William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Bad news for good children

‘Suffer little children to come to me…’ That’s the comforting injunction with which Sunday School kiddies are assured that their innocence affords them a special place in their God’s heart, as recorded in the Eezee English of the so-called Good News version of the Bible.

In an imaginary Bad News Bible, edited to reflect today’s realities of global ecclesiastical child abuse, one would perforce trim and repunctuate. ‘Suffer, little children!’ That would do it.

Over the past three decades, sordid revelations chronicling priestly paedophilia have rocked the Catholic Church, especially in Europe and the United States. So, too, quasi-Christian organisations like the Boy Scouts.

It is not only the endemic nature of the abuse that has confounded the Catholic faithful. It is that the top clergy of the Church failed to act against paedophile priests.

Instead of calling the cops, the abusers were mostly quietly moved elsewhere. It was a coldly calculated collusion aimed at avoiding public scandal and executed at the cost of continued abuse.

As the grip of the Church has waned in increasingly secular societies, the conspiracy has unravelled, to be documented in sordid detail in thousands of court cases. The Church has had to pay literally billions of dollars in compensation awards and some priests have been jailed.

Pope Benedict, who one stage had to claim head-of-state immunity to ward off a personal lawsuit, admitted to being ‘deeply ashamed’. He should be, what with the sins of so many Fathers fouling the Vatican’s assumptions of moral infallibility.

This week, in a Philadelphia court, the most senior Catholic to be tried criminally for child endangerment is being cross-questioned on the role he played in protecting paedophile priests instead of reporting them to the police. Monsignor William Lynn faces 28 years in jail. If convicted, it is a sentence that the septuagenarian is sadly unlikely to have to endure for long enough.

While it is the Catholics who have been the focus of media attention, that is a trifle unfair. Also this week, the district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, announced a special task force to deal with the problem of child molestation in the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The fact is, child molestation by priests is no more common than by rabbis, imams, reverends or school teachers, for that matter. Academic scholars tend towards the view that the frequency of child sexual abuse – about one in three in the US, where most studies have been done – doesn’t differ substantially among the world’s religions, nor between denominations, nor between the faithful and non-believers.

So the critical issue is not clerical hypocrisy, religious dogma or divinely inspired ignorance, such as tortuous and discredited theories that attribute abuse to homosexuality. It is the brazen assertion by religious authorities that sexual abuse is a ‘spiritual failing’ – by definition then, a matter not for the law but for prayer.

Hasidic Jews and Moslems have for centuries kept many offences from the notice of secular authorities, to be dealt with in their own religious courts, not dissimilar, for that matter, from the tribal courts that the South African government is now backing. The decisions of such courts increasingly don’t chime, at least for the victims, with those of impartial state justice systems.

In New York the victims of Hasidic child molestation encounter, according to The New York Times, ‘intense intimidation from neighbours and rabbinical authorities, aimed at pressuring them to drop their cases’. Abuse victims and their families are often expelled from religious schools and synagogues, shunned by fellow Jews and harassed to the point that it destroys their lives and livelihoods.

When it comes to child abuse, the great religions have engineered great systems of collusion. ‘Jesus loves you’ goes the hymn. That might be so, but it is the priest who wants to get into your pants and it is often your neighbours and the local coppers who stand by and let it happen.

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