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child abuse and the catholic church

Remember a few years ago when we had that massive child abuse scandal in the Catholic church? What was the consequence of that? If you read the wiki, the answer seems to be that the Church lost a lot of money ($1.5bn by one estimate) and some priests had to retire or resign. Almost no one went to jail, and the Catholic church seems to have suffered few consequences aside from bankruptcy and losing properties. The Catholic church seems to have retained its legitimacy as an organization.

This raises a question for me: What does the child abuse scandal teach us about the resilience of organizations? For example, would other religious organizations be so resilient in the face of such serious charges? Is the Catholic Church unique? Or do religious groups have an above average ability to survive this sort of scandal?

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Written by fabiorojas

March 9, 2012 at 12:35 am

16 Responses

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  1. Hmm, well my first thought was that with the Catholic Church the “myth and ceremony” part is literal

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    andy

    March 9, 2012 at 2:04 am

  2. American presidency survived Watergate. Black Sox were not the demise of baseball – and neither were Pete Rose or steroids. The failure of the USSR has not stopped communism. The Pinto was not the end of Ford Motor Company.

    On the other hand Arthur Anderson was destroyed by the mere hint of moral failure. That may speak to the absolute demand for honesty in business, versus tolerance for the errors inherent in being human. Contrasted with the Roman Catholic Church might be Jim Baker and Tammy Fay Baker and perhaps before them Aimee Semple McPherson. Against the evangelicals the Roman Catholic Church is truly an organization (very old; very large), greater than any member, whereas those others built sole proprietorships. Then there is the problem of magnitude.

    Is child abuse worse than ignoring (if not endorsing) Hitler (and Franco …) or of course condemning Galileo and denying Darwinian evolution … or any of a hundred similar failures? The fact is that the Roman Catholic Church is more than any one individual, even a Pope. To err is human. The Church endures.

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    Michael Marotta

    March 9, 2012 at 6:58 am

  3. The “catholic church” is too much of an abstraction for this question to be answered meaningfully at that level. Organizationally, what really exists are various national and subnational Catholic churches, so there is going to be variation in the extent to which the church will pay a price at that level. My sense is that you can make a strong case for either “resilience” or “irreparable damage” depending on what national-level scandal you pick. The resilience case is easier to make for the U.S. However, my sense is that in Ireland, it is becoming clear that the sex-abuse scandals are acquiring the status of a major “generational cultural trauma” (in Jeff Alexander’s terms) capable of permanently diminishing the symbolic status of the church. It bears mentioning that in that case, the initial status of the church was fairly strong in terms of moral, cognitive and cultural authority (different from the US case) so there was more room for it to fall. In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Irish abuse scandals might result in the church losing an entire generation, and quite possibly (after cohort replacement) setting off a cultural wave of anti-clericalism that could turn Ireland into one of its continental cousins in terms of religious participation (although this is a worst-case scenario).

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    Omar

    March 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm

  4. I don’t know of research on this point, but my impression from talking to active Catholics is that the abuse scandal has angered many devout US Catholics who feel betrayed by the US church hierarchy, even as they continue to feel nurtured by Catholic liturgy. My cynical side (and my sociological analysis side) sees the increasingly aggressive political stances of the US church hierarchy around abortion and contraception and gay rights as a way of trying to draw attention away from the church’s obvious moral failures. Catholic social teaching on economic justice also seems to have almost entirely disappeared from church pronouncements. I have been shocked to talk to young Catholics who have never even heard that their church has a stance on economic issues or that care for the poor has anything to do with Christianity.

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    olderwoman

    March 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm

  5. Omar’s basically right about Ireland. From 1993 to the present, a wave of scandal and crisis has effectively broken the moral authority of the Church in a country where weekly church attendance used to be up in the 90 percents, and where the church’s organizational structure and culture was closely entwined with the state.

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    Kieran

    March 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm

  6. @Kieran, the same might be said of the Church in Québec. The moral authority was broken after WWII and church attendance has never recovered. And, when one curses in Québec, one uses terms from religion, not body parts and functions. Hostie and câlice (mild) to tabarnac and sacrament (strident) will serve whether you hit your thumb with a hammer or find your grad student sleeping with your spouse.

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    Randy

    March 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  7. “Organizationally, what really exists are various national and subnational Catholic churches…”

    Sorry but this is simply not true.

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    Guillermo

    March 9, 2012 at 8:16 pm

  8. What is the difference between laws against child sexual abuse and Jim Crow?

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    AJ

    March 9, 2012 at 8:25 pm

  9. Do we know if rates of child sexual abuse are different for the catholic church compared to other religious and non-religious organizations where adults interact with children? Children’s sports clubs is one example that comes to mind. If we don’t know, it’s possible that the rates of abuse in the catholic church are lower, no? Of course the actual rates of abuse may not matter if the main things that affect public perception of legitimacy are legal and media attention.

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    Jessica Smith

    March 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm

  10. Omar is correct, the organizational structure of the church is based on national federation, and Cardinals overseeing nations are given considerable latitude on the application of a wide range of policies. For a great example of this flexible organizational structure see Tony Gill’s work, particularly his book Rendering Unto Caesar, which examines the differential application of the preferential option for the poor in response to South American dictatorships.

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    sherkat

    March 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  11. “Cardinals overseeing nations…”

    Cardinals do not oversee nations, Bishops and Archbishops oversee dioceses. There are Bishops and Archbishops who are also Cardinals.

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    Guillermo

    March 11, 2012 at 4:11 am

  12. at G: Whatever, dude. Read the literature, and it varies from state to state and time to time….Just like Omar implied.

    Indeed, there is another interesting issue in the Catholic church about the independent effect of religious orders, which are often (though not always) transnational, and they have a considerable bite from time to time and place to place. Indeed, the Jesuits in the US seem to be a bit tired of all of this emphasis on contraception and sexuality, and would like to push other agendas (which will certainly resonate more with Catholics in the US than will the anti-sex and anti-feminist agendas being pushed by the Bishops).

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    sherkat

    March 11, 2012 at 10:20 pm

  13. Darren: we all know that Guillermo has done extensive research on Nigerian Catholicism and found it to be indistinguishable from its American counterpart.

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    Omar

    March 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm

  14. “Read the literature, and it varies from state to state and time to time…”

    We’re on the same frequency about that point. Still, Omar’s choice of words was rather poor.

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    Guillermo

    March 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm

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