The Catholic Church – Scapegoat or Villain

May 11, 2010

By Gode Davis, political staff columnist – May 11, 2010

CathedralThe early months of 2010 featured yet another sensational scandal with the Roman Catholic Church in a starring role. Sordid topics related to child molestation command center stage. In these latest accusations, the current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, has been implicated, if not by fact, at least by media insinuation. Simultaneously, the Pope has reaffirmed the Church’s defense of celibacy for priests, vigorously denying assertions that a priest’s celibate status contributes to his propensity to commit sexual crimes against children. Abetting the sensationalistic nature of the crimes, as they’re described in the media, is that the Roman Catholic Church is overrun with pedophiliac priests.

The current scandal has increased its geographical reach as to become global in scope – with media reports surfacing from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and particularly Australia and New Zealand. The first wave of sexual abuse scandals were primarily American (admittedly North American as a few sensational cases surfaced in Canada and Mexico) during the 1980s and early 1990s. More strikingly, in that first wave, worldwide publicity detailing crimes involving errant priests and altar boys humiliated various U.S. archdioceses, most notably those in Boston, New Orleans, and Albuquerque.

Is the Catholic Church a scapegoat or villain? In fact, while aspects of the Church’s actions and reactions to previous crises and to the current one may smell of cover-up and be deemed despicable, a certain amount of scapegoating of a once revered and still quite powerful and wealthy institution has inevitably been transpiring. The politicizing of rhetoric and hyperbole, mingled with inaccurate assumptions routinely bandied about by self-interested parties, have punctuated a fear-filled and very public discourse laden with emotional charge value – an intellectual forum where honest discussion is seldom encountered, or else piously abandoned in the service of what passes for human decency. Because the Catholic Church has “deep pockets” and has become a legitimized target for attorneys representing abuse victims, sexual abuse cases continue to proliferate while criminal statutes make child molestation an exception to statutes of limitations in a majority of U.S. states (and increasingly globally as nations around the world similarly revise their own legal codes) so that victims can come forward and recover damages – often jury-awarded settlements totaling in the tens of millions of dollars – many years, even decades after the molestations ostensibly occurred. Also aiding prosecutors and victim advocates are laws passed since the mid-1970s which have greatly expanded legal definitions and the scope of child abuse, often without allowing for judicial discretion in either sentencing or interpretation. Within such a milieu, many important questions escape serious scrutiny or else never get asked.

Philip Lawler, author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, former editor of Boston’s Archdiocesan paper, and a frequent contributor to The Catholic Global Network, a prominent Roman Catholic blog, has been asking some of those questions. For instance, in an essay dated April 24, 2010, Lawler correctly states that the Catholic Church is not rife with pedophiles, and except for a few notorious exceptions such as James Porter and John Geoghan whose cases were sensationalized in recent years, incidences of criminal malfeasance primarily involved ephebophiles. “The crisis that has stricken the Catholic Church in America is often described as a pedophilia scandal. That characterization is not accurate,” writes Lawler. Pedophilia, a profound psychological disorder involving the sexual desire for young, pre-pubescent children, is fortunately rare among priests.

Lawler goes on to write, “Among the thousands of complaints lodged against American priests during the early years of the twenty-first century, the vast majority involved sexual relations with teenage boys. In some cases, to some extent, the boys may have appeared to be willing partners in the sexual activity. Since the teenagers had not reached the age of consent, and since the priests were exploiting their positions of authority and trust, the relationships were certainly abusive. But they cannot be classified as instances of pedophilia.” Lawler draws upon a firm factual basis. “In a thorough study of sex-abuse complaints commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a sweeping report in 2004 that covered more than 5,000 incidents. Of these, 81 percent involved priests with young male victims. Of those male victims, 90 percent were teenage boys.” From there, Lawler connects the dots and attributes the rampant presence of ephebophiliac priests to “what many Catholics long suspected” – that the sex abuse crisis was a crisis of homosexuality in the priesthood.

Lawler’s perspective isn’t unique. In 2009, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative at the United Nations in Geneva, concurred that it is “more correct” to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males, then pedophilia, in relation to the scandals. “Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90 percent belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17,” Tomasi explained.

Interest in boys apparently has a long history within the church founded by Simon Peter. According to the renowned Saint Bede, (672-735 A.D.) a Doctor of the Church (basically a term describing a learned scholar and theologian), perhaps best known for writing The Ecclesiastical History of the English People — one of the early Catholic Popes, Saint Gregory the Great (his papacy from September 3, 590 to March 12, 603) had a remarkable interest in young, blond, fair-skinned, smooth-bodied boys from the northern regions of Europe and Scandinavia. Such boys were frequently brought to Rome and sold as slaves.

“Saint Gregory the Great was in the habit of frequenting the slave market that flourished in Papal Rome. One day while touring the market, he went to the sale section. There, in chains, were a variety of beautiful boys whose flesh glowed. Their blond hair caught the sunlight. Their countenance was so intoxicating to the Pontiff that he stopped abruptly. Gregory sighed. Walking up to them, he stared. Finding their extraordinary good looks fascinating, he pronounced this new herd of marketable flesh ‘angelic,’ a pun on the Latin word ‘anglicus.’ Their appearance was so enlivening that Pope Gregory opined they deserved the reward of heaven. He suggested that heaven was filled, not as the Qu’ran says, with dark-eyed maidens, but instead with lovely boys.”

While contemporary readers might blanch at the Pope’s blithe countenancing of human bondage, it is perhaps instructive to note that slavery was condoned by the Church for perhaps a millennia beyond those Dark Ages.

Four hundred years later, the Church elected a boy pope. Born in 1021, Pope Benedict IX assumed the role of pontiff in January 1033 at the age of twelve. His papacy lasted until May 1, 1045. Although this is a singular fact, and as such remains remarkable, only two popes in the Church’s history might appear suspect in their conduct with boys – Pope John XII (his reign from December 16, 955 to December 4, 963), and Julius III (from February 8, 1550 to March 23, 1555). Writes author Arthur Frederick Ide about John XII, “More interested in play than prayer, ever eager to take bribes and willing to appoint unqualified men and boys to bishoprics (the youngest was only ten, but had a ‘well-turned thigh, a soft smile and dancing eyes,’), John XII was undaunted about turning the Lateran Palace into a brothel and stable for loose young nobles of both sexes.”

Ide describes Julius III in more vivid tones. According to Ide, Julius III was “keenly delighted by the subtle graces and soft olive skin ‘as flawless as alabaster’ of a fifteen-year-old youth known to history as ‘Innocenzo,’ and goes on to merrily write, “Julius III stirred an unheard-of scandal in the Vatican and throughout the Catholic world when he picked the youth up off the streets of Parma. Making his brother adopt him, Julius III named his lover a cardinal. Known to be a common hustler, Innocenzo gave the pleasure-loving pope many a happy moment. Filled with passion for the youth, Julius III almost forgot the role he was supposed to play as pope, squiring the youth around Rome as many people shook their heads.”
While the innocence of Innocenzo might be debatable, the practice of celibacy in the Catholic Church is rather clear-cut. As late as A.D. 315, the Church officially permitted the clergy to marry. Soon thereafter, the Councils of Anayra and Neocaesarea ruled that marriage was to be permitted only to those possessing the hierarchical title of deacon or less. Since many priests and bishops were already married, this harsh dictum was modified, and celibacy didn’t become universally enforceable as a Roman Catholic edict until at least the 13th Century – when a burgeoning penitent movement took root, and physical self-loathing became widely accepted along with a healthy “body shame” and denigration of sex – such peculiar trends partially stoked by the ascetic writings of another Doctor of the early church, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and laying seeds for the Holy Inquisitions.

Amid the contemporary cacophony, other questions are simply not asked. Clergy in evangelical Protestant denominations might well be guilty of as many sexual crimes against children, but why is the media outcry typically less vociferous, less sustained? Is the Catholic Church being singled out, and if so, why? Adults seeking sexual relations with children are often drawn to volunteer organizations. When an earlier awarded $1.4 million settlement against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was bolstered by an additional $18.5 million in punitive damages on April 29, 2010, the news became a “splash” headline in the United States – but little more, despite the public release of a titillating “secret file” compiled by Boy Scout leaders describing intimate details of crimes and suspect behavior by Scoutmasters and others working with vulnerable boys over a span of several decades. The Boy Scout case was far from an isolated incident, and in fact, patterns of abuse documented in the BSA appear eerily similar to those found in the Catholic Church over at least the duration of the combined Catholic scandals.

I attended a Catholic parochial school for eight years. Although never molested by a priest, in 1964 and again as a 12-year-old in 1965, with five of my male peers I was chosen to visit New York City during the New York World’s Fair. Our parents signed the required liability releases with few qualms, as we were being chaperoned by Mr. Bilodeau, a lay teacher and confirmed bachelor whom we all adored as a male role model. During the first trip, the sense of adventure I experienced while touring the exposition’s marvelous pavilions thrilled me to the marrow. I barely noticed a slightly more platonic and less intense camaraderie exhibited towards me by Mr. Bilodeau and the other boys. During the second trip, however, a feeling of being somehow “left out” became more evident, and I became intensely curious. My friends were being secretive, but in our rather secluded two-bedroom hotel suite (one room for the boys with two large queen-sized beds, three to a bed), the same hotel where we’d stayed the first time, I’d heard some giggling from Mr. Bilodeau’s room, and it wasn’t Mr. Bilodeau. I was supposed to be asleep, and crawled furtively in my pajamas and bare feet to open the door to his room just a crack … My spying, in retrospect, mirrored a scene from the obscure film What the Peeper Saw, when a 12-year-old Mark Lester witnessed something equally intimate and secret. The next day, Mr. Bilodeau tried to make it up to me with gifts that the other boys didn’t get – an official guide to the Fair and a complete set of World’s Fair novelty cards. But once I knew, it haunted me. Why not me, what’s wrong with me, I kept musing, and was never again the same.


1., Review of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture by Philip Lawler 3-10-2008

2., More Abuse Allegations Anger Germany’s Catholics 3-15-2010

3., Catholic Global Network: The Wrong Explanations 4-24-2010

4., Vatican Blasts Media Slurs on Pope Benedict over Abuse Case 3-15-2010

5., Journalists abandon standards to attack the Pope 4-10-2010

6. Unzipped: The Popes Bare All, Arthur Frederick Ide (1987)

7. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 2:1 Saint Bede the Venerable (731)


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