The Roman Catholic Church has so long been regarded by some as a satanic fraud emporium, and by many others as a shrieking anachronism of quaint, costumed celibates engaged in obscurantist hocus pocus, that many commentators have aggregated the dreadful outrages of the sex-abuse scandals into an existential crisis. For those who think Rome is a levitation and a trumpery anyway, the slightest ripple or turbulence will bring it down.
The history of the Roman Catholic Church is replete with grotesqueries of license and schism and the intermittent descent of the papacy and cardinalate into anthills of sodomy and corruption of every kind. The Orthodox Churches departed after about 500 years over doctrinal and jurisdictional problems; the Protestants apostacized nearly 1,000 years later, some from genuine moral outrage at Rome’s profligacy; but others, such as Henry VIII, for motives not steeped in righteousness. The condition of the Church must putrefy before large numbers of people desert it, and even then, they are not lethal enfeeblements.
Nothing that follows here is intended to mitigate in the slightest the evil of anyone who sexually abused children or adolescents entrusted to him. There are 440,000 Roman Catholic priests in the world, and several million other Catholic religious personnel, and they have had authority over hundreds of millions of children in all parts of the world for longer than the lives of anyone now living. Every potential complainant has been subject to group incentivization to retrieve incidents of abuse from the mists of their own memory (or imagination). And in the United States, the most rapacious mutants of the contingent-fee bar have been in overdrive for years seeking litigants. The great majority of official complaints are frauds, as with the infamous denunciation of Chicago’s late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, which was eventually exposed and admitted to be a blackmail attempt.
There are also gradations of abuse, from prurient curiosity, which is disgraceful but not criminal, to depraved and horrible episodes of aggressive coercion. It is rarely easy for a bishop to know at first how much credence to attach to a complaint. Just handing over anyone suspected or denounced by a party in interest, especially in the U.S., is likely to lead to more injustice than justice. It is not so easy as the critics imply to distinguish a matter of repentance, discretion, reassignment, and therapy from an incident to be reported to the police. That does not in the slightest excuse many cases of concealment from higher-ups and civil authorities. This was undoubtedly widespread in the United States and Ireland, but apparently not in other largely Catholic countries seemingly served by higher-quality episcopates, including Italy, Poland, Canada, and most of Latin America. (The Church retains responsibility for the souls of all adherents, including those guilty of the most repulsive acts; no sinner “is left behind.”)