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Priests & Pedophilia: What Authoritarian Religion, Families & Schools Have Wrought

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By Harriet Fraad, crossposted from Tikkun Daily. Harriet Fraad is a psychotherapist committed to radical social-structural change.

The newspapers are full of the latest priestly sex abuses. This is an on going story. Within the last year, mass scandals have erupted in Brazil, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria. and the United States. Figures from the John Jay School of Criminal Justice estimate that since 1950, an estimated 280,000 children have been sexually abused by Catholic Clergy and deacons.

How has this happened? Why does it continue?

Pedophilia certainly is a familiar problem for the Catholic Church. Father Thomas Doyle, a priest, and Richard Sipes and Patrick Wall, former monks, wrote that the Catholic Church has recognized the problem of abuse by priests for 2,000 years. Their acclaimed book, Sex, Priests and Secret Codes (2006), was based on the Church's own documents.

Now the scandal is at the Pope's door in Germany. After all, he was the Cardinal in charge of approving a known pedophile, Father Hullerman, who had been convicted in court where he admitted getting young boys drunk, watching pornography with the boys and then molesting them. The priest was released from court in the care of the Church. He was sent to a psychiatrist for treatment. The treating psychiatrist reported that Father Hullerman was an unrepentant alcoholic pedophile who showed no willingness to change his alcoholism or his pedophilia. Within five days of the beginning of Hullerman's treatment, the Pope approved moving Father Hullerman to a new parish with access to children There he molested more boys. He retired in peace without serving time for his documented crimes. He is no exception.

There are practical reasons why Catholic Bishops and the Pope have not been disciplined for moving accused priest molesters who work with children to different parishes where they continue to molest. Two-thirds of sitting US Bishops have been accused of moving pedophile priests to new assignments. There would be a dearth of Church fathers if they were held accountable for their crimes. We could ask why are so many of the priests pedophiles? Why don't they abuse adult men and women who also trust them and are vulnerable? Why do they particularly abuse male children? However, since sexual abuse as well as most other kinds of abuse seem to flourish within hierarchical religious communities of all kinds, we might ask why abuse should happen within orthodox hierarchical religions? That question would yield answers beyond questioning only one hierarchical religion, albeit one in the news. (See The Journal of Religion and Abuse, which unlike the myriad excellent books on the subject covers abuse in all hierarchical religions. Further reading here and here)

If we are willing to ask the deeper question: What is it about hierarchical orthodox religions which is so conducive to abuse?" We have expert guidance in solving that mystery .

We have help from Louis Althusser, one of France's great philosophers. Althusser discovered subtle forms of influence that keep people subordinated to unjust authority. They influence people even more deeply than the police, the law, and the army. They inspire people to discipline themselves from the inside, as if their subordination is the way things have to be. The serfs in medieval Europe toiled for the Lord of the manner because they deeply believed that toiling for the Lord was their ordained, God impelled destiny. People obey their parents and their church or temple because they learn to obey before they even know what they are learning. They usually follow directions at school because they learn that the teacher and the principal are to be obeyed without question. They internalize discipline that therefore, does not have to be externally enforced. They learn the lines of dominance and subordination before they know that there could be any choice. Althusser names the biggest three types of internal disciplinary forces " ideological state apparatuses". They prepare citizens for unquestioned obedience. The three primary ideological state apparatuses are: the authoritarian family, hierarchical authoritarian religions, and authoritarian hierarchical educational systems.

In this post, I am looking at a patriarchal, orthodox, hierarchical religion. Of course, the Catholic Church is not the only one. In Orthodox Judaism there are strict rules of what is, and is never acceptable to God. For example, Jewish Orthodoxy does not permit women to be rabbis. Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic males congratulate themselves in their prayers that God decided that they be not born women. Fundamentalists like the Southern Baptists or Mormons, explicitly require wives' submission to their husband's authority in God's name. They, like Catholics, exclude women from hierarchical Church leadership positions. Muslims exclude women from temple leadership and positions as Imams. Like their orthodox Jewish brothers, they segregate worshiping women during religious services. Scientologists require strict obedience to their Church hierarchy as religious duty and part of the mission to serve God.

With that said, we can return to the Catholic Church whose vast abuses are now regularly exposed. In the latest revelations of abuse the patriarchal hierarchy itself is implicated from nuns and priests to Cardinals and Monsignors, to the Pope himself. The system of secrecy in a Church responsive to its hierarchy from the top down rather than its parishioners is now on trial. The cases of hundreds of thousands of abused children were ignored. In one recently publicized case, young representatives of the 200 deaf boys abused by Father Murphy told everyone they could. Some signed affidavits and sent them to the Bishop. Some plastered wanted posters around their cathedral. They told priests and nuns. They petitioned the Archbishop, the district attorney and the newspaper. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a story in 2006 covering the abuses since 1965. The victims were consistently reassured that the Church would take care of it. Complaints were sent up the hierarchy to Archbishop Weakland who sent them to Rome, addressed to the Pope. Nothing was done until the victims filed a lawsuit. Only then, Father Murphy was retired to spend his last days in comfort at his parents' summer home in Northern California. The plaintiffs under pressure withdrew their lawsuit. There were at minimum 44 years since their first ignored allegations. The Pope honored Father Murphy's petition to spend his last days in honor, peace and comfort. The hellish lives of his petitioning victims were not honored with the truth or with action.

The three institutions that Althusser named as ideological state apparatuses (authoritarian religions, the authoritarian family and authoritarian educational systems) are closed systems. They are accountable only to the man at the head of the hierarchy, not to the people they ostensibly serve. In both the cases of the authoritarian family and authoritarian religion, evaluations of behavior are a one way street from top to bottom. Power is exercised as if God given and natural. In authoritarian schools authority is exercised in the same manner, from the top down. Those schools that are unionized give teachers some voice. Children are silenced. In this way the lines of social dominance are drawn early before children know what is happening to them.

The rigid Catholic hierarchy is maintaining its dominance and the subordination of all those under the Pope, from the children who complained, to the priests and nuns who reported the abuse, to the Bishops to the Archbishop who reported the abuse to the Pope. His decision was to protect the priest in power and the Catholic hierarchy thus reinforcing the authoritarian structure of the Church.

Why do so many people remain in such authoritarian structures?

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Frankfurt School, a psychologically and socially active socialist group of German thinkers, predicted the rule of fascism in Germany. They found that about 60% of Germans had what they called "authoritarian personalities." They obeyed their leader, whoever was in power. They followed orders, no matter how sadistic. About 20% of Germans were actively sadistic and eager to do a torturer's bidding. About 20% of Germans were opposed to all totalitarianism and would defy sadistic orders no matter who dictated them. Those who tolerated sadism if authorities commanded it and those who actively sought opportunities for torture were reared in authoritarian families. Those who defied sadistic totalitarianism were not raised in totalitarian structures. They were reared in democratic families. Robert Altemeyer elaborated those studies in Canada and the United States (1997). He found that they are still true. Authoritarian families raise children to know their place, which is at the bottom of the family and other social hierarchies. Authoritarian parents prepare their children for servitude to a powerful leader.

The Catholic Church scandals raise basic ethical issues. If there is any absolute that an ethical human can have, it is that a human being is never a thing. The 280,000 children abused by Catholic priests were reduced to things, things for the priests pleasure, things that were poison containers for the priests self loathing at their own pedophilia and things who might hurt the church if their painful truth was revealed. Secrecy was managed by protecting abusers and reducing their young victims to silence.

John Cory's discussion of the Catholic Church scandal cites Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner in which a father, Baba tells his son Amir, "There is only one sin and that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft... When you kill a man, you steal a life. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth." To extend that metaphor when you, a trusted father, a church father, molest a child you steal a child's sense of his or her soul as pure and good. When you lie, you steal peoples' right to the truth.

In authoritarian families or religions or schools children are things to be managed. Compassion and judgment operate from the top down. Threats to the authoritarian hierarchy are eliminated by whatever means are necessary. It is these authoritarian structures which are the enemies of freedom and kindness, They steal people's right to the truth and to respect and dignity. That is why authoritarian hierarchies must be transformed.

Attempts to transform the repressive authoritarian hierarchy of the Catholic Church have not received publicity. There are such attempts in every authoritarian hierarchy from authoritarian families to religions to educational systems. Since I am writing about a specific authoritarian hierarchy, the Catholic Church, I want to mention one of the many groups working to transform that hierarchy. This group does not limit itself to one particular manifestation of the hierarchy such as their homophobia or their secrecy on issues of predator priests and colluding Church superiors. The group, the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP), is committed to transforming more than the Church's discrimination against women. RWCP calls on women and qualified men to become priests together and transform the Church's authoritarian hierarchy into a ministry united with the people they serve. They want an inclusive spirit and commitment to a democratic Church of equals. In 2002 they ordained women as priests committed to a democratic Church. In 2008 the current Pope, Benedict XVI excommunicated the women priests and the Bishops who ordained them. They posed a threat to the authoritarian hierarchy that the Pope was quick to address in escalating steps that culminated in excommunication. The women and their Bishops did not accept the Pope's authoritarian pronouncement. They continue to lead democratic congregations. They have their counterparts urging the transformation of all authoritarian hierarchical institutions. They affirm the morality of the deepest respect for people who can never be treated as things or robbed of the truth and respect they deserve.