First Thoughts On A New Catholic Scandal

Just as the world mourns the loss of Christopher Hitchens, news is breaking about the scope of the sexual abuse problem in Dutch Catholic institutions. The Guardian writes about a recent report with some shocking findings. Really shocking, even after years of such abuse scandals:

Based on a survey among more than 34,000 people, the commission estimated that one in 10 Dutch children suffered some form of abuse. The number doubled to 20% of children who spent part of their youth in an institution whether Catholic or not.

Hitchens and a lot of his New Atheist colleagues would often go beyond saying that there’s no reason to believe that a god exists all the way to saying that belief and the institutions based on it are harmful. That’s the line Hitchens towed when he debated Tony Blair on the statement “Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world” back on November 26, 2010. (The transcripts are available in a neat little volume from Anansi.)

Blair clearly lost the debate. While Hitchens tossed out a million arguments for his side, some great and some that deserved to be questioned, Blair didn’t believe that one could look at the totality of religious endeavors and say yay or nay, whether it’s been on the whole harmful or helpful.

Blair seemingly couldn’t argue for his side, while Hitchens was more than happy to fill his role and trounced Blair. Still, I tend to agree at least in part with Blair’s view of things. I look at some of the deeply religious people I’ve known, I remember the good works their belief has led them to do, and I just can’t say religion is always a bad thing. To me, dismissing the good by pointing to all the religious atrocities through history is an unproductive comparison.

Then there are reports like this. I hardly even know what to say about it, other than it would make great evidence for many of Hitchens’ arguments.

Post revised at 12:38 p.m. for clarity. Thanks to Whitworth for pointing out a muddy part.

Author: James Brotheridge

Contributing Editor with Prairie Dog.

23 thoughts on “First Thoughts On A New Catholic Scandal”

  1. Your final statement would seem to imply that the reported child abuse in Dutch Catholic institutions was the result of religion, and that this somehow supports Mr. Hitchens’s arguments that religion is a source of great evil in the world.
    While the inquiries began with reports of abuse in Catholic institutions, the government expanded the scope of its commission to look at abuse across the board. The results are as reported in the Guardian article, and it should be noted that institutions “whether Catholic or not” had significant rates of abuse. This would seem to indicate that institutions per se are more likely to provide opportunities for abuse and to be less likely to have sufficient oversight.
    It isn’t religion, it’s the human tendency to dominate, exploit, and abuse when the opportunity arises. Some people curb that tendency better than others. Religious people should be better at regulating their own behaviour; the fact that many aren’t is not the fault of religion, but of disregarding the teachings of religion. Protection of the orphan is prescribed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, among others.

    By the way, in the English language we do not “tow the line”, we toe it – in other words, we obey. Now, if you’d said that that was “the line Hitchens drew”, you’d have been right on the mark, no pun intended.

  2. Institutions of power tend towards corruption. And historically, there have been few instituions as powerful as the Catholic church.

    From the crusades to residential schools, the modern day sexual abuse of children to denial of life saving contraceptives in Aids ravaged African countries – religion, and in particular the power and influence of organized religion – has been one of the greatest inflictors of misery across the world.

  3. And who creates and maintains institutions? Human beings, with their tendency to “dominate, exploit and abuse”. Individuals, almost invariably in the face of their own institutions, practise religion as it should be practised: working for the abolition of the slave trade, to cite one example. History is full of atrocities and the inevitable backsliding of those with good intentions; it is also full of examples of good work done despite the human condition. It takes more work to winkle these out than to say “oh, it’s all a pile of shit”, but it gives people hope.

  4. Well, of course religious institutions are created by humans just like concentration camps in WW2 were created by humans, and genocide is something done by humans.

    But like corrupt governments, religious institutions enable those who would do horrible things to do so without accountability. In many cases, they even use their fairy tales to justify and some of discrimination and civil rights abuses (recent examples include the Catholic Church funding lobbying for Prop 8 and anti-choice legislations currently being played out in the USA). So yes, religious institutions do hold a great deal of responsibility.

    The fact that the church has done good does not undo all the institutionalized bad. There’s a good discussion on all of this in the Intelligence Debate with Stephen Fry (who was good friends with Hitchens):

  5. “In many cases, they even use their fairy tales to justify discrimination and civil rights abuses …”

    I know you like to point out typos Barb, so thought I’d save you the effort.

  6. Good to see some self-correction happening, albeit on the part of a commentator and not a regular columnist.
    You and I could compile lists of good deeds vs. bad deeds until the cows come home, but that would probably be, as JB noted in his post, an “unproductive comparison”.
    And who says there’s no accountability? The revelations of wrongdoing continue, and the legal system prosecutes those who did it. Should these things not have happened in the first place? Yes, but they did, and we have to do our best to redress wrongs.
    And I ask: would you use the term “fairy tales” to describe any other belief system? Just curious.

  7. Yes, I would use the term fairy tales to describe other belief systems. They are all myths and the fact that anyone uses them as a basis to govern, create law or decide what should be taught to children in schools is shocking to me.

    There is no accountability in many of these cases until the public spotlight (thank you internet) becomes so strong that these institutions are forced to stop covering up misdeeds.

  8. I am a believer but cannot prove there is an afterlife because I did not die. I cannot proof that God exists,types like Hitchens cannot prove God does not exist or is that there is no afterlife.Hitchens might have the answer now but I am betting he wont be doing any talking.

  9. Amy: I imagine you’ll be saying “no, thanks” if you’re ever invited to a First Nations smudging ceremony.
    Accountability has been demanded and gotten by individual action and the involvement of the legal system, as well as mass media, but it took the brave individuals to get the ball rolling.
    Brian: if you’re really a believer, then you won’t get into the proof trap when it comes to faith. You also won’t demean others by calling them “types”, and you won’t judge.
    Christopher Hitchens knew what he was up against. He came to terms with his approaching death, wrote about it perceptively, stuck to his guns, and left courageously. I may disagree with his convictions and with his aggressive manner, but I admire him.

  10. I don’t get it, Barb. Why would being an atheist mean I’d have to say no to a First Nations smudging ceremony? I mean, I don’t kick up a fuss when the mayor starts off every council meeting with a prayer.

  11. People who feel strongly that religion is bunk or worse should act on their belief. It would be hypocritical to take part in a smudging ceremony, which is religious and which requires the participation of everyone in the room – unless, of course, the animus expressed in #7, for example, is against only some religions and not all.

  12. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be what she is not – I’m pretty honest about how I feel about religion. Another good ‘h’ word is hysterical, which is kind of how I would characterize your last comment

    Am I against some religions and not all? I think they’re all myth but I don’t see them all as equal on the ‘has done catastrophically evil shit’ scale. I can’t remember the last time someone tried to force feed me anything from a traditional Aboriginal belief system. I also can’t remember the last time someone committed a human rights violation in the name of a traditional Aboriginal belief system. So in a buffet of hooey, I definitely see Christianity as the greasy cruft stuck to the bottom of the pan for all the pain and suffering it continues to cause throughout the world.

    There are many good religious people and they bring good to the world. But their good is because they are good people, not because of whatever stories they choose to believe.

  13. HOHOHO!
    Much more ado over nothing.

    Xodus of the Masses to the malls on December 26th!

    You wanna be connected to a “god”?

    Give your money to a local food bank, or soup kitchen. Or just get out there and volunteer for anything.

    Linus was right 40 years ago. Xmas now, is far removed from reality.

    Kill trees for a 1 week party? Fucking stupid traditon, when in this 21st century all things “green” or Natural are are on the brink of Extinction.

  14. @10 Really? They start each council meeting with a prayer? To which god do they pray? Is it Mantis? I must align my own prayers to those of the city.

  15. Hardly hysterical, Amy; simply logical.
    And speaking of logic: if the good in the world is done by good people, “not because of the stories they choose to believe”, then it stands to reason that the evil in the world comes from evil people, again “not because…”
    So you and I agree that people themselves are the sources of good or evil despite their beliefs. To single out a particular belief system and call it the paramount source of evil is a contradiction and a double standard.
    If you consider slavery and the killing of slaves to be a human rights violation, then what would you make of West Coast First Nations, whose societies practised both in the past?

  16. Re #11: Do you have to decline to participate in smudging ceremonies then, Barb? Because I don’t know which branch of Christianity you follow but the Catholicism I was raised in wasn’t too keen on the modern, all-embracing approach to ritual or expressions of reverence for any god outside the one who appears in the Nicene Creed. (Maybe that’s changed. It’s been a lot of years since I paid much attention.)

    Not trying to score a point there. I’m honestly curious. But I have to admit from the tone of your comment, it sounds like you’re advocating for all of us to live on little islands of fundamentalism — atheist, religious or otherwise. And that runs counter to everything I’ve come to expect from your comments. So I’m asking for clarification.

    Personally, I see little hypocrisy in participating in any religious practice. Sure, before council, while everyone else has their head bowed, I’m not praying to god. But then, no one else is either.

    Because there isn’t one.

    So my unbelief can’t disrupt the magic of the ceremony because no such thing exists.

    As far as I’m concerned, these are expressions of cultural heritage. And just as I can enjoy Ukrainian dancing and Indian food, I’ll happily genuflect along on those occasions when mom drags me out to church. And as for a smudging ceremony, I’d be even more likely to say yes to that because I’ve only participated in one of those and so it’s still pretty novel to me. A catholic mass, on the other hand, has become tiresome through repetition.

    (An expression of cultural heritage I expect will never become boring: butter chicken.)

    Where I concede I’m guilty of hypocrisy is in the fact that, if asked, I’m willing to argue that the core belief underpinning these religious practices is a delusion. There is no god, full stop. Some people might think it’s not very nice that I think this or that I secretly feel superior because I’m not one of the gulled masses. But then, I think it’s not very nice that many of my friends and neighbours think it’s just that I’ll be consigned to an eternity of torture in Hell because of my atheism and secretly feel morally superior because of their adherence to a religious tradition. But hey, I let that slide because I know they’re wrong.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’d feel differently about all this if the Conservatives ever seriously start to veer the country towards a Christian theocracy. Presently though, Canada has a very polite relationship with religion. But I can completely understand why atheism in the United States is so much more strident than here. I think it has to be considering the milieu in which it operates.

    All that said, I do think it’s inappropriate for council meetings to start with a prayer. I understand why the mayor or some members on council might want to kick things off by praying. But I don’t feel entirely comfortable with them encouraging me to pray along with them.

    Seems rude.

  17. “then it stands to reason that the evil in the world comes from evil people, again “not because…”

    You’re absolutely right Barb. When priests rape children it’s because they are bad men – Catholicism does not make them do it. But Catholicism created a wacky cloistered world of priesthood and then tried to conceal what was happening – moving abusive priests from one town to the next instead of reporting their criminal activity or at least ensuring that they would no longer have access to victims.

    And unlike at Penn State where the people who failed to act when Sandusky was violating children are being held accountable, the Pope still thinks he has the moral right to not only tell Catholics how they should live, but to also try to influence politics. Because the baby jesus told him abortion is wrong and being gay is a sin? Because an invisible god whispered in someone’s ear that he should be pope for life? Oh dear, and you call yourself logical?

  18. Paul: yes, things have changed in the Catholic and some other Christian churches. The Creator prayed to by First Nations people is not in conflict with the idea of a transcendent God who made the universe and who would like us to be respectful, caring, and good to each other while living in it. I’ve never had a problem attending smudging ceremonies; I never had the opportunity to take part in a sweat lodge, but that wouldn’t have been a problem either. I’ve been asked to lead prayers before meetings with First Nations people, and mine have not differed from theirs, which always give thanks and ask for guidance. Ritual is universal, and it has the purpose of getting people into the frame of mind to approach what they believe or perceive to be the sacred. Sweetgrass smoke is the holy water of First Nations; a symbol of purification before a solemn occasion or undertaking.

    I’m a cradle Catholic too, and I had to leave the Church for awhile to get some perspective; repetition and habit without thought has a dulling effect. I looked carefully at everything else and finally decided that there was only one thing I could be. I’ve made my choice, as you have made yours. Do I agree with everything that has been or is being done in the name of the Church? No. Do I understand how some practices came to be? Yes, because I read history and I attempt to understand, which isn’t the same thing as condoning.(A degree in anthropology doesn’t hurt, either.)
    I don’t advocate ghettoization; I believe in live and let live. I won’t, however, be silent when the ill-informed or malicious attack what they don’t or won’t understand, or when they deplore one “moral superiority” by assuming an opposing one.
    There’s nothing that I’m aware of, outside of tradition, that says City Council meetings have to start with a prayer. I’ve been to a few such meetings, and I don’t remember any prayers; is this a fairly recent thing? Anyway, you can always bow your head and say “Self, have patience and try to stay awake through these proceedings”.

    Amy: you seem to have confused “cloistered” with “celibate”;in any discussion, correct use of terms is important. If you meant “celibate”, please note that married men seem not to be deterred from sexual abuse of children of either gender, so the simple cause-and-effect you’re looking for isn’t there.
    The failure to deal quickly and decisively, as I’ve said in other posts long ago, is a sin and a disgrace; leaders in the Church have much to answer for, and they will. They forgot the plain teaching of the Gospels, opting to preserve their own power and prestige rather than do the right thing.
    As to your last paragraph, perhaps you should take a breath and not blog when you’re angry, because it detracts from your ability to argue rationally. If you aren’t Catholic, why should it matter to you what the Pope says about anything? In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of Catholics listen politely to the Pope and then live as they choose. Is it that your real opposition is to the public expression of religious belief or opinion? Is the Pope not allowed freedom of speech? Or is freedom of speech only for you and those with whom you agree?

  19. Barb, I meant cloistered as in: “secluded from the world”. But you’re right, I shouldn’t have ignored celibate, which is another nutso thing about the Catholic church. Are you a failed writer or something? You really seem to enjoy trying to divert conversations because of perceived failures in language – especially given that you don’t even know the difference between commenting and blogging (“you should take a breath and not blog when you’re angry”).

    As for: “If you aren’t Catholic, why should it matter to you what the Pope says about anything.”

    When the Catholic church stops acting as a lobby group to influence government policy around issues like abortion, the distribution of condoms in Africa and the right for gay people to marry, and stops trying to cover up the abuse of children, I’ll happily stop caring.

    FWIW, I was raised Catholic.

  20. Amy: I do actually know the difference between blogging and commenting; I opted for the shorter term, and should not have. And in terms of “cloistered”, no secular priest (that is, a priest who doesn’t belong to a specific religious order) is “secluded from the world”; if you were raised Catholic, you should know that, unless you went to a really slack Catholic school. As for diverting: I note that you haven’t answered any of the questions I posed to you in earlier comments, and have instead opted to attempt insult. You mistake literacy for failure as a writer, which is a common tack taken by those with no respect for their language or of learning how to use it effectively.
    Catholics have as much right as anyone to express viewpoints on political/legal matters; your preference would be for all those with whom you disagree to shut up. That is anti-free speech, and totalitarian.

  21. Okay, one last comment and then I’m going to have to unsubscribe – got things to do! I’m going on faith that you’ll manage to keep fanning the flames without me Barb.

    “I do actually know the difference between blogging and commenting; I opted for the shorter term, and should not have.”

    Actually, it’s not a big deal. Just like all the little corrections you like to make when others comment are not a big deal and detract from the heart of the conversation. If you’re going to focus your efforts on something, you might want to consider whether correcting the spelling and grammar mistakes of others to make yourself feel superior is a good use of your time.

    “And in terms of “cloistered”, no secular priest (that is, a priest who doesn’t belong to a specific religious order) is “secluded from the world””

    I think you’re choosing to take a very literal view of this. I would argue that the very nature of seminary is cloistered, locked away, kept from the world – as is the papacy.

    “if you were raised Catholic, you should know that, unless you went to a really slack Catholic school.”

    I attended a Catholic church, have Catholic parents, was baptized, did first communion – I didn’t attend Catholic school. And thank goodness for that because “Catholic school” is an oxymoron.

    “As for diverting: I note that you haven’t answered any of the questions I posed to you in earlier comments, and have instead opted to attempt insult.”

    You’re right – I shouldn’t have insulted you by asking if you are a failed writer – that wasn’t nice of me. As for not answering your questions, it’s because you don’t always get to set the direction of the discussion. Didn’t your mother ever tell you to take turns?

    “You mistake literacy for failure as a writer, which is a common tack taken by those with no respect for their language or of learning how to use it effectively.”

    Someone with a healthy respect for language wouldn’t spend her time pointing out typos in blog comments, and would understand that this forum is informal, with most people more concerned about the momentum of a discussion rather than in proof reading. This language superiority you ascribe to yourself is petty and you use it as a tool when your arguments fall flat.

    “Catholics have as much right as anyone to express viewpoints on political/legal matters”

    Absolutely, and people like me will always be there to try to minimize the damage religions do when they try to apply their madcap fairy tales into laws that infringe on human rights.

    “Your preference would be for all those with whom you disagree to shut up. That is anti-free speech, and totalitarian.”

    The fact that I disagree with you means that you think I’m anti-free speech and totalitarian? See hysterical Barb. Oh, and that other word you like so much: hypocritical.

    It’s been fun.

  22. Reading a cat fight, goes better with beer.

    Don’t “worship false idols” is whoeveers phrase.

    So,that don’t that mean that JT , MJ, Lady GA, Madge, J.Hendrix ,you know I could go on foever with musicians names, ” he/ she is a guitar/ piano / engine cycle building god”.
    ( tech, speaking motors are only electric in orogin ). If was a moter cycle…

    Get over it.

    Why is J dog White in most of the pictures here in N.A.? “If” “he” was born in the middle east?

    I can’t think of another word for FAKE.

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