As I have been writing about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal over the past week, I have received many emails, and read many comments, that can only be described as boastful. It appears that many Christians from other denominations believe sex abuse is a uniquely Catholic problem or at least that the Catholic Church has a uniquely bad case of it. Indeed, I have been informed numerous times this week that the best way to escape the sex predator problem is to join another church. These Christians remind me of the Pharisee in Christ’s parable: “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like them.”
Secular people often have a similar attitude whenever the sins of the Catholic Church are discussed. According to them, the evils committed by the Church just provide more of a reason to reject religion entirely. “This is why I’m not religious,” someone wrote to me yesterday. Trevor Noah of The Daily Show gleefully spiked the football, declaring that the Church is a “molesting club with opening prayer.”
But if the Church is a molesting club, what can we say about Hollywood? Will Noah call his own industry a “molesting club with green screens?” Child rape and sex abuse are infamously commonplace in Noah’s own ranks. And if sex abuse is a “Catholic problem,” why does it happen so often in Protestant churches? According to a recent analysis, there are at least 260 cases of sexual abuse against minors in those churches every year. There is no evidence, and no reason to believe, that they are any better at dealing with the problem or any less likely to cover it up. In fact, some in the Protestant community believe they are worse in that regard. And Christianity isn’t the only religion struggling with this issue. The Jewish community has its own problems. As do Muslims. As do Buddhists.
This epidemic is not confined to one church or one religion or religion in general. Secular institutions are plagued in their own way. I’ve already mentioned Hollywood, where some of the most prominent and powerful figures in the industry have turned out to rapists, pedophiles, and abusers. Then there is the sex abuse crisis in the sports world. Then there is the outbreak in medicine, where thousands of physicians have been accused of assaulting their patients. Two of the most prolific sex abusers in American history were doctors — Larry Nassar, who assaulted hundreds of young athletes, and Early Bradley, who molested over 100 small children in his pediatric office.
Also, academia. Sex abuse and harassment are all too common among professors and college staff, and we’ve been told for years that it’s an epidemic in the student population as well. Then the public school system, which arguably has the biggest (and most underreported) problem of all. Studies show that 1 in 10 public school students will be the victim of sexual misconduct by an educator. Thousands more are victimized by their fellow students.
Let’s not forget about other governmental institutions. Taxpayers have unknowingly doled out millions to settle harassment and abuse accusations against members of Congress. The military has been afflicted by sexual assault and misconduct for decades. Over a six-year period, more than 1,000 police officers lost their badges for sexual abuse and assault. I could go on, but I don’t think I need to.
All of the institutions mentioned above have a widespread and systematic problem. All of them have been guilty of looking the other way or actively covering up the crimes. They all offer their own unique advantages to abusers. An abuser in the Catholic Church can exploit the fact that the hierarchy won’t hold him accountable. An abuser in a Protestant church can exploit the fact that there is no hierarchy to hold him accountable. An abuser in a public school can exploit the power she has over her students, and the fact that her union will defend her no matter what she does. An abuser in Hollywood can exploit his money and professional influence. An abuser in law enforcement can exploit his badge and the power it represents. An abuser in a physician’s office can exploit the privacy and intimacy he has with his patient. And on and on. There is no perfect institutional structure for preventing abuse because abusers can make use of any structure whatever.
The point is not to minimize the crimes in the Catholic Church. The point is exactly the opposite. What we see in the Church is not unique to it. It is far bigger than that. If you trace this evil to its source, you will not find it emanating from the Vatican or a Hollywood executive’s office or any other particular place. Rather, you will find it growing out of man’s fallen nature. And the darkest aspects of man’s nature find plenty of opportunities for expression in our decaying culture.
We will never “solve” sexual abuse. It is not a curable disease. But it can be treated, contained, and managed. In order to do that we have to focus primarily on fighting it where it is most local to us. If you send your children to public school, then sex abuse in the schools should be a foremost concern in your life. If you are Catholic, then abuse in the Catholic Church should be a focus. If you are Protestant, then look first at the abuse in your church. The problem arises when public school parents are more angry about rapist priests than rapist teachers, and Catholics are more worried about rapist Hollywood producers than rapist priests. As long as we are intent on seeing sex abuse as a sin of the “other” — something that happens out there, in those other places, by those other people — nothing will ever get better.