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Why The Catholic Church Scandal Is Surfacing Now

Thursday, Apr. 11, 2002

As the allegations in the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandal continue to pile up, two important questions arise. First, could there have been any priest in the system who did not know that the Church was covering up child abuse, in part by transferring perpetrators to new churches, and thus aiding and abetting the abuse?

Second, if the abuse has been occurring at least since the 60's (as the allegations so far reveal), why is it only now becoming a scandal?

Why Did So Few Priests Defy the Church's Policy on Abuse?

If the truth is ever fully told, I fear we will learn that it was the rare priest who did not know of at least one story of child abuse at the hands of a colleague. It is also hard to believe that many priests were ignorant of what appears to have been the church's persistent practice of transferring pedophiles without informing the new church of their prior criminal actions.

Granted, we have heard about a few priests turning in individual perpetrators to the church. And we have even heard of a few talking to authorities (after which they were shunned or worse by the Church). But potentially hundreds of priests must have perceived the Church's utter failure on this score. That raises a troubling question: Why did so few turn these criminals in to the law enforcement authorities?

It is not enough to say that church policy was opposed to involving the law. That is the My Lai defense - "I was ordered to do so." This was a species of wrongdoing that demanded heroism and the exercise of individual conscience.

When a priest saw a molesting colleague move into yet another position with children at risk, it was time to blow the whistle regardless of the consequences, even if it meant defying church policy.

Why Is the Church Scandal Making Headlines Only Now?

The second answer is more telling, though. For decades, the press has been persistently ignorant of the Church's practices. One reason for that is that U.S. society in general went through at least two decades of whitewashing religious institutions, their actions, and their role in society.

The prevailing assumption in the 80s, the 90s - one that is continuing into the new millennium - was that religion was a force for unqualified good in society. The newspapers operated on the premise that where there was smoke, there was at most a small fire. This inclination was buttressed by churches pressuring newspapers and law enforcement authorities to stay out of "their business." So the coverage of the Church's sex abuse problems since the early 80's has been sporadic, anecdotal, and, frankly, weak-kneed.

One example: In 1993, Congress passed a law--the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)--that permitted religious institutions to disobey any law unless the government could prove it had a compelling interest in enforcing the law against them. Amazingly, newspapers almost uniformly hailed this as a salutary development.

Reporters should have asked - but did not ask - the questions Congress had failed to raise when debating the Act: What about the child abuse and neglect laws, and the anti-discrimination laws, and the environmental laws? Shouldn't these apply equally to religious institutions?

It took years for reporters to turn the corner and see how problematic RFRA's across-the-board preference of religious institutions could be. Why? Because of false presuppositions about the actual role of religious individuals and institutions in society and because of editors too ready to acquiesce to religious leaders' requests for favorable treatment. Sometimes religious institutions are a force for good, sometimes a problem - but the latter truth is only rarely acknowledged.

The Influence of September 11 on the Perception of Religion

It was not until September 11 that we as a society, and members of the media in particular, were forced to confront one of the hardest truths in human existence: religious believers can do acts that are horrific, all in the name of religion.

The Bush Administration has tried at times to say that the hijackers were not really religious, but that is simply false. They were religious, and fanatical, and dangerous.

With Sept. 11 as the frame of meaning in this new era, it has become impossible to pretend that religious individuals and institutions are always acting in the public's best interest. The press, for the time being at least, appears to have removed its rose-colored glasses, and now sees and reports on religious institutions with more objectivity. The harsh light of good investigative reporting of religious misconduct--furthered by the Boston Globe's courageous reporting on the Catholic Church in a city dominated by Catholics--is now being turned on religious institutions. This is all to the good.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court now deliberates over the constitutionality of vouchers for religious schools. There was an era when some of the Justices could say, and apparently mean it, that religion was an unqualified force for good. But that line of the opinion will now be harder to write - as we have learned not only about the hijackers and the abuse within the Catholic and Mormon churches, but also about the subset of Muslim schools that teaches virulent hatred as a creed.

The pendulum has swung back to reality, leaving us less comfortable, but more armed against future trouble.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Her email address is

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