The Catholic Paradox

May 21st, 2009

An excerpt from a report today in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

For more than a half century, thousands of children in church-run orphanages and reform schools in Ireland were severely abused by priests and nuns, a government commission said yesterday in the first official accounting of a scandal that has wrenched the deeply Roman Catholic nation.

The 2,600-page report, which capped a nine-year investigation, said rape and sexual abuse were “endemic” in boys’ institutions funded by the state but run by the church. “A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys,” it said.

In general, the commission found, the severe physical and sexual abuse that occurred in boys’ schools was absent in girls’ schools. It said “emotional abuse,” including humiliation and denigration, was common in institutions for girls.

It sickens me and has for many years.

I’ve been hearing about abusive “brothers,” “sisters,” priests, and nuns from friends who attended Catholic schools since I was a very young boy (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). I’m sure many have suffered, including many of you, under the belt, hand, or stick of some overzealous (my word for them is “sadistic”) priest or nun.

“Why are they like that?” I asked my young friends occasionally. Either “I don’t know!” or “They’re just mean!” was the usual reply.

As we got older, however, it became more clear. These people (Catholic clergy) who are supposed to be representatives of God, who are supposed to symbolize God’s teaching, have been placed in a position (by men, not by God) that God’s creations were never meant to be in — they have chosen a chaste existence, denied any normal physical contact with the opposite sex, and, in fact, convinced that they would be turning their backs on God for even considering it.

Many can’t handle this lifestyle, and the result of that is all too clear in reports of their physical and sexual abuse of the innocent. The innocent who they know will grow up and be able to enjoy the “pleasures of the flesh” that they have chosen to deny — and the innocent are punished for this.

A recent case of a Catholic priest and media star in Miami is instructive. The priest fell in love with a young woman and had an affair with her for about two years before he was caught. Once he was publicly exposed, the Church acted quickly to discipline him. He didn’t do anything illegal to merit a quick response from Catholic authorities; in fact, he did something worse — he drew negative publicity to the Church. As along as the Catholic church appears to be more concerned about bad publicity than illegal and abusive treatment of children, its moral authority will remain under a dark cloud.

I’m not a religious person now, but I was brought up in a religious (not Catholic) environment. I have no intention of insulting or demeaning the many Catholic laity and clergy who are moral and righteous people. However, those who engage in criminal and abusive behavior, especially against children, must be treated as criminals both by the Church and the larger society.   

News links:

Catholic Church shamed by Irish abuse report, AP (Yahoo)
Irish Catholic church child abuse: ‘A cruel and wicked system’, UK Guardian

Blog links:

Ex-nun’s confessions set to rock Kerala Church, Honest Reporting
Scarred for life, Business News Blog

(An earlier version of this article was also posted at My View from the Center.)

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4 Responses to “The Catholic Paradox”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    I went to Catholic schools for 13 years. The nuns and brothers that educated me were a decent lot. In grade school, I got a ruler on the back of the hand when I needed one. My high school went from 8-12. Brother Carl thumped me once in 8th grade English class. I needed it. For the next 4 and a half years, I behaved myself and never got thumped again.

    Brother John was our vice principal/disciplinarian. He lifted weights with the football players. He was HUGE, though he was only about 5’6″ tall. He could bench press about 400 pounds. I never had any 1st hand experience of what transpired in Brother John’s office for the kids that wouldn’t behave themselves, and I knew that I absolutely did not want to find out.

    Brother Gordian taught 9th grade Earth and Space science, and 12th grade physics. He was about 6’5″ or 6’6″, and probably weighed 300# or better. He spoke in a deep, basso profundo voice that meant business. He didn’t need to send anyone to Brother John because you absolutely did not misbehave in his class. He was strict. My God, was he strict. But, he was one of the kindest, most loving men I have ever known. And to top it all off, he was actually a brilliant physicist. He was invited, as a young man, to participate in the follow-up atomic programs at Oak Ridge, TN. He had a passion for learning, and it infected us.

    Brother Harold taught Honors trigonometry and calculus. You didn’t want to misbehave in his class. It was too much fun, and it was just too painful to realize that you might disappoint him by misbehaving. Even in our advanced classes, Brother Harold understood that the mind of a teenager could absorb no more than the back side, so about every 15-20 minutes, he would relieve things with a joke or funny anecdote, then it would be back to business.

    These were special men who, in my estimation, heeded Paul’s advice rather well. I think the problem is that the Church does not do a thorough enough job of ensuring that those who aim at the celibate life are really prepared for it. But, I am also inclined to believe that the Latin Rite Church would probably do well to begin ordaining married men. There is no shortage of pastors for the protestant and evangelical churches. In fact, most of the protestant or evangelical churches I’ve been to have 1 pastor for every 200-400 members of the congregation. In most Catholic Parishes around here, there are maybe 3 priests to serve a congregation of 3000-5000 FAMILIES.

    There is a shortage of priests, and too many of the ones being ordained are simply not fit for the priesthood. Expand the pool of applicants, and the quality of applicants will expand as well.

  2. Pdon |

    It is a sad indicator of the danger of mans structuralising – when institutions of christianity, a faith based upon peace and forgivness, behave in such ways.

    It is hardly surprising, with the incongruity between religious teaching and percieved religious practice nowadays, that many people turn away from it.

    The taint of religious figures is only so noticable through its contrast to the expected “norm”.

  3. Tom |

    Catholic Canon Law:

    Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.

    Deconstruct that statement, and you end up with nonsense. In particular, consider that a major responsibility of priests is to counsel parishoners on marriage, marital problems, child rearing, etc. Who could be less qualified to do that than someone bound by that piece of quirky Canon Law?

    It seems obvious that the Catholic church is more concerned about bad publicity and politics than it is about evil priests and their young victims. As the Church struggles to remain relevant in modern life, it might want to consider that the first thing it must do is repair its badly tarnished reputation in this regard. Apologies and displays of contrition don’t mean much when they’re so obviously forced by bad publicity.

    Then the Church should do away with the requirement for celibacy, or at least permit married priests to serve alongside celibate priests. That will do a lot to alleviate the critical shortage of priests, and it will help develop a Church more aligned to the realities of the lives of its believers.

    I’ve lived in a number of Orthodox countries for quite a few years, and I’ve attended services and visited monasteries in those countries. There are a number of national Orthodox churches in a rather confused structure—e.g., Russian, Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian, American, etc. Many priests are married, but bishops cannot be married. In addition, priests may not marry after they’re ordained. I’ve talked to priests and orthodox believers about this issue, and none of them think that married priests are unusual or in any way detrimental. They think the Catholic insistence on complete celibacy of priests is a bit strange. Just so.

  4. Harvey |


    You’re right in that the good ones, the vast majority no doubt, are never given the credit they deserve for the good they do. A rap on the knuckles or on the back of the head doesn’t leave a scar, it only leaves a lesson learned.


    Completely agree!

    While the worst part of the story is definitely the abuse, you nailed the most evil, despicable aspect of the story:

    “. . . the Catholic church is more concerned about bad publicity and politics than it is about evil priests and their young victims”

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