November 10, 2005
The Most Acceptable Prejudice
-- Jon Pahl
One sad trend in the current controversy over pedophilia in the church is that it has occasioned yet another rank of people of privilege in America to represent themselves as victims. These mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off Roman Catholic leaders have taken to claiming anti-Catholic "prejudice"—and are doing so as a way of defending against inexcusable crimes. Let's cut through this smokescreen, without escalating the moral panic about pedophilia: It is prejudice against children, and not Catholics, that is operative in this controversy.
Within the past five years, two Catholic scholars—Philip Jenkins and Mark S. Massa—have written large books contending that anti-Catholicism is "the last acceptable prejudice" in the United States. I grant them their point. Historically, Catholics have been targets of suspicion and violence in America, and some stereotypes still endure. Unfortunately, the pedophilia uproar has brought these stereotypes to the surface in new forms, despite the desire on the part of most Catholics to confront the pedophilia problem.
And surely it is important to keep in mind that Catholic schools—for all the stereotypes sometimes associated with them -- have been crucial agencies of intergenerational education and spiritual formation in America. Through them, young people have discovered their voices and vocations in service to the common good. Catholic congregations—like other communities of faith—remain places in American culture where generations can meet informally for conversation, mentoring, and mutual learning. And Catholic social services—like other faith-based charities and advocacy groups—have potential to provide much in the way of front-line service to the poor and powerless.
But on September 21, 2005, the same day that a Philadelphia Grand Jury released a 671-page report documenting decades of abuse of children by priests, and a systemic cover-up, across the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the Archdiocese released (under the authorship of its legal counsel) a 76-page reply to the report, fraught with defensive evasions. While it points out, rightly, that Catholics generally want to solve the problems of child abuse, inside the church and without, it also claims that the Grand Jury proceedings betrayed an "anti-Catholic" bias.
The potential of Catholic agencies to promote the common good is undercut when certain Catholics claim to be targets of prejudice, powerless victims. And denying the possession of power by asserting a pseudo-victim status amounts to obscuring, even disclaiming, the relations of domination at work in abuses against children.
As is well known, acts of pedophilia are not only "sex crimes." They are, even more, exercises of power on the body of a young person. These acts are often compared, rightly, to rape. But there are other analogies.
One example is found in corporal punishment. In America, a parent may legally assault his or her child. An act that would be a crime when perpetrated against an adult is, when committed against a child (and often on or near their sexual organs), called "discipline." In some circles, these acts of assault are positively praised, and their relationship to sexual abuse and power over the young denied.
Such intimate violence is only one form that prejudice against the young can take. Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have both claimed to be on the side of "innocent children." Yet Iraqi children have been the victims of both suicide bombings and U.S. strategic military assaults.
And here at home, children will surely suffer from skewed federal priorities. Common sense suggests that "No Child Left Behind" is nothing more than empty rhetoric, when we still have to pay for the war on terror, for hurricane relief, and continue to plan tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens in America. Such logic defies rationality and reveals prejudice.
In the context of Christianity, what makes such expressions of prejudice against the young especially scandalous is that they contradict the model of power-with-others manifest in the life of Jesus. Opposing the age bias of his own day, Jesus welcomed children into his presence. He called for "child-like faith" among his disciples. He practiced only the power of love.
Pedophilia is but one example of adults exercising power over children. And when adults evade accusations of pedophilia by claiming victim status, they deny the responsibility to exercise power with (or on behalf of) children in ways that might actually address the systemic issues impeding young peoples' fulfillment.
How truly sad, then, that a few Catholic priests perpetrated abusive acts, a few officials covered up those acts, and a few Roman Catholic leaders have tried to excuse them by appealing to victim status. What they were all doing instead was deepening the hold of the most acceptable prejudice in American culture: systematic and systemic abuse of the youngest and weakest members of our society.
The Grand Jury Report can be found at:
http://www.bishop-accountability.org/pa_philadelphia/Philly_GJ_report.htm. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's responses can be read at: http://www.archdiocese-phl.org/grandjury.htm.
Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and author of Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930-the Present.