19 October 2011

The Catholic-Priest Argument against Catholicism

Stephen Kershnar
The Catholic Sex Abuse Cases Cut Deeper
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 16, 2011

The Catholic sex abuse cases are well known. Less well known is the degree to which these cases suggest that Catholicism is false.

The extent of Catholic sex abuse cases in the U.S. was set out in the 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It found widespread abuse. Consider the victims. In the U.S. from 1950 to 2002, the investigators found that 10,667 persons younger than 18 made allegations of sexual abuse. In cases that were investigated, 80% of the allegations were substantiated. Most victims (roughly 61%) were abused for two years or more. The victims were mostly male (81%) and roughly split between pre- and post-pubescent individuals (roughly 53% were 13 years-old or older). Most of the abusers engaged in multiple types of abuse. More than 27% of the allegations involved a priest performing oral sex and 25% involved penile penetration or an attempt to do so.

In response, the Catholic Church paid through the nose. Worldwide, it paid out $1.5 billion to victims as of 2006. $1 billion of this was paid out to U.S. victims (2002 figure). 80% of the reported cases occurred in the U.S. and it is unclear if U.S. priests were more likely to be abusers than priests elsewhere or if victims here were more likely to come forward.

Consider the priests. During 1950-2002, allegations were made against 1 out of every 25 U.S. priests (4%). Because the majority of reported cases occurred in the U.S., in 2008 the Catholic Church asserted that the scandal was the result of 1% of Roman Catholic Priests (roughly 5,000 out of 410,000). Most of the accused priests in the U.S. were not victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and did not have alcohol or substance abuse problems (9% self-reported the former and the latter is estimated at 19%). George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center found 2% of sex abuse offenders were Catholic Priests. This number is very high given the small percentage of the adult male population that are priests. Another study found that that most priests were not pedophiles (preferring pre-pubescent children), but ephebophiles (preferring early teens) or indiscriminate sex offenders.

The Catholic leadership’s response to these scandals was yet another scandal. Various leaders shuffled priest-abusers from one parish to another, paid compensation in return for silence, hid the review process in secrecy, and used bankruptcy laws to shield the church from having to pay victims. For example, dioceses in Tucson, San Diego, Milwaukee, and Wilmington used the bankruptcy shield.

The widespread sexual abuse is evidence that Catholicism and the Catholic moral positions are false. If a group claims that its doctrines regarding God and morality are true and a significant number of the group’s vanguard acts in a way that is both wrong and inconsistent with its doctrines, there is reason to doubt the doctrines. In the case of Catholicism, a significant number of the vanguard acted in ways that is wrong and inconsistent with its doctrines. 1 out of 25 U.S. priests were alleged to have sexually abused children and the Catholic leadership’s response was at best shaky.

One objection Catholics and others (for example, The Teapot Atheist website) make is that it is a fallacy to conclude that Catholicism is false because many of its messengers showed a sociopathic disregard for the well-being of children. This is a mistake. In the absence of strong independent evidence for a position, if the messengers do not believe in the message enough to follow its dictates, there is little reason to see why others should do so.

By analogy, consider a business that sells a diet plan. Later, it is discovered that a bunch of fat slobs own and run the business. Worse, they have no scientific evidence for their plan. Not only would the diet plan be a laughing stock, it should be. After all, if the people who know the plan best can’t make it work, there is little reason to believe it will work for others. It is uncontroversial that there is no scientific or philosophical evidence for the Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, the trinity, and transubstantiation. This is in part because the latter two doctrines are incoherent.

A second objection Catholic defenders might make is that the cause of the child abuse is a general problem that is independent of Catholicism. For example, on one interpretation of a statement by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, the problem is one concentrated in homosexuals. Remember that 81% of the victims were male and over half were post-pubescent. Alternatively, Philip Jenkins of the Pennsylvania State University argues that the problem is not distinctive to Catholic clergy. He argues that child-oriented sexual activity is just as frequent in married clergy of other denominations and schoolteachers.

The first empirical claim is likely false as specialists in sexual abuse, such as Gregory Herek (psychology professor at University of California at Davis) and James Cantor (editor-in-chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment), deny that the scientific literature shows there to be an association between homosexuality and either child molestation or pedophilia. It is also implausible that 4% of schoolteachers have had allegations of child sexual abuse made against them. Even if one of these they-all-do-it defenses work, this at most shows that Catholicism’s elite are at no better than the rest of the population. This is hardly what one would predict a group that has a uniquely correct relation to God.

A third objection is that this only shows that certain parts of the Catholicism are false and need to be revamped. The parts might involve the dismantling the Catholic hierarchy, ending the celibacy requirement for priests, or preventing men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” to be ordained. As of 2005, the church no longer does the last. This sort of ad hoc objection would be convincing were the Catholic religion consistent with buffet-style religion, whereby one picks and chooses which rules and conventions are a true part of Catholicism. However, neither its doctrines nor the way it is practiced allows for such a buffet.

The problem of Catholic sex abuse cases has been well explored in the popular press and investigated in academia. The scandal cuts deeper. It is evidence that Catholicism is false. In so far as it exposes this falsity, some good might come out of the abuse.

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