Thursday, March 18, 2010

Numbers, significance, action

Just finished reading John Allen's recent article on Pope Benedict's former and current activity with regard to the clerical abuse of children.

The article is well worth reading in its own right. But I was struck by a couple of the comments, which put forth the arguement that at most clergy abuse children at about the same rate as the rest of society. In other words, the clerical abuse problem is small in the context of the larger sexual abuse problem in Western (at least) society.

Which made me think of the comments on this blog that the torture problem is tiny compared to the problem of abortion in our country.

Yet, even given that sexual abuse by clergy is numerically smaller than sexual abuse by relatives or schoolteachers or other sections of society - this is no reason to pretend that sexual abuse by clergy is in any way tolerable or easily ignored. Rather, we pray that progress in bringing justice to pedophile priests and healing to victims of their abuse will lead to progress in bringing all abusers to justice and all victims to healing.

Likewise, my own personal hope (and, I think, the hope of the members of our little Coalition) is that by working for the recognition of the inherent dignity even of enemies and terrorists we can bring to light the dignity of the unborn, the elderly, the infirm and handicapped, and so on. In other words, my hope is that by not denying the problems that are small, we can stand more firm in the face of problems that are large.

No one denies that there are more abortions in this country than there are incidents of torture. Yet this does not make torture tolerable or easily ignored. Indeed, by ignoring torture, we tear apart the thread of logic that allows us to speak of the dignity of the unborn, or the dignity of the elderly, or the dignity of any vulnerable person anywhere. Our goal is to uphold that dignity and to say with our Lord, "Behold, it is very good!"


  1. Excellent post, Robert. The number of evil acts committed doesn't change the evil of the acts, not at all.

  2. Good post, Robert.

    My only input on the matter is that, in the case of dealing with sexual abuse, the "problem" is one which needs to be dealt with coherently, with use of psychological understanding and some grasp of the scope of the problem. Thus, invoking the "figures" on this isn't necessarily a ploy to try to justify the action so much as it is to frame the discussion in terms of the criteria which impact the way the situation is handled. In the case of the sexual abuse crisis, yes, the individual sin under any circumstances is deplorable (and more so when it is committed by somehow who has been dedicated to the ministry of Christ); but, on the other hand, it is important to observe the broader trends precisely because of what they "mean" to the issue at heart. The decline of the family, the harvest of the sexual revolution, our at-once puritanical and licentious culture - all of these have to do with the problem of how to deal with clergy sexual abuse and how to "root out" the problem. In other words, sometimes (and I'm not saying this is always the case), referring to the numbers within society at large can be seen as an attempt to strike at the root and thereby discern how we can better "weed out" this influence in our seminaries and dioceses.

    In the case of torture, there is, here, too, an analogy. The increased "morbido" in the Western psyche, the de-personalization of the individual when it comes to violence to the human person - these are factors that are relevant to the discussion. Thus, if we have a circumstance like Abu Graib, and you see people maybe alluding to figures of abuse in prisons in general within the United States, or even (more abstractly) the incidents of school-yard bullying or the mistreatment of animals, these facts are not irrelevant to the discussion. They are also not, prima facie, a red herring or an attempt at "tu quoque" argumentation or justification. They might be a legitimate striving for the root sentiments which inform a culture that accepts the violation of the human person in the particular manifestation under scrutiny.

    So, I don't disagree necessarily, but I would take care to try and paint Mr. Allen's argument in the best possible light. The point might be that wherever you find excessive bureaucracy - be it in the Boy Scouts or public school system or the clergy of a Diocese - you have this tendency towards a climate of abuse. In that instance, the comparison is very germane; it is a point arguing for a better subsidiarity, for engendering a climate of accountability and oversight and personal empowerment. The fact that the Church's sexual abuse crisis follows trends that can be seen across a larger swath of society is not a justification or dismissal of the problem: it begs the question, what can we learn by this fact?