Saturday, April 10, 2010

Donohue's "It's Not Pedophilia" Claim and the Abuse Crisis in Global Perspective

Michael Scahill published an interesting reflection on the Catholic church’s abuse crisis yesterday at Alternet.  I’m struck in particular by Scahill’s counter to the “extreme, almost fanatic” (his phrase) claims of people like Bill Donohue about the abuse crisis.

As Scahill notes, 

In a recent interview with CNN's Larry King Live, Mr. Donohue stated almost gleefully that the rape and molestation by Catholic clergy was not pedophilia, but rather homosexuality because "most of the victims were post-pubescent." Addressing a church sex abuse victim on the CNN panel with him, Donohue smugly declared: “That's not pedophilia, buddy. That's homosexuality.”

And Scahill’s response to Donohue, as a pediatric nurse practitioner in a Milwaukee child abuse clinic and a practicing Catholic:

Let me say one thing very clearly. In almost 20 years of dealing with this issue on a daily clinical basis, I have never heard the issue framed in terms of "post-pubescent boys," nor one of homosexuality. In my professional experience, I have seen no connection between sexual orientation and the sexual abuse of a child, including post-pubescent boys who, contrary to Mr. Donohue's ill-informed interpretation of biology and law, are in fact children. For the Catholic Church or its prominent defenders to frame the issue in terms of homosexuality is to almost re-open the Inquisition. The Pope must put an end to that sort of rhetoric.

One reason that the blame-the-gays strategy is now backfiring on Catholic apologists for the cover-up of clerical child abuse is that 1) we have become critically aware that clerical sexual abuse is a worldwide problem, which exists throughout the Catholic church; 2) at a global level, the abuse crisis is anything but a gay-priests-abusing-adolescent-boys phenomenon; 3) this is a crisis that revolves around the abuse of power by clergy, and in some parts of the world, the abuse is primarily a matter of priests coercing adult females into sexual relationships; and 4) the revelations about the crisis at all levels—at the level of its official cover-up at the very center of the church, and at the level of individual national churches throughout the world—are not going to stop.

Two articles from the past week that support the claims I have just made are Angela Bonavoglia’s HuffPo piece entitled “The Catholic Church: Abusing, Endangering, and Intimidating Women” and Lisa Miller’s “The Trouble with Celibacy” at Newsweek.

Bonavoglia (who is author of Good Catholic Girls) reminds readers that in 2001, a year before the pedophilia crisis broke with news coming out of Boston, National Catholic Reporter had already drawn attention to two internal reports written by nuns documenting the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests in 23 countries on five continents.

The allegations made by these reports are horrific:

One of the most stunning allegations concerned a nun impregnated by a priest, who forced her to have an abortion that killed her, and then officiated at her funeral. Priests were alleged to have raped young nuns who approached them for the required certificates to enter religious orders; to have told nuns that oral contraceptives would protect them from AIDS; and to have used nuns as "safe" alternatives to prostitutes in countries plagued by AIDS—with some priests going so far as to demand that heads of convents make the nuns sexually available to them.

Bonavoglia notes that it’s not just nuns who have experienced abuse by priests: citing the Crookston, Minnesota, case about which I wrote earlier in the week, she notes that “thousands of girls, from infancy through adolescence, have been molested by priests.”  The research she did in writing Good Catholic Girls demonstrates to her that many adult women have been victimized by predatory clerics, and “[m]any sexually active priests have left a trail of wounded women and fatherless progeny in their wake—testament to the hypocrisy in the claim of a celibate priesthood.”

Donohue’s “that's not pedophilia, buddy, that's homosexuality” meme does not explain the crisis of clerical abuse—the crisis of the abuse of power by Catholic priests—in any satisfactory fashion.  Not in any comprehensive sense that takes into account all that we know about this crisis—the crisis of the abuse of power by Catholic priests, and the cover-up of such abuse—at a global level.

Donohue’s meme, which has, shamefully, been repeated even by Vatican officials and other high-ranking Catholic clerics this past week, does not explain all that we already know.  And it certainly will demonstrate its lack of explanatory power as new data continue to emerge, despite the cover-up that has long been in place, about this crisis in its global dimensions.

Lisa Miller notes that “even as new cases of child sexual abuse by clergy emerge each day in Europe and the United States, abuse in the regions where Catholicism is growing fastest—Latin America, Asia, and, especially, Africa—are still largely ignored.”  As she also points out, in some of these regions, the form of clerical abuse is quite different than it is in the West.  

Miller focuses in particular on Africa, citing one of the two internal church reports by nuns to which Bonavoglia also points.  She notes that Sr. Marie McDonald’s 1998 “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome” found that sexual harassment and even rape of nuns by African priests and bishops is allegedly common. 

As Miller indicates, when National Catholic Reporter wrote about the situation in Africa in 2001, it reported cases of priests raping nuns and paying for their abortions, of nuns refusing to travel with priests for fear of being raped, and of nuns appealing to bishops for help with these issues and being refused help.  Miller cites Rev. Peter Schineller, S.J., who has worked in Africa for 20 years, and who concludes that “the violations [of celibacy by African priests] are huge.”

Schineller notes that the African situation presents priests with problems perhaps unique to that continent.  Many African cultures link being a real man with fathering children; priests minister in isolated and lonely locations; and women are often accorded inferior status.

As I say, the blame-the-gays strategy has some serious explanatory flaws, when one looks at the clerical abuse crisis from a global standpoint.  Above all, it does not get to the heart of the matter: that is, that his is a crisis centered on the abuse of power.  There is even, in some quarters, Miller reports, a deeply rooted myth that having sex with virgins is therapeutic (for the male partner)—a myth that places nuns in even more jeopardy.

And no amount of gay-bashing is going to make these problems vanish, as the daily drip of new revelations—increasingly, from cultures outside the U.S. and Europe—continues.  The only thing those who continue to push the “it’s not pedophilia, buddy” meme are proving is that gay bashing and the cover-up of clerical abuse are inherently connected to each other.  And that treating gay human beings like objects goes hand in hand with treating children who are sexually abused the same way.

The graphic for this posting is a portrait of Franciscan sister Thea Bowman, whom I had the great privilege of knowing, and who was one of the most inspiring religious figures I've ever met.