As the slow tortuous agony of the revelation of sexual predation within the Catholic church unwinds, and the faithful of the Catholic Church mourn every new outrage, there has been an enormous amount of debate over the underlying causes of the abuses, and the nature of the coverups. For some outside of Catholicism, there has been also a horrible triumphalism, as if the scandals are entirely the fault of Christianity in general, Catholicism in particular, or dogmatic or doctrinal within Catholicism. I have seen denunciations of priestly celibacy, denunciations of anti-homosexual church teachings (such teachings being blamed for somehow repressing those who chose to go into the priesthood), and even suggestions from non-Catholic Christians that the Reformation has somehow shielded them from similar abuses and scandals. And yet, as the Houston Chronicle detailed over the weekend, another denomination, the Southern Baptists, is now facing its own horrible unearthing of decades of sexual abuse and protection of known or suspected sexual predators.
I have little doubt that other such investigations will be detailed in the coming years, and for other churches of other denominations. The fact of the matter is that sexual predation can occur in any power structure, and that who the perpetrators are, on whom they prey, and how they get away with their terror is ultimately a function of the organization, its distribution of power, and the strength of the self-policing within that structure. For the Catholic Church, this has been strongly (but by no means entirely) a series of cases of the abuse of younger males by older males, but this was mostly due to the environment where mostly males were employed, and mostly only younger males were in vulnerable positions. For the Southern Baptists, however, the issues seem to be mostly older males preying on younger females instead, because that structure put those two groups together. More than anything else, this should be pointing to something beyond doctrine or denomination, but instead towards something more fundamental and quite apart from issues of sexuality.
Both the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists can be said to have sclerotic administrations, where many posts are awarded based on whom one knows and trusts. Both are organizations where much hinges on the personal reputations of the people in them, as they are neither of them are dealing in the realms of products and services like a business, but instead in issues of personal and societal morality. Accountability of the sort fairly common to the business world is harder to achieve, and the temptation to bury scandals instead of confronting them and uprooting them is very high as so much hinges on those personal reputations. In fact, and I do not mean this as a dig at Protestants here, I would go so far as to say that the Southern Baptists have a very high burden, as indeed most Protestant churches do too, in that the pastors and pastoral staffs can make or break a congregation – in Protestant churches, the sermon is the centerpiece of the service, and people are prone to leaving churches where the pastor is not personally engaging. Yet that same sort of charisma necessary for an engaging sermon, in the wrong person, also makes for an engaging charmer who is both able to, and in a position to abuse parishioners. I’ve seen this first hand and know whereof I speak.
As I said, though, this is not a dig at Protestants, merely pointing out that this is one area where they are especially vulnerable – the Catholic Church likewise has its vulnerabilities, as do Orthodox churches, as to Muslim mosques, or Jewish Synagogues. Many of these vulnerabilities are sexual in nature because these institutions (even when flawed or corrupted) serve as a source of societal morality. Sex is bound up with who we are as human beings, and religions inform how we live as human beings, even for the non-religious. Religion is part of our very human fabric, and that makes religious institutions vulnerable really to any abuse of our humanity, for moral suasion and indeed our very souls are the realm of faith. This, though, allows corrupt humans, in positions of power, to use that moral authority as a weapon against the vulnerable, and then hide it. Businesses have their own vulnerabilities, and sexual abuse certainly happens (the current moral panics, after all, arose out of real and woefully unaddressed hidden abuses), but we associate other abuses far more with business (theft, graft, unsafe products, data manipulation, abusive CEOs, and so forth). And as fragmented and fractious as the religious world can be, the business world is a sea of isolated institutions where corrupt businesses can be taken down far more easily, and generally with less fuss. In any case, their power structures cannot afford to be eternally sclerotic because businesses are themselves ephemeral, while religion is basically forever.
But there is one other institution, nearly as eternal, that too is sclerotic. I speak, of course, of public schools. Public school systems have deep vulnerabilities, and I would not be in the least surprised should some massive scandal finally break (as has been rumored for years) within some big city school system. I would posit that the main reasons this has not yet happened (despite the repeated and sensational stories of teachers abusing or seducing students) is that in the case of the schools, the sclerotic power structures of those institutions are even more poorly governed and policed, as the teachers’ unions repeatedly fend off oversight, the city and state governments are deeply intertwined with the schools, and the full force of government bureaucracy is even more impenetrable than any religious hierarchy. And we should admit just why it is so impenetrable compared to the churches: anti-religious prejudice runs deep in our society, and religion is an easy target – and even if one is himself religious, he may well be championing his own against all the others and so join in the rousing cheer when a rival is set back. Not every one of us goes to church, and not every Christian even belongs to the same church. But most of the nation sends their children through the public schools, and we do not want to face that we may be terribly blind there.
But should the break come for the public schools, it will be terrible, and likely even the truly innocent will be caught up in the maelstrom. Should that break ever come, we should not gloat, we should not revel in the horror of the scandal, because it will touch many of us. Likewise, the national reveling in revulsion at the abuses uncovered in the Catholic Church should end. You may not have been touched by it, but you may know someone who is, and should your own church or business or school likewise be exposed you would then find little sympathy. Triumphalism has no place here for anyone. This was never a uniquely or strictly Catholic problem, nor was it a problem of having celibate priests, or any doctrine against homosexuality. Likewise, the scandals of the Baptists are not something borne out of their doctrine or dogma either. Rather these are human problems that stem out of human organizations, and the human desire to save face, and the human reluctance to police one’s own instead of plucking motes out of our neighbors’ eyes. These are problems all power hierarchies can face, and the people in those hierarchies are just that: people, with all their manifold flaws.Published in