- Faculty & Staff
The Most Acceptable Prejudice (On the Pedophilia Scandal)--October 20, 2005
One sad trend in the current controversy over pedophilia in the church is how it has encouraged yet another rank of people of privilege in America to represent themselves as victims. Otherwise mature Americans, mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off, mostly well-educated Catholic leaders--have taken to claiming prejudice. Let’s cut through this nonsense: despite the moral panic about pedophilia, and corresponding Catholic reaction, violence against children and youth remains the most acceptable prejudice in American culture.
Within the past five years, two Catholic scholars—Philip Jenkins and Mark S. Massa--have written large books contending that anti-Catholicism was “the last acceptable prejudice” in the United States. Grant them their point. Historically, Catholics have been targeted for violence in America. Even as late as 1960, they could be misrepresented as less than loyal citizens of the United States. And, yes, some suspicions and stereotypes still endure, and the pedophilia scandal has surfaced them in new forms.
But now the Philadelphia Archdiocese has responded to a scathing Grand Jury Report that documents decades of abuse and a systemic cover-up across the Archdiocese by calling it “anti-Catholic.” (see hyperlinks below). The larger part of the Archdiocesan reply rightly points out that Catholics generally want to solve the problems of child abuse inside the church and without. But their efforts to do so are stymied when their privileged leaders represent themselves as victims.
As is well known, acts of pedophilia are not so much “sex crimes” as they are exercises of power on the body of a young person. These acts are often compared, rightly, to rape. But there are other analogies that show how all the attention to pedophilia can distract from the larger problem of power-over children and its potential for abuse.
One is found in spanking. In America, a parent may legally assault his or her child. An act that if perpetrated against an adult would be a crime is, when perpetrated against a child (and often on or near their sexual organs), called “discipline.” In some circles, these acts of assault are positively praised, and their relationship to sexual abuse and power over the young denied.
Such intimate violence is only one form prejudice against the young can take. Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have both claimed to be on the side of “innocent children.” Yet Iraqi children have been the victims of both suicide bombings and U.S. strategic military assaults.
And here at home, children will surely suffer from skewed federal priorities as well. For fiscal common sense suggests that “No Child Left Behind” cannot possibly be anything more than rhetoric when we still have to pay for the war on terror, hurricane relief, AND continue to plan tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens in America. Such logic defies rationality. It does reveal prejudice.
For a Christian, what makes such abuses of power over the young so scandalous is that they are directly contrary to the model of power-with others manifest in the life of Jesus. Jesus welcomed, contrary to the age-bias of his own day, little children into his presence. He called for “child-like faith” among his disciples. He practiced only the power of love.
And it is, ironically, this kind of non-violent power that the Catholic Church—along with other communities of faith—has at its disposal as its greatest potential.
Catholic schools—for all the stereotypes sometimes associated with them, have been crucial agencies of intergenerational education and spiritual formation in which young people have discovered their voices and vocations in service to the common good.
Catholic congregations—like other communities of faith—remain places in American culture where generations can meet informally for conversation, mentoring, and mutual learning.
And Catholic social services—like other faith-based charities and advocacy groups—have potential to provide much in the way of front-line service to the poor and powerless.
How truly sad, then, that a few Catholic priests perpetrated abusive acts, a few officials covered-up those acts, and a few scholars and pundits have tried to excuse them by appealing to Catholic victim-status. What they were all doing, instead, was deepening the hold of the most acceptable prejudice in American culture.
The Grand Jury Report can be found at:
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s responses can be read at: