Suffer the little children

There are, of course, evil people in every organisation. Some school teachers, scout masters, etc. have abused children in the past (and are currently doing so), but that doesn’t yet tell us anything about those professions in general. We’d be indulging in the logical fallacy of guilt by association if we were to assume that “the Church” is evil or complicit because of the actions of a few members who have recently been all over the news for being all over the children who were in their “care”.

However, it’s in the Church’s response to these allegations that its moral character, rather than the moral character of the abusing priests, is revealed. And here’s where we have a problem. It should surely not be the case that wearing a funny hat grants you immunity from legal processes. But that’s the situation that’s been allowed to evolve. The historical association of religion and morality, which in most people’s minds entails religion being necessarily linked to morality, and god being the moral lawgiver, has allowed the Church and religion generally to operate in a privileged space, immune (or at least shielded) from the sorts of criticisms that their actions would usually attract.

What would our response be if a Primary School Headmaster, on finding that his staff were sexually abusing children, were to say: “We’re sorry, and we’ll take care of it with internal disciplinary processes”. We’d most likely say no, there are established mechanisms for dealing with these sorts of allegations. You get questioned by police, and if there is enough evidence, you go to court to defend yourself against the allegations, with the possibility of a jail sentence being one possible outcome. What does not happen is that you get reallocated to a different school, where people are not aware of your history and the allegations that accompany you, and where you get to abuse a fresh batch of kids who have been programmed to trust you.

There’s an inconsistency and an incoherence around our theoretically having the same moral standards for the priesthood as for other groups, and then in practice applying an entirely different standard. This has evolved for the reason mentioned above (religion and its supposed connection to morality), and because religion and the religious are automatically treated with deference and respect. We don’t want to offend, because we all “know” that religious choices and spiritual matters are personal, and sacred, and we have no right to criticise the choices of others in this regard.

But that’s wrong. While we may have no right to criticise anyone’s metaphysics (and may feel no need to), if those metaphysics allow for, encourage, or simply shield criminal behaviour, then the beliefs themselves become irrelevant – an idle cog – and we have every right (indeed, a moral obligation) to engage with the actions of believers, whatever they happen to believe. So, just as being a head of State doesn’t offer you full immunity in international law (from genocide, for example), Ratzinger can’t be allowed to simply opt-out of due process here.

There’s no sustainable justification for separating secular law and canon law. As for the church in South Africa: they – and any other persons or groups who make claims to moral authority – become complicit in these abuses if they fail to condemn them. Any granting of legitimacy to Rome being able to define these sorts of allegations as internal matters means that you are condoning the deferring and likely denial of justice. You should instead be encouraging these cases to be treated as regular criminal cases, where suspects are arrested and questioned.

Other states should certainly be doing so – the difficulties of strolling into the Vatican and arresting the Pope are clear, but if he (or some accused Bishop) were to travel to Australia, for example, they should be taken in for questioning on the spot. It’s what we would do in every other case, but we don’t do here it because religion is involved.

P.S.: On the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, and the possible effects this may have on the likelihood of sexual abuse occurring, we should be wary of easy assumptions. A psychologist who cites this as a research interest claims that much popular opinion in this area is a myth.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.