By Sam Harris
I confess that, as a critic of religion, I have paid too little attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Frankly, it always felt unsportsmanlike to shoot so large and languorous a fish in so tiny a barrel. This scandal was one of the most spectacular “own goals” in the history of religion, and there seemed to be no need to deride faith at its most vulnerable and self-abased. Even in retrospect, it is easy to understand the impulse to avert one’s eyes: Just imagine a pious mother and father sending their beloved child to the Church of a Thousand Hands for spiritual instruction, only to have him raped and terrified into silence by threats of hell. And then imagine this occurring to tens of thousands of children in our own time—and to children beyond reckoning for over a thousand years. The spectacle of faith so utterly misplaced, and so fully betrayed, is simply too depressing to think about.
But there was always more to this phenomenon that should have compelled my attention. Consider the ludicrous ideology that made it possible: The Catholic Church has spent two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo. Indeed, this organization still opposes the use of contraception, preferring, instead, that the poorest people on earth be blessed with the largest families and the shortest lives. As a consequence of this hallowed and incorrigible stupidity, the Church has condemned generations of decent people to shame and hypocrisy—or to Neolithic fecundity, poverty, and death by AIDS. Add to this inhumanity the artifice of cloistered celibacy, and you now have an institution—one of the wealthiest on earth—that preferentially attracts pederasts, pedophiles, and sexual sadists into its ranks, promotes them to positions of authority, and grants them privileged access to children. Finally, consider that vast numbers of children will be born out of wedlock, and their unwed mothers vilified, wherever Church teaching holds sway—leading boys and girls by the thousands to be abandoned to Church-run orphanages only to be raped and terrorized by the clergy. Here, in this ghoulish machinery set to whirling through the ages by the opposing winds of shame and sadism, we mortals can finally glimpse how strangely perfect are the ways of the Lord.
In 2009, The Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) investigated such of these events as occurred on Irish soil. Their report runs to 2,600 pages. Having read only an oppressive fraction of this document, I can say that when thinking about the ecclesiastical abuse of children, it is best not to imagine shades of ancient Athens and the blandishments of a “love that dare not speak its name.” Yes, there have surely been polite pederasts in the priesthood, expressing anguished affection for boys who would turn 18 the next morning. But behind these indiscretions there is a continuum of abuse that terminates in utter evil. The scandal in the Catholic Church—one might now safely say the scandal that is the Catholic Church—includes the systematic rape and torture of orphaned and disabled children. Its victims attest to being whipped with belts and sodomized until bloody—sometimes by multiple attackers—and then whipped again and threatened with death and hell fire if they breathed a word about their abuse. And yes, many of the children who were desperate or courageous enough to report these crimes were accused of lying and returned to their tormentors to be raped and tortured again.
The evidence suggests that the misery of these children was facilitated and concealed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church at every level, up to and including the prefrontal cortex of the current Pope. In his former capacity as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict personally oversaw the Vatican’s response to reports of sexual abuse in the Church. What did this wise and compassionate man do upon learning that his employees were raping children by the thousands? Did he immediately alert the police and ensure that the victims would be protected from further torments? One still dares to imagine such an effulgence of basic human sanity might have been possible, even within the Church. On the contrary, repeated and increasingly desperate complaints of abuse were set aside, witnesses were pressured into silence, bishops were praised for their defiance of secular authority, and offending priests were relocated only to destroy fresh lives in unsuspecting parishes. It is no exaggeration to say that for decades (if not centuries) the Vatican has met the formal definition of a criminal organization, devoted not to gambling, prostitution, drugs, or any other venial sin, but to the sexual enslavement of children.
Consider the following passages from the CICA report:
7.129 In relation to one School, four witnesses gave detailed accounts of sexual abuse, including rape in all instances, by two or more Brothers and on one occasion along with an older resident. A witness from the second School, from which there were several reports, described being raped by three Brothers: ‘I was brought to the infirmary…they held me over the bed, they were animals….They penetrated me, I was bleeding’. Another witness reported he was abused twice weekly on particular days by two Brothers in the toilets off the dormitory:
One Brother kept watch while the other abused me …(sexually)… then they changed over. Every time it ended with a severe beating. When I told the priest in Confession, he called me a liar. I never spoke about it again.
I would have to go into his …(Br X’s)… room every time he wanted. You’d get a hiding if you didn’t, and he’d make me do it …(masturbate)… to him. One night I didn’t …(masturbate him)… and there was another Brother there who held me down and they hit me with a hurley and they burst my fingers …displayed scar….
7.232 Witnesses reported being particularly fearful at night as they listened to residents screaming in cloakrooms, dormitories or in a staff member’s bedroom while they were being abused. Witnesses were conscious that co-residents whom they described as orphans had a particularly difficult time:
The orphan children, they had it bad. I knew …(who they were)… by the size of them, I’d ask them and they’d say they come from …named institution…. They were there from an early age. You’d hear the screams from the room where Br …X… would be abusing them.
There was one night, I wasn’t long there and I seen one of the Brothers on the bed with one of the young boys … and I heard the young lad screaming crying and Br …X… said to me “if you don’t mind your own business you’ll get the same”. … I heard kids screaming and you know they are getting abused and that’s a nightmare in anybody’s mind. You are going to try and break out. … So there was no way I was going to let that happen to me…. I remember one boy and he was bleeding from the back passage and I made up my mind, there was no way it …(anal rape)… was going to happen to me. … That used to play on my mind.
This is the kind of abuse that the Church has practiced and concealed since time out of memory. Even the CICA report declined to name the offending priests due to pressure from the Vatican. The cover-up of these atrocities continues.
I have been awakened from my unconscionable slumber on this issue by recent press reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6) and especially by the eloquence of my colleagues Christopher Hitchens (1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) and Richard Dawkins (1 & 2). Both have begun a public effort to make the Pope accountable for the Church’s complicity in these crimes. Here, I would like to announce that Project Reason, the foundation that my wife and I started to spread scientific thinking and secular values, has joined Hitchens and Dawkins (both of whom sit on our advisory board) in an effort to end the “diplomatic immunity” which the Vatican claims protects the Pope from any responsibility. We would greatly appreciate your support in this cause. All donations are tax-deductible in the United States.
May 10, 2010
Update (August 7, 2011): Project Reason has sponsored Geoffrey Robertson’s, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse.
Eagleton, T. (2010). The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuses by Geoffrey Robertson The Guardian. (September 11).
Home, M. (2010). Author Sam Harris joins plot to have Pope arrested. The Sunday Times. (May 15).