Before his death in 2016, the Vatican’s chief exorcist for over a quarter century, Father Gabriele Amorth, observed, “The Devil resides in the Vatican, and you can see the consequences.” We are seeing the consequences now from Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. all the way up to the College of Cardinals. Fr. Amorth described “cardinals who do not believe in Jesus and bishops who are linked to the demon.” The Pennsylvania grand jury report relates one instance of ritualized, satanic abuse of a young boy by four priests. There is some ambiguity regarding the precise nature of the incident owing to page-long redactions in the report. Another priest rinsed out the mouth of a nine-year-old boy he had sodomized with holy water. Yet another priest sodomized yet another boy with a seven-inch-long crucifix.
Fortunately most of the 301 priests listed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report are now dead, and many have been dead for decades. If so horrific and widespread a crime can be said to have a silver lining, it is that the vast majority of sexual assaults took place decades ago, during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Their incidence seems to have waned substantially in recent decades, which complicates justice in its own way: because so much time has passed, statutes of limitations will protect most abusive clerics still alive from prosecution.
On what can we blame the abuse? Some will blame priestly celibacy, or else the prevalence of homosexuality among the clergy. But the social scientific data, including a five-year study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, show no link between either celibacy or same-sex attraction and child abuse. Further, these studies show that sexual abuse of children is no more prevalent among priests than among the general male population.
Is there something wrong with the Catholic faith itself? According to findings of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, child abuse is no more prevalent in the Catholic Church than in any other religious setting. Companies that insure various Christian denominations affirm those findings. One executive explains, “We don’t see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another. It’s pretty even across the denominations.” In fact, sexual abuse appears to be far more prevalent outside of churches and synagogues. One study prepared for the U.S. Department of Educations found that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”
Of course we expect greater moral character from our priests than we do from schoolteachers and the general male population. Further, the incidents outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report seem so particularly wicked: the scheming, the grooming, the perversion, the hypocrisy — above all, the eerily spiritual character of the abuse, the ritualized sexual sacrilege, the “spiritual wickedness in high places.” It isn’t merely the acts themselves that horrify but also the evil that prompted and sustained them.
Last year, an American couple, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, quit their jobs to ride their bicycles around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. During their journey, Austin declared on his blog, “Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own.” Last month, Muslim terrorists murdered the couple as they bicycled through Tajikistan, ramming them with their sedan and stabbing them until they died.
Evil is not a make-believe concept. Neither is it mere metaphor for disordered sexual desires or feckless bureaucratic management. Evil exists, and it has a personality. Secular, self-styled sophisticates often deny the existence of the Devil. But as the late Antonin Scalia reminded a flippant New York Magazine interviewer in 2013, “Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.” The particular evil of the present moment is a call to arms against the Devil, not the Church. Of course the Devil resides in the Vatican. Where else should he concentrate his efforts? The Devil exists. He is a murderer and a liar, and he is crouching at your door. Any reform that denies that reality will not only fail but will let evil fester.