of the Church knew about and encouraged this abuse. Any attempt to show that certain individuals (like the present pope) were innocent, or that the Church has actually been very proactive of late in ensuring that this never happens again, or that not every bishop, priest, and deacon is a sex abuser are taken as excusing the actual abuse. Ross Douthat has had a two very good blog posts in which he demonstrated that Christopher Hitchens is just making up facts in his attacks on the pope. The response in the comments was more or less, “Why are you defending the pope? Do you want kids to be molested?”

Rational discourse on this issue is perilously close to be over. It’s probably worth reminds folks of the 1980s’ McMartin preschool trial, in which otherwise sane and normal people, when they were fed repeated half-truths from the media about how their kids were going to be molested at day cares (any day care – day care workers were all basically pedophiles in the 1980s newstand), were worked up into a frenzy which lead to an absolutely-innocent family into getting sent to prison for “satanic sex abuse” which never occurred. It was just one case in a string of false-conviction cases now regarded as the “day care sexual abuse hysteria.”

I think it’s time to take a really deep breath about this whole thing and put down the pitchforks before we get the facts straight.


  1. Very nice, thanks! Bottum often has very insightful pieces, and this one ranks up there.

    And yes, the bit about the Tea Party coverage is true. The numerous stories about the hidden costs of Obamacare also came out after it was too late to stop it, although admittedly, it may have just taken them too long to sort through the massive bill.

    I had expected that once Holy Week ended, the “Pope=bad, Church=bad” narrative would die down again. But this year, it’s continued on unseasonably long. I fear that the truth on this one is just going to be lost in a blur of headlines. People I’ve talked to have been of the mindset that with this much smoke, how can there not be fire? And unfortunately, it’s hard to combat that misinformation without seeming reactionary, defensive, or calloused towards the genuine victims.

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