Commentary Magazine


Topic: sexual abuse

The U.N.’s War on Religious Liberty

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child didn’t break any new ground when it issued a report criticizing the Catholic Church for the sexual abuse scandal in which priests were found to have abused large numbers of children while the church hierarchy protected the priests. The egregious nature of the scandal has been amply documented, as has the church’s shameful record in responding to the accusations. While it can be argued, as the UN Committee did, that more can be done, the fact is the church has already paid a terrible price both in terms of its reputation and the drain on its wealth because of the legal restitution it has paid to survivors. As investigations of these crimes continue, that price is likely to go higher and it is to be hoped that Pope Francis will ensure that the institution he leads will make good on its promises to create the necessary safeguards to make certain that the church will never again turn a blind eye to the victimization of children entrusted to its care.

But while the UN Committee was justified in speaking of the church’s past sins, the world body did not content itself with harsh rhetoric about the sexual abuse scandal. It went further, denouncing the Vatican for a number of its religious doctrines. As the New York Times reports:

The report, issued in Geneva, addressed issues far beyond child sexual abuse, taking the Vatican to task for its opposition to contraception, homosexuality and abortion in cases of child rape and incest. The committee even suggested that the church amend its canon laws to permit abortions for pregnant girls whose lives and health are at risk.

The views of the UN committee may represent the views of many associated with the world body and, indeed, perhaps, of the majority of Americans. But for a United Nations agency to demand that one of the world’s great religions change its beliefs in this manner is outrageous. The “suggestions” of the UN not only have nothing to do with the sexual abuse scandal, they represent a symptom of the contempt for religious freedom that is increasingly popular among global liberal elites, including some in the United States.

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The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child didn’t break any new ground when it issued a report criticizing the Catholic Church for the sexual abuse scandal in which priests were found to have abused large numbers of children while the church hierarchy protected the priests. The egregious nature of the scandal has been amply documented, as has the church’s shameful record in responding to the accusations. While it can be argued, as the UN Committee did, that more can be done, the fact is the church has already paid a terrible price both in terms of its reputation and the drain on its wealth because of the legal restitution it has paid to survivors. As investigations of these crimes continue, that price is likely to go higher and it is to be hoped that Pope Francis will ensure that the institution he leads will make good on its promises to create the necessary safeguards to make certain that the church will never again turn a blind eye to the victimization of children entrusted to its care.

But while the UN Committee was justified in speaking of the church’s past sins, the world body did not content itself with harsh rhetoric about the sexual abuse scandal. It went further, denouncing the Vatican for a number of its religious doctrines. As the New York Times reports:

The report, issued in Geneva, addressed issues far beyond child sexual abuse, taking the Vatican to task for its opposition to contraception, homosexuality and abortion in cases of child rape and incest. The committee even suggested that the church amend its canon laws to permit abortions for pregnant girls whose lives and health are at risk.

The views of the UN committee may represent the views of many associated with the world body and, indeed, perhaps, of the majority of Americans. But for a United Nations agency to demand that one of the world’s great religions change its beliefs in this manner is outrageous. The “suggestions” of the UN not only have nothing to do with the sexual abuse scandal, they represent a symptom of the contempt for religious freedom that is increasingly popular among global liberal elites, including some in the United States.

It is important to note that none of these beliefs has anything to do with the abuse of children or the toleration of sexual predators. The crimes of which some priests were accused were entirely unrelated to Catholic doctrine and, it must be emphasized, constituted a gross violation of the church’s beliefs. To imply anything to the contrary is a terrible libel that should be retracted.

One need not share the church’s views on homosexuality, contraception, or abortion to understand that when governments or world bodies such as the United Nations venture into the realm of what faiths may or may not practice or preach, it constitutes a mortal threat to religious liberty. Here in the United States we have seen a conflict over the Obama administration’s efforts to impose a mandate forcing religious institutions and their adherents to pay for services that offend their faith. If upheld by the courts, that ObamaCare mandate would constitute an intolerable infringement on the First Amendment rights of religious freedom from government intrusion.

But what the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has done here is to suggest that the beliefs of the Catholic Church on social issues somehow fall outside of the pale of the civilized world. One doesn’t have to delve too deeply into Europe’s dark history of religious persecution to see what happens when unpopular beliefs are branded in this manner. Just as Catholics are now advised what they may or may not believe about these issues, Jews are being told by some of the same liberal elites in Europe that religious practices such as circumcision or kosher slaughter may likewise be prohibited by law. Despite the fact that those issuing these pronouncements claim they are doing so in the name of the rights of children or some other seemingly laudable cause, such efforts are a well-worn shortcut to tyranny and the abrogation of religious liberty.

The church should unequivocally reject the UN Committee’s pronouncements about faith. So, too, should everyone who values and wishes to preserve freedom of religion for all people. 

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It’s Not Just the Church and Penn State

The unfolding scandal about sexual abuse at the BBC can be viewed as yet another blow to the image of the media. The network’s suppression of a story about a longtime show host’s alleged crimes ought to put a fork in the myth of the Beeb being the gold standard for impartiality and integrity. The fact that the BBC killed a story on its “Newsnight” broadcast while at the same time running tributes to the late Jimmy Saville, the man accused of molesting and raping several teenagers will haunt it for a long time to come.

But as much as this story tells us about the BBC, this latest tale of sexual misconduct is not dissimilar from other abuse scandals. Like the pedophilia outrages that rocked the Catholic Church and the Penn State University football team, there is a familiar pattern at work here. Powerful individuals used their positions to exploit young people in their charge while institutions looked the other way and then did what they could to ensure that no one found out. Investigators will, no doubt, discover what officials at the BBC knew about Saville and when they knew it. It is also to be hoped that the “journalistic decision” to spike the story about the investigation will also be fully explored. However, this episode ought to remind us that such crimes are not solely the province of Catholic priests or football coaches but can also be discovered at those institutions run by the supposedly enlightened classes.

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The unfolding scandal about sexual abuse at the BBC can be viewed as yet another blow to the image of the media. The network’s suppression of a story about a longtime show host’s alleged crimes ought to put a fork in the myth of the Beeb being the gold standard for impartiality and integrity. The fact that the BBC killed a story on its “Newsnight” broadcast while at the same time running tributes to the late Jimmy Saville, the man accused of molesting and raping several teenagers will haunt it for a long time to come.

But as much as this story tells us about the BBC, this latest tale of sexual misconduct is not dissimilar from other abuse scandals. Like the pedophilia outrages that rocked the Catholic Church and the Penn State University football team, there is a familiar pattern at work here. Powerful individuals used their positions to exploit young people in their charge while institutions looked the other way and then did what they could to ensure that no one found out. Investigators will, no doubt, discover what officials at the BBC knew about Saville and when they knew it. It is also to be hoped that the “journalistic decision” to spike the story about the investigation will also be fully explored. However, this episode ought to remind us that such crimes are not solely the province of Catholic priests or football coaches but can also be discovered at those institutions run by the supposedly enlightened classes.

Each set of circumstances may be different. But all these cases boil down to predators using their status and authority to rape and molest and institutions that valued their image more than the lives of children. These are odious crimes, but they are not the sole province of any particular group or class. They can be found anywhere. Those who think otherwise are not only deluded. They are enabling those who use the cover of seemingly respected professions to commit similar offenses.

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Penn State’s Shift Toward Evil

During the last half-century, you’d be hard-pressed to find many programs in college football that were more respected than Penn State or a coach who was more revered than Joe Paterno. But all that they had achieved now lies in ashes. To understand why, one need only read the results of this investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal.

The seven-month investigation,  based on 430 interviews and some 3.5 million documents, excoriates the university’s leadership – including then-Head Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz – for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. (Last month Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 sex abuse counts.) This happened in part because they were concerned about negative publicity.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who led the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The report highlights a “striking lack of empathy” for the victims. And the investigation shows that Paterno, who died in January, was an integral part of an “active decision to conceal.” It appears as if the former coach of the Nittany Lions not only lied to reporters but to a grand jury as well. (Paterno insisted he had no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against Sandusky, his assistant coach.)

The report is a horrifying account of individual and institutional failure, based in part on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”

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During the last half-century, you’d be hard-pressed to find many programs in college football that were more respected than Penn State or a coach who was more revered than Joe Paterno. But all that they had achieved now lies in ashes. To understand why, one need only read the results of this investigation into Penn State’s sexual abuse scandal.

The seven-month investigation,  based on 430 interviews and some 3.5 million documents, excoriates the university’s leadership – including then-Head Coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Vice President Gary Schultz – for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. (Last month Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 sex abuse counts.) This happened in part because they were concerned about negative publicity.

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” said former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who led the investigation. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.” The report highlights a “striking lack of empathy” for the victims. And the investigation shows that Paterno, who died in January, was an integral part of an “active decision to conceal.” It appears as if the former coach of the Nittany Lions not only lied to reporters but to a grand jury as well. (Paterno insisted he had no knowledge of a 1998 police inquiry into child molestation accusations against Sandusky, his assistant coach.)

The report is a horrifying account of individual and institutional failure, based in part on a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.”

Consider just one incident. In 2000, a janitor at the football building saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers. According to Freeh, “The janitor who observed it says it’s the worst thing he ever saw. He’s a Korean War veteran. … He spoke to the other janitors. They were awed and shocked by it. But, what did they do? They said they can’t report this because they’d be fired. They were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the president of the United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top.”

What appears to have happened is that otherwise good men, when confronted with evidence that they had a monster in their midst, decided to cover up the crimes in hopes of protecting their reputations and those of their university. That decision began a chain of events that made them complicit in unspeakable acts.

This is not the first time individuals and institutions have turned a blind eye toward, and then become complicit in, malevolence. It occurred in the Catholic Church as well, as this 2004 report showed. The reasons such things happen are extremely complicated. It starts, I suppose, with — to invoke a word that is increasingly out of fashion these days — sin, which touches all of us to one degree or another. Human beings are a mixture of virtue and vice, of nobility and corruption, of good intentions and depraved motivations. Within every person lies competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents. It was Solzhenitsyn, in reflecting on his time in the Gulag, who wrote:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

The challenge of civilizations has been to set up institutional arrangements that take into account the human condition and channel it in ways that encourage the good and place a check on evil. What this means is that in our universities, in our churches, and in our political systems – in virtually every human institution – we need checks and balances. We need accountability. And we need transparency. The concentration of power — when combined with pride, arrogance, ambition, and fear — can lead even impressive people to act in unjust and repellant ways.

What happened at Penn State was a massive institutional failure combined with massive personal failures. In the process, crimes were committed. Reputations were destroyed. A university was shamed. And worst of all, children were abused and scarred for life.

This is not a new story, or even the worst story we have seen. But it is sickening enough. At Penn State, the line through the human heart shifted dramatically in the direction of evil.

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