There is a New U.S. Report on Priest Sex Abuse: Be Skeptical!

A 300 page report on the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal in the U.S. will be published today, and at first glance it seems both extremely comprehensive and deeply flawed. Its goal is to get at the causes behind the crisis: why do so many Catholic priests rape and sexually assault children in their care? The main theories have been 1) celibacy; 2) homosexuality; 3) secular culture. The last of these has been pushed by the Vatican, and in particular by Pope Benedict. This is also the finding of the report.

The report will surely become a useful source of information on the topic. But even before its official release, it deserves to be viewed with extreme skepticism. It was conducted by researchers at the highly respected John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but its financial backing came from Catholic organizations–mostly from the U.S. Conference of Bishops–and some of its methodologies should cause eyebrows everywhere to shoot up.

One remarkable finding is that less than 5% of priests who sexually abused children are pedophiles. What possible explanation could there be for such an oxymoronic conclusion? It turns out that the designers of the study chose age ten as the cutoff for “prepubescent.” In other words, if a priest has raped a few dozen 11, 12, and 13 year olds, he is not a pedophile, according to the report.

The major finding of the report is that sexual abuse of children by priests occurred mostly during the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of the newly permissive culture. The fact that this has been the Vatican’s line for years makes this finding worthy of serious scrutiny. The Catholic Church hierarchy’s history of manipulating data on this issue would fill a library, and it has been steadfast in deflecting blame away from itself.

Already victims’ groups are coming out attacking the report, and restating what many people feel is the true underlying problem: the structure of the Catholic Church. Countless news stories, victims’ accounts and investigations have shown the same thing: the Church is built to protect itself at all costs. A case in point is Ireland, which has been bludgeoned by priest-sex-abuse stories in the past two years. Just a week ago the watchdog group that was set up to monitor the Church in Ireland, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, revealed that the Church authorities underreported the number of sex abuse claims they received in the past year by a factor of five. Where the Irish church had claimed only 53 new allegations were brought against clergy, the NBSC says there were in fact 272.

And to ice this particular cake, this same report revealed a possibly even more startling fact: that the NBSC itself, which was brought into being by the Irish bishops but which is supposed to be independent (as befits a watchdog) is in fact required to get approval from Church authorities before revealing its findings. The head of the NBSC, Ian Elliott, said obstruction from Irish Church authorities was so severe he considered quitting. As Andrew Madden, who was abused by a priest as a child and is an unofficial spokesmen for Irish victims, told the Irish Times, it is “totally unacceptable that the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church cannot move any child protection concerns or findings into the public domain without the consent of Catholic Bishops.” The clergy sex abuse crisis in Ireland was magnified precisely by the failure of Irish bishops to properly deal with cases that came to their attention. That those same bishops would set up a dummy “independent” watchdog and then impede it from reporting its findings gets at the heart of the Church’s problem. And it is another resonant example of why the new U.S. report, which will make headlines everywhere, should be painstakingly picked apart.

Ireland and the Church

Eugene Magowan, a Dublin artist, checked in with some thoughts on my Irish Catholic Church story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on February 9. Below are: 1) his thoughts; 2) a poem of his on the same topic; 3) a painting of his, entitled “Flag,” which strikes me as not unrelated to the theme.

Russell,… sorry to invade your space with unsolicited mail, but I have just been reading your NY Times article. You described well the battle for church control of the national mindset, a battle that continues and perhaps confers advantage on the church through the sense of guilt that has arisen in the wake of the tiger, as though we are being punished for our sins of excess. I had written the below poem (published by Wyvern in 2009) to try to make sense of it for myself. best regards and keep up the work of a good man. Eugene Magowan

The Poor and the Needy

(a jesuit reflects)

It was always there to be found.

In the emptiness of a church, stained light – like laughter mocking the grey stone faces.


The spell broken then by a cough or a foot on a board or the scream of an old back bending.

There was always a vow of poverty, always the suffering, always a world without ending.

We could be sure of these things, sure of the pain they would bring.

And the happiness promised thereafter.

We saw them, saw the need of them.

We offered them light like laughter.

Fool’s gold, it was comfort, cold, but better than none at all.

We needed the poor to be poor.

But now, enlightened, they become debased, impure.

And the need of us has become like gold itself,

More precious in the hand than we ever wanted to hold.

(More here)

go ahead big dogs

Michael Martin ( is an American poet who lived for a long time in the Netherlands, and recently moved his dog-and-pony show to Raleigh, North Carolina.  He sent me some of his work recently. It’s the kind of stuff that throws you off in just the way you want to be thrown off even if you didn’t know it. These are my two favorites.


across the border in germany that winter

their “learn to laugh” lessons were free.

here in our dutch village our canals froze

and we were waking up dead too.

outside the windows

a slew of orphans ran, hurling

bodies down to hardness like ice

was the thing

to slide anyone away

from whatever they may begin the day

knowing they are.

some of us fought by linking arms

around big fire.

it was fueled with the oriental books

that had massaged us

too long with how the world

wasn’t even real;

we sang, go ahead big dogs,

attack the gate, we will sweater

you and prop you on our sleds and

point your open doggie faces toward

heaven where the gilded

rooster lives atop the church spire,

our one chicken spinning in the wind.

dear dog: when that cock crows

again will betrayal finally return

to our village?

our people who were

never real, how deeply in our laps

we want them to sink again—

how sweetly their hands will feel

as they beg us to forget them.

Little Walter Returns From the Dead to Deliver a Mournful, Seaside Lecture at Blues Harmonica Camp

jesus donkey riding girly-style

through his adoring crowd of killers.

two beats later curled

up like a cosmonaut, slobbering

hungry for the new way out.

that, my friends, we called glissando.

refinanced double-wides balanced atop

saturn boosters are a fair reminder that thoughtful

arrangements of the plastic chairs inside

the home is crucial in reflecting

any new world view.

james cotton’s tongue blocks, howlin’ wolf’s fingers

in the dark; used to be you could hear

the long-haired women scissor-kicking

under the atlantic if you were quiet


but that’s probably gone too.

when my baby brother died I said so-long world

and went to live under a tree.

un-talent yourselves.

mourn the satellite you have seen

orbit and burn and fall.

one last thing about this pier behind me—

it will often be crowded with unborn daughters

with their unborn fishing rods

and all of our mothers, singing.

borrowed ladders will plead for rest

against the side of any neighborhood.

they lament loss; they say through the gloaming

and school zone: groove the cub scout badge

into the dark sleeve;

cast your hand across the

infinite, wide road.

David Barton and the Christianizing of America

David Barton had a good week last week. First, the New York Times wrote a lengthy profile of him, built around the fact that several would-be Republican candidates for president apparently look to Barton for advice on American history.  Then Jon Stewart had him on The Daily Show, and tried (not very successfully) to show him up as a pseudo-historian.  But the real issue is not that Barton has built an empire (his organization, Wallbuilders, sells books and CD’s and advises school districts) and has won broad influence by promoting a skewed view of American history (which he has).  The real issue is that half of the United States (more or less) wants to believe in the tenets Barton and others subscribe to: that America’s founding fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit, that God directed all of the early colonizers of America toward the creation of a new Promised Land, and that the discipline of history can be used to “prove” these claims.

Religious beliefs are a personal right, and entwining them into one’s feelings about one’s country is likewise a personal right, but things do start to get ugly when you mix the two.  Americans on the far right side of the political spectrum are often those most proud of the fact that the country was built on the idea that its political foundations would not be tied to a monarchy, to the philosophy of the divine right of kings.  Yet those are often the same people who try to replace that holy essence with another.  People can (and should) highlight Barton’s selective use of quotations from founding fathers (as has been doing) and his use of quotations misattributed to founding fathers.

But playing gotcha isn’t going to convince any of Barton’s followers that his thinking is bogus.  They simply start from a different idea base.  I’ve written a lot about this, mostly in the New York Times Magazine: about Barton and other Christianizing historians in my cover story on the Texas Board of Education (which was included in the Magazine’s own blog after the piece about Barton ran last Wednesday); about Christian-based attempts to undermine contraception; about the movement to bring (Christian) faith into the workplace.  Barton would not give me an interview, and when he speaks to someone like Stewart he talks around what are his main concerns, as a politician would; he won’t state outright that he wants to promote Christianity’s role in America’s founding.  He’ll say instead that he is just an amateur historian who is putting some historical documents online.  He knows how to handle the secular media.

A worthy goal would be to figure out how to get all Americans to recommit to the idea of one society.  That would mean everyone believing in the ideals of a public education system, for one thing (and maybe things like a common approach to the environment and some other big issues).  The core problem is that the right is moving steadily away from that goal, which means we can look forward to more conversations, like that between Stewart and Barton, in which two people are speaking past and around one another.

Really, really new

One of the most under-examined stories of the current moment in history is the swift rise of right wing populism in the U.S. and Europe.  My profile of Marine Le Pen focused on her combination of far-right anti-immigrant nationalism and left wing economic policies (built around a distrust of capitalism).  As Laurent Bouvet of the University of Nice, an expert on Europe’s far right, told me, “This is really, really new. It’s not a shift to the left but to a third dimension for French politics.”

Then again, it isn’t all that new.  Matthew Yglesias, in a post on his blog about my Le Pen story, noted:

I think that when the far-right has been successful, it’s almost always by pairing the politics of violence and racism with a critique of laissez faire capitalism. It’s not a coincidence that Mussolini was a dissident socialist before he was a fascist, and Hitler, too, forged an alliance with the German business community while remaining critical of free markets as such. The common thread here is that this is what happens when the elites running a capitalist political economy fail. And a failure of the elites who run the system is exactly what the US and Europe are living through right now, and we lived through a bigger one in the 1930s.

What I’ve found most curious in the reactions to the Le Pen story is how many are from self-proclaimed American lefties who say something like, “I wish we had a right wing like that in the U.S.”  What they mean, I think, is that the idea of regulation of important sectors–health care, energy–is a bit of common sense that the American right does not seem to possess, and they wouldn’t mind seeing someone on the right discover it.  The implicit, even if grudging, admiration for Le Pen points back to Bouvet’s comment that this mix is, for our time, really new.  But it seems to suggest opportunities not just for hardcore anti-immigrants but for those on the left as well.