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Priests and Child Sexual Abuse: A Secular Humanist Urges Caution

by Vern Bullough


The following article is from a forthcoming issue of Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.


It seems that almost daily for the past several weeks, some priest or other religious is accused of child sexual abuse. The press, once hesitant to publicize cases, has abandoned its previous reticence and now features priestly abuse as front page news. As a secular humanist, however, I would like to urge both the media and the public to be cautious in imputing the guilt of individuals accused.

Child abuse by priests is not a new story, and forces within the Catholic Church have long been conscious of the problem. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, has covered the issue since l984, when Father Gilbert Gauthe was charged with raping scores of boys in a Louisiana parish. In 1985, a canon lawyer then working for the Vatican Embassy in Washington drafted an internal report about pedophilia in the priesthood, warning of a growing problem that could escalate out of control if the Catholic Church failed to establish a national policy. In 1989, the recently deceased Tom Economus founded the Chicago Survivors of Clergy Abuse Linkup, to help Catholic victims confront the consequences of their abuse. The list could go on. For their part, secular media occasionally gave some attention to the issue but mainly ignored it, even as the Catholic Church paid out an estimated billion dollars in reparations to victims of alleged child abuse over the past twenty to twenty-five years. It was the discovery of the widespread child molestation in the Boston area, and the ability of the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV to obtain essential documents, which finally served to ignite the fire storm about priestly sexual activities with children.

Still, caution must be taken, and it should be emphasized that not everyone who is accused of sexual abuse is guilty. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was accused of sexual abuse in 1993, only to have the charge withdrawn by the accuser a few months later. In April of this year, a Fresno woman told reporters that Los Angeles cardinal Roger M. Mahony had abused her when she was a teenager in 1970. The media, perhaps fearful of being accused of a cover up, reported it with banner headlines even though the woman was a former mental patient and suffered from schizophrenia. The cardinal was quickly declared innocent of the charge after only a few days of police investigation, in part because the archdiocese, learning its lesson from previous cases, had cooperated with the police and gave them access to all the records.

With such examples of false accusations (and there have been many others), it is no wonder that Catholic officials in the past were sometimes reluctant to believe many of the charges and sought to avoid publicity. Unfortunately, in most past cases there was also no outside attempt to determine the truth or falsity of the charges. If a secular person had been involved, and came to the attention of a therapist or other secular professional as an accused abuser, his or her name would by law have to be reported to the police for further investigation. This was not true of priests or other Catholic religious, because in many jurisdictions throughout the U.S. they the Church is exempt from mandatory reporting requirements.

Unfortunately, in today's world of hysterical responses, a simple charge is enough to bring personal ruin to those who do not have the resources of a Bernardin or a Mahony. I strongly believe that many of those accused are innocent of the charges, and it is this that causes me to urge caution in believing abuse charges until they have been thoroughly investigated by police and other officials outside of the church hierarchy.

What worries me, more than the damage to those individuals who will be found innocent, is the influence the ever-present threat of such charges will have on individuals, priests, counselors, scoutmasters, school teachers, and all others who come into contact with pre- pubescent and pubescent children. A child needs loving support by the adults who are most important in her or his life. If such adult individuals fail to give it for fear they will be charged with sexual abuse, then society will suffer. The media frenzy of only a few years ago over accusations of child abuse in pre-schools and nurseries—most of which turned out to be groundless—has nonetheless resulted in an atmosphere where many teachers are fearful of holding or touching the children they look after. In many parts of the country, it has become standard practice to have another observer present when an infant's diaper is changed or when the child is taken to the potty. These policies continue, despite the fact that most of those accused were eventually found innocent. Further, some convicted "abusers" whom many believe were innocent are still serving terms in jail.

I am fearful we will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Priests, ministers, rabbis, teachers, social workers, and others who work with children usually enter such professions because they had a feeling of warmth and love towards those with whom they dealt. A hug or a kiss or holding hands is important and necessary to encourage childrens' development into healthy adults. Though there are some, perhaps many, who have failed to live up to the trust we gave them to help our children grow, the overwhelming majority have done so. Hopefully the hysteria over priestly abuse will die down, and hopefully we can encourage those priests who remain to continue giving the loving and kindly care to children that we expect of them. We need to assure them that this is part of their job.

Secular humanists and nonbelievers, just like other parents and guardians, need and want individuals, including priests, who are willing to devote their lives to helping make children better persons.


Vern L. Bullough is a long-time researcher in human sexuality who has received many awards including the Kinsey Award for his research and publications. He has consulted with Catholic organizations in matters pertaining to clergy sex abuse. He is Senior Editor of Free Inquiry, the quarterly magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. Currently he is Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York.


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