Thursday, April 17, 2008

Excuses, Excuses

As we've all heard, Pope Benedict has been in town, and has apparently spent the last three days apologizing for all the sex abuse scandals we've been hearing so much about. To that exent - kudos. It's certainly an improvement from his predecessor.

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: while I do believe that Catholic priests are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than other segments of the population, I do not believe the problem is nearly as severe as the media has made it out to be. Investigations have shown that the rate of abuse in the United States is slightly higher than that for the population in general: about 4% of all priests are believed to have been involved in abuse. There are, of course, two good reasons to assume it is probably a bit higher. One is the usual suspicion that reports of this kind tend to understate the scope of the problem. This is no fault of theirs - simply a consequence of the methodology. The other is the nature of the priesthood itself. Normal people do not commit to a life of celibacy. This isn't to say that a good many (the overwhelming majority, one assumes) of priests do not embrace celibacy for the "right" reasons (for the record, I'm with George Michael on this one: "Sex is natural, sex is good; not everybody does it, but everybody should."). But it's also reasonable to assume that this is a profession that is likely to attract paedophiles, as it affords an opportunity to associate with children, an explanation of one's bachelor status, and it used to also afford relative freedom from suspicion for exactly this kind of wrongdoing (though this last point has obviously changed quite a bit in recent years). People with normal sexual appetites obviously face a much higher bar to entry into the priesthood, and so one can assume that they are less likely to be "called."

Still, it's likely that the scandal has been overblown. The rate of estimated priestly abuse is only a bit higher than that for the general population, and for obvious reasons the stories of priestly abuse are more likely to be sensationalized in the media than stories of abuse by people from other walks of life. Abuse by a priest is a huge, and uniquely hypocritical, betrayal of trust: it makes for good copy.

No, the real offense of the scandal isn't that there are paedophiles in the priesthood (of course there are!), but the fact that the Church's reaction has largely focused on controlling the PR fallout more than addressing the problem. In that sense, Benedict's "profuse" apologies are too little, too late, even if welcome.

But there's also another, more important, sense in which his apologies strike one as a bit insincere, and that's in his insistence that the problems needs to be viewed in the wider context of secularism and the over-sexualization of America.

This response from the Church is wearing thin (it was a favorite of John-Paul II's). It's singularly inappropriate for this scandal, and people need to start saying so. Here's why.

First - the Church can hardly afford itself the luxury of styling itself a "victim" of secularization. Its mission statement is to resist this trend, after all. It's a bit like a prostitute complaining that all she ever does is fuck. Well, right - that's your job. If you're looking to form meaningful relationships with your clients, you're in the wrong line of work. Likewise, if you're a "victim" of secularization, you need to see a priest, not be one. Ditto the "over-sexualization of America." What does this have to do with anything? I suppose next if a priest turns out to be dealing drugs to teenagers, the Church will blame this on the American "drug culture?"

There's a reason we hold people claiming to be moral authorities on subjects to a higher standard. It's the same reason I've argued that Hillary doesn't get a free pass for faulty memory. It isn't that her claim that she "misremembered" the incident in Bosnia is automatically false (though I admit I suspect it is). It's that she's in a position where she doesn't get the luxury of using this excuse. Priests are the same way. If your job description involves telling other people how to live their lives, then you don't get to be "one of us," sorry. It's the same way that I, as a linguist, can't be forgiven for assuming that everyone who speaks with a southern accent is an uneducated. I know better. It's my job to know better. Some yokel from Michigan who thinks this can plausibly claim to have been misled by the ignorant stereotypes that characterize his community, right. But not if he's gone to school and studied the subject!

Now, I get why the Church doesn't wanna defrock the people involved in these scandals. By the goofy parameters of their belief system, being a priest is a calling from God - no grounds to question it. Fine. Likewise, they're committed to a hugely pessimistic view of humanity in which we're all inherently flawed creatures; they actually expect everyone to screw up. So when priests do it, no big deal to them, right? Right BUT - whatever you believe about a person's calling and whatever you believe about sin and redemption, surely it's in line with Church doctrine that someone who shows he has a proclivity for a particular kind of sin be judged weak in the face of relevant temptations? And surely there's nothing "unchristian" in worrying about the safety of potential victims? Rape isn't a sin like any other, after all. It's not something like lying, that pretty much everyone does semi-regularly. Rape is an extraordinary thing - and especially so when children are the victims.

Maybe Benedict's profuse apologies signal an actual change in intent and policy. Maybe. But if he's taking up the tired line that "society" is to blame, I think it's more likely that he just talks better than the other fellow.

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