12 September 2018

What the Sexual Abuse Scandal Tells Us About Catholicism

Stephen Kershnar
Lessons from the Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 3, 2018

            Like Lucy, the Catholic Church has some ‘splainin to do.

            This year, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report that found that in six of the eight Roman Catholic dioceses there were over 1,000 identifiable child victims of sexual abuse. It guessed that there were thousands more. It found that over 300 priests abused the children. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Gambacorta, this included a ring of priests who raped children, shared intelligence on potential victims, and made child pornography on church property.  

            The John Jay Report found that in the U.S. from 1950-2002, there were over 11,000 allegations made against 4,392 priests. This was roughly 4% of the priests who served during this time. The Huffington Post’s Eoin Blackwell and the BBC report that in Australia from 1950 to 2010, 7% of all priests were alleged to have engaged in child sexual abuse and that the average victim was pre-teen.

This report found the abuse was largely male on male with roughly 4 out of 5 victims being boys. Also, much of the sex involved teenage boys, many not so young. The report found that 27% were 15-17 when first abused. 51% of the victims were 11-14 and 22% were 10 or younger. Thus, much of the sex likely involved ephebophilia (sexual interest in mid- to late-adolescents, generally ages 15-19) and hebephilia (sexual interest in early adolescents) and not pedophilia (sexual interest in a pre-pubescent child).

In many cases, the words “abuse” and “children” are highly misleading in that, as a moral matter, a priest who has sex with a willing 17 year-old male does not commit rape and his act is far less wrong, if it is wrong at all, than that done by a priest who forces himself on an unwilling 10-year-old boy. The same is true, for example, when an archbishop “molested” seminarians. It would helpful here to have an account of how the data on sex with mid- and late-adolescents relates to the general pattern of sex in the gay male community.

The grand jury found a common pattern in how the dioceses handled these matters. There overall finding was that the church focused on avoiding scandal, not protecting its members. The dioceses used misleading language (never say “rape”), didn’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel, sent priests to get church-run (and likely half-assed) diagnoses, removed problematic priests without explaining why, transferred problematic priests to new locations, and didn’t tell the police.

The Pope, archbishops, bishops, and priests from around the world have been accused of committing or covering up sexual abuse. According to BishopAccountability.org the church has paid out more than $3 billion in settlements. This includes Boston ($85 million), Los Angeles ($660 million), Portland ($75 million), and San Diego ($198 million). From 2004-2011, settlements bankrupted eight Catholic dioceses.

A couple of lessons that can be drawn from this. First, the pattern is evidence that Catholicism is deeply flawed. Consider if a diet organization found that 4% to 7% of its full-time dietary experts became morbidly obese after they started working for the organization. The organization would conclude that its dieting method or way of selecting experts is defective.

Here we have 4 to 7% of priests engaged in sexual abuse and arch-bishops, bishops, and other priests sweeping it under the rug. Unlike overeating, sexual abuse of unwilling children (again, not sex with willing mid- to late-teens) is a serious moral wrong and harshly punished by the criminal law. When this vast moral failing is added to the logically incoherent doctrines (consider, for example, Atonement, original sin, trinity, and transubstantiation) and empirically impossible ones (consider, for example, virgin birth and multiplying bread and fish), the likelihood of Catholicism being true becomes infinitesimally small.

Second, the scandal makes the moral lessons of the Church become ever more dependent on arguments that are independent of its religious premises. A church whose most committed practitioners are too often sexual predators has no business lecturing people on abortion, capitalism, divorce, gay marriage, and immigration, except to the extent that it has good arguments that are independent of its religious and moral doctrines. Lessons based on papal infallibility and sacred tradition are less convincing to the extent we discover that the people putting forth these doctrines are not particularly reliable.

For example, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion, desecrating the Eucharist, and renouncing one’s faith are mortal sins that result in the sinner going straight to hell. Here I am assuming that the person who does these things is sane, has sufficient knowledge of what he was doing and the consequences of doing so, acted voluntarily, and so on. It is less clear whether other acts (divorce, masturbation, and premarital sex) are mortal or venial (forgivable) sins. It is hard to see why someone would accept these claims unless they viewed the church as a moral authority.

The specific stories tell us that some of the priests warrant our sympathy rather than hatred. One priest from Scranton alleged raped a girl and then helped arrange for her to have an abortion. Another forced a boy to perform fellatio on him and then tried to purify the boy’s mouth with holy water. A ring of priests marked their favorite boys with telltale gold cross necklaces. If the priests really believed Catholic doctrine and yet performed these acts, they are so deeply troubled as to merit our pity rather than blame.
 A defender of Catholicism might argue that all groups have members who bad, ignorant, or weak and it is unfair to criticize the church for the general failings of humanity, specifically, the failings of adult men with their intense sexual desires. Still, the church puts forth its bishops, pope, and priests as being experts on God and morality and, in some cases, as having special access to what God believes people ought to do. Under these conditions, one would expect that its vanguard would perform better.

27 June 2018

New York Public Schools: Spend too much, deliver too little

Stephen Kershnar
New York Schools: Overspending and Underdelivering
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 25, 2018

            When considering New York’s spending on K-12 schools, it is worth considering Stein’s Law: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.  

New York spends a staggering sum on education. In the 2018-2019 academic year, according to Syracuse.com, roughly, the average (median) spending per student in upstate New York, outside of the five major cities, will be $26,000 per student. The five major cities (Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers) don’t vote on school budgets. It would be cheaper for taxpayers to give parents a new Honda Accord per child per year than to pay for his or her education. In comparison, the site reports, the U.S. average was $11,000 per student in 2015 (the most recent U.S. Census data available).

According to E. J. McMahon of the Empire Center, using 2016 data, the salaries and benefits of instructors drive New York’s out-of-control spending. New York spent an incredible $16,000 per student on these salaries and benefits. This is an incredible 120% above the national average of $7,000. In fact, McMahon points out, New York’s spending in this category alone exceeded the total per-pupil spending of all but six states.

When it comes to spending on bureaucracy, New York is no slacker. McMahon points out that in the category of “support services,” which measures the bureaucratic overhead of central and school administration, New York spent $6,000 per student. This was 7th in the nation and 49% above the national average.

On a per capita basis, New York state taxpayers are groaning in pain to carry this load. Relative to personal income, McMahon reports, New York’s elementary and secondary education spent $52.87 per $1,000 in personal income. This ranks it 3rd, behind Alaska and Vermont. Many New York counties have painful property taxes.

Nor is the out-of-control spending due to New York’s being richer than other states. This can be seen if we compare it to its neighbors. On a per-pupil basis, McMahon reports, New York’s school expenditures were 22% higher than New Jersey’s, 18% higher than Connecticut’s, and 43% higher than Massachusetts’ expenditures. These states are noticeably richer than New York in terms of per capita income (whether average or median).

For all this spending, New York gives its students a below average education. U.S. News & World Report rates it 31st in preparing kids for college. This ranking is generous as it ranks 33rd in National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading scores and an embarrassing 39th in high school graduation.
The odd thing is that there is no good reason to socialize the cost of education at all, let alone at this princely level. Parents are responsible for paying for their children’s food, housing, and medicine unless they are poor or lower middle class and then they are given various forms of welfare (consider, for example, food stamps, subsidized school meals, Section 8 vouchers, and Medicaid). Even when the state subsidizes these goods and services, it usually pays private businesses, such as supermarkets, to provide them.

At the very least, parents should have to pay tuition for each child who goes to public school. Ditto on extracurricular activities.  

It is unclear why states force taxpayers to fork over money to parents so that they don’t have to pay for their own children’s education. We don’t do this for children’s food, housing, and medicine. The economic arguments for education socialism are surprisingly weak. As George Mason economist Bryan Caplan points, out, these arguments tend to fall into three categories. First, parents have too little money to pay for their children’s education. Second, parents are foolish or have bad values and so don’t care enough about their children’s education. Third, education benefits people other than the student (that is, has positive externalities) and so it is efficient to subsidize it. Even if these arguments were not empirically unsupported and insulting, it is odd that they are applied to education and not food, medicine, and shelter.

Clearly, New York needs to sharply cut the number of teachers and bureaucracy. There is no reason for taxpayers to have to pay for an army of in-house guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, etc. when most parents would never do so if they were to have to pay for their children’s education. The same is true for classes in areas not central to being well-educated or productive. These include foreign languages, home economics, gym, music, studio art, and vocational education classes for students on the college track. Ditto for teams, orchestras, and plays. Even if you think instruction in these areas is worthwhile, it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should be the ones to pay for it. Again, if most parents would judge something for their children not worth spending money on, then taxpayers should not be required to do so.  

High school students, at least the better ones, should be put in college classes as soon as possible. There is no reason for better students to take calculus, chemistry, history, or physics in their senior year rather than taking these classes at a local college. Writing in The Atlantic, John Tierney claims that even AP classes don’t hold a candle to equivalent college classes.  From a taxpayer’s perspective, the subsidy per college student is a fraction of that of a K-12 student.

As an incentive for school districts to regain control of their spending, the state should cease subsidizing school districts that aren’t poor. There is no reason for taxpayers from the Adirondacks to subsidize schools in wealthy parts of Nassau and Westchester. The federal government should cut off all education aid to states that aren’t poor, such as Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. This can be done in part by ending subsidies and in part by preventing property taxes from being deducted from taxable income.

New York spends too much on education, grinds down taxpayers to do so, and gets poor results. This cannot go on forever.

14 June 2018

Masterpiece Cake: Justice Kennedy Embarrasses the Court

Stephen Kershnar
Masterpiece Cake: Christian Expression as a Tar Baby
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 11, 2018

            A week ago, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. ___ (2018). It made an ungodly mess of this case and future ones like it.

            The case involved a Colorado bakery owned and operated by Jack Phillips. Phillips refused to sell a cake celebrating gay marriage. The gay couple who requested the cake argued that refusing to design, make, and sell them a customized wedding cake violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. Colorado sanctioned Phillips. He responded by arguing that the sanctions violated his rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

            Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy held that the commission that evaluated the case failed to give Phillips’ religious views fair and neutral consideration and so violated his right to free exercise of religion. The Court noted two types of evidence for its conclusion. First, the commission made hostile statements. One Colorado official stated that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain. Another said that religion has been used to justify slavery and the holocaust and “it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”

Second, the commission treated Phillips very differently from how it treated William Jack. Jack requested two cakes from three bakeries. One requested cake would have said “God hates sin. Psalm 45:7” on one side and “Homosexuality is a detestable sin. Leviticus 18:2” on the other. The second requested cake had the words “God loves sinners” and “Christ died for us. Romans 5:8,” as well as an image of two groomsmen covered by a red X. The bakeries refused to make the cakes. Jack filed a discrimination complaint against the bakeries and the Commission ruled against him.

In a cowardly decision, Kennedy failed to indicate how such anti-discrimination laws would be evaluated when they ran into freedom of religion cases in the future in which such hostility was not shown or, at least, not as obvious. Worse, Kennedy, didn’t even address Phillips’ right to free speech. These failures make this case have little precedential value. Consider the free speech issue.

First, the Court didn’t address whether Phillips’ cake-making is expression and this will produce a mess. The state of Colorado embarrassed itself when it decided that making a cake opposing gay marriage is expressive but one celebrating gay marriage is not (Jacks’ vs. Phillips’ cases). Justice Thomas noted that, as a Constitutional matter, many activities are expressive. Precedent establishes that this includes excluding gays from a public parade, flag burning, nude dancing, refusing to salute the American flag, and wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

Thomas also observed that an expressive activity need not communicate a particular message to be constitutionally protected. The Constitutional right of free speech, he argues, clearly protects Jackson Pollack’s painting, Arnold Schoenberg’s music, and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky verse even though none of it has a particular message. Given that all of these activities are expressive, Phillips creatively designing and making a cake celebrating gay marriage is undoubtedly expressive. This is even more obvious because the cake might have a particular message (“Gay marriage is beautiful”) explicitly written on it. This is certainly how Phillips viewed his cake artistry.

The Court has repeatedly held that someone’s right to free speech is not diminished because he expresses himself in a commercial context. See Pacific Gas & Electric v. Public Utilities Commission (1986) and Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. (1976). So whether Phillips’ cake-making is expression is independent of whether it is commercially done.  

Second, Kennedy’s principles will make these cases an ungodly mess. Kennedy asserted that the Constitution permits anti-discrimination laws because gay people may not be treated as inferior in dignity or worth. This suggests the test is whether a business is treating gay people in a degrading manner. Yet, it is black letter law that the government may not decide what opinions are orthodox (permitted) or what is offensive. See, for example, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) and Matal v. Tam (2017). These principles conflict.

This area is murkier when one considers that the Court has said that the right to free speech protects degrading expressions toward gays. Examples include preventing them from marching in a public parade, dismissing them from boy scouts, or subjecting them to “God Hates Fags” signs. Again, the mere fact that expression is commercial does not weaken its free-speech protection.

Which is it then? Do people have an unfettered right to express themselves or may they express themselves, at least in a commercial context, only when doing so does not degrade gays. Importantly, deciding which messages degrade gays and thus are not constitutionally protected is exactly the sort of viewpoint discrimination that the Court has said repeatedly said that federal and state governments may not do.

Third, it is clear that the Phillips’ and Jack’s cases parallel each other. Both involve the refusal to express a message with which the bakers disagreed. Both involve a refusal that is independent of the person who made the request (that is, it is independent of whether the requester is a member of a protected class). So are bakers required to make both gay wedding cakes and “God hates fags” cakes? We don’t know.

This case is a mess. The Court evaluated commercial expression by whether it has a degrading message toward gays at the same time holding that the state may not evaluate the truth or offensiveness of a message. The Court lowered the bar for shutting down commercial speech while at the same time it gives the same protection to commercial and non-commercial speech. It allowed bakers and other craftsmen to avoid expressing ideas they find offensive in some cases but not others. Kennedy and several of his brethren embarrassed themselves.