The human urge to create scapegoats for the failures of individuals or societies collectively is a universal one. One cannot but help think that a manifestation of that urge can be seen in the rush to pin blame on the Catholic Church for all the abuse of children, now being exposed so harrowingly, which have been perpetrated within our society over the later decades of the last century. The truth is that all of us must beat our breasts and accept responsibility for our blindness to this evil, willful or otherwise. The creation of scapegoats serves no purpose in a civilised society.
Ireland paraded its own version of the scapegoat before the world with a vengeance last week, with its prime minister, Mr. Enda Kenny, launching a vitriolic attack on the Vatican for its alleged complicity in a local Catholic diocese’s failure to adequately deal with abusive clerics. For some he was a hero. For others he was at best playing the disingenuous populist. The truth is that he missed the point entirely.
If we want to deal effectively with the scourge of abuse we will have to deal with the underlying moral roots of the malaise we are confronted with. Creating scapegoats is just sweeping the problem under the carpet and preventing us from getting on with the task of creating a society in which the gift of childhood innocence is adequately protected.
As in the body biological, so in the body politic. When the human skin manifests certain symptoms – for example, a swelling here, a reddening there, or an itch elsewhere – doctors will ask a few questions. If the symptoms are widespread enough the questions will be deeper and the examination will be thorough – or should be – until the root cause is identified. There will be an effort to relieve the symptoms but that will not be considered a solution to the underlying problem which both he and his patient both suspect may be lurking in the undergrowth. If he just tells his patient “take these three times a day and don’t worry”, he will probably end up being struck off the medical register.
We are doing just this with the whole child abuse crisis. Child protection measures are no more than sticking-plaster – with a touch of analgesic cream – on a cancerous growth in the heart of our society. The scapegoating of the Catholic Church for its undeniable failures in applying its own sticking-plaster is a smokescreen preventing us seeing what really lies at the heart of this malaise. The irony is that the Catholic Church is the only institution in society which in its solemn and official teaching points to the way in which society could be relieved of this mortal disease.
Ross Doubthat in a column in the New York Times back in May last year raised the very unpopular spectre of what might be some of the root causes of the incidence of abuse. He reproduced a chart from the John Jay Report on sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood, commissioned by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, showing the number of credible accusations of abuse across the last half-century. On the basis of that he argued that “something in the moral/cultural/theological climate of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged a spike in sexual abuse”. He also asserted that the data showed that we’ve since seen the church come to grips with the problem, at least in the United States.
He did point out that it was “important to note that most of these incidents were reported in the 1990s and 2000s, years after they took place. This raises the question of whether the low numbers for the 1950s reflect a real difference between the rate of abuse in the Eisenhower era and the rate in the decades that followed, or whether it’s just that fewer of the victims from the ’50s have come forward with their stories, because of advanced age, greater shame, etc.” However, in spite of that, he could not but feel that the data suggest that “something significant really did shift, and escalate, in the years around the sexual revolution.” It is very hard to deny, he concluded, “that something changed in the 1960s, and not for the better.”
We know it did, don’t we? In fact we are never done boasting about it – our revolution, our liberation from repression and form all those taboos about sexual behaviour. This is the stuff we are sweeping under the carpet. The Irish, we are told, only discovered sex when TV came along in the 1960s. Then, bit by bit we accommodated ourselves to every permissive element in the new culture. But will we admit that this has anything whatsoever to do with the scandals we are now having to deal with? Not a hope.
Let us face the truth. The abuse of children is just part of a wider abuse. It is immediately horrific because it involves a sinister double fault. But our thinking is flawed. We talk about innocence but we do not really know what innocence is. We have obliterated guilt from our conscience in all matters of sexual morality which relate to ourselves as adults but we still try to hang on to a concept of guilt affecting the conscience of a child when abuse is perpetrated on him or her. We are right there but we are being inconsistent and hypocritical when we deny it to our own consciences.
The Jay report revealed a pattern which showed the effect of this erosion of conscience in the clerical segment of a population. If another survey were carried out among the general population it would also show a pattern but it would be different. There would be no evidence of any restoration to a normal healthy understanding of the true meaning of sexuality. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, spelled out for us some of the basic moral principles which should govern human sexuality. Some Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals and the Catechism of the Catholic Church further clarified and reaffirmed these. Self-abuse and homosexual practices – which are essentially the same – were intrinsically evil acts. There was pandemonium. For some it was nonsense, for others it was outrageous and dangerous, potentially a psychologically damaging teaching. No, in the permissive society all these things must be accepted as normal. The damage done to children and adolescents when they are abused is horrendous – but it is even more horrendous than some of the most vociferous condemnations even understand, precisely because of their own very flawed understanding of the true meaning of human sexuality, the meaning which has been almost universally destroyed in the Western world in the later part of the 20th century.
Let us forget the scapegoats and get back to the real world. If we want to deal effectively with the scourge of abuse we will have to deal with the underlying moral roots of the malaise we are confronted with. Then we might begin to do something about the child abuse perpetrated by our divorce culture, by our soft-porn TV channels beamed into children’s bedrooms, and by our totally inadequate responses to the drink and drug culture which is wasting away the lives of so many young people. Creating scapegoats is just preventing us from getting on with the task of creating a society in which the gift of childhood innocence is adequately protected.