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Like everyone else 30 years ago, the Church failed to understand paedophilia

Some respected campaigners even regarded it as a civil right

By on Monday, 18 October 2010

Over the weeks before the papal visit, during which unprecedented attacks on the Catholic Church (as a supposedly endemically paedophile organisation) and the Pope in particular (as being allegedly guilty of repeated cover-ups of priestly child abuse) formed the most frequent articles of indictment used by the vicious atheist campaign against the visit, most of us could not imagine how it would ever prove to be the dazzling success that it was, or how the Holy Father would ever so gently reduce Dawkins, Tatchell et al to utter irrelevance.

The charges against Pope Benedict in particular had been seen by most of the media not to stand up to close examination. But that left the shame of the Catholic Church over child abuse by a tiny number of its priests, and the cover-up and the moving on by a number of dioceses of priests accused of this detestable crime.

I argued, some of you will remember, that the percentage of clergy involved is no higher than that in other religious denominations or in the population at large, with one notable survey emanating from Stamford University claiming that it was actually smaller (between three to five per cent of priests against eight per cent of males in the American population). That doesn’t make it any better for the victims of clerical abuse, of course: but we need to understand that the scandal is not that our priests are particularly prone to child abuse, but that we are all too representative as a sample of the population, when we should be setting an example to it.

Nor even is the accusation against some bishops, that they covered up the abuse and moved the perpetrators on, actually untypical of secular behaviour (cf for example, the American school system: though, again, it is not therefore in any way excusable). I have argued all this before, and those who want my evidence and arguments must go to my previous blogs on the subject.

There is one further point that needs to be made, however. Most of the cases of paedophile or (more often) ephebophile (teenage) sex abuse that have emerged over recent years took place decades ago, many in the 70s and 80s, when a very different view was taken by some of what we all without exception now know to be both a revolting crime and a sexual perversion particularly resistant to treatment or therapy. There really were some people who actually thought that paedophilia was a civil right. I was reminded of this by an accusation, made somewhere in cyberspace recently, against politicians supposedly guilty 30 years ago (I say nothing about whether this accusation was justified or not) of complicity in supporting paedophile organisations now long since dead.

Certainly at the time public support for paedophilia, though subject to hostile attack in the press, was not unknown. In the early 80s, the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), according to the Daily Telegraph, “wanted the age of consent to be lowered to 14 and incest decriminalised. It also defended self-confessed paedophiles in the press and allowed them to attend its meetings… Among the groups affiliated to NCCL were the Paedophile Information Exchange and Paedophile Action for Liberation, whose members argued openly for the abolition of the age of consent.”

Nobody says that the response of the Church was in any way adequate. But it did know that paedophile and ephebophile behaviour were profoundly wrong. What the Church didn’t understand any better than anyone else did was its nature. As a result, too many bishops thought that a combination of penitence and therapy (which we now understand rarely works) was a proper response.

To the dreadful pain and lasting damage of too many victims, they were wrong, utterly wrong. But these were almost unimaginably different times. We have all, and not least the Church, moved on. We need to understand that.

  • Bwaj

    On the contrary – the Devil does exist and athiests have no right to be on this blog.

  • Kevin Hong Kong

    The question provoked by this article and responses below is 'Should child abuse be dealt with by the Church at all?', The article admits that previous approaches have failed. Doesn't there come a point when we should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's”. When there is evidence of abuse why would one not pick up the phone and call the police?

  • Eric Conway

    Excellent article by Mr. Oddie. It's clear from the responses that his critics are not interested in facts, when the facts are favourable ( or at least make more understandable ) to the Catholic Church. How unfair of Mr. Oddie to let the facts get in the way of good old fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry. Their minds are so absolutely closed to reasoned argument, that they simply resort to deranged knee-jerk diatribes.

  • paul

    unlike most people would think (or like to think) sexuality is not a rigid matter, and the the population is not conveniently allocated into their respective boxes. There is a scale from homosexuality, through bisexuality to heterosexuality upon which we are all placed upon at some point. (If you don't believe this then you might as well reject all of 20th century psychology as well)

    I really believe if the Church was honest it would be able to see that it is not homosexuality that is the problem but enforced celibacy itself, which I believe leads people often to slip down that sexuality scale if it means they can find needed sexual release.

    This may sound far fetched, but why is it that the Church of England – similar to the Catholic Church in so many ways has not had any of the same problems with this issue. Answer – They don't need to stay celibate – think about it.

  • Polar Bear

    Ok, before , i go and get more details for you to look over ..Did the church in Ireland not cover up child abuse ?…Did the police in Ireland not help to cover up the child abuse ?..Did the Govermont not help to cover up this child abuse ?….

    If these children cannot turn to the church police or men in power who can they turn to ….

    To try and make yourself feel better about it by saying it was not reported properly or that the percentages are small compared to other child rapists is futile…..

    The CHURCH OF ROME covered up child rape and not on one occassion ….Is the problem the precentages you talk about are so low because the church are better at the cover ups …

    One child rape case is enough not matter who did …To cover it up ,….no matter how it was thought on or when it took place , it an absolute disgrace….Should you not be looking into to find out who else was raped instead of trying to limt the damage ???..Was it Edmund Burk who said

    ' All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. …''…………………?

  • Jimgrum69

    In my opinion an institution like the Roman Catholic Church, establish personally by Our Lord Jesus Christ as the vehicle for the salvation of souls and composing His mystical Body, ought never to make comparisons with secular organizations or even other denominations in attempting to mitigate in some way the astonishing imprudence of her bishops and other leaders. The scandal is breathtaking in its extent. This type of violation of trust is indefensible regardless of any failure to “know that paedophile and ephebophile behaviour were profoundly wrong.” The failure of the “kindler, gentler” post-conciliar Church to realize these simple principles is astonishing.

  • Bwaj


  • Bwaj

    By the way John – the penalty of excommunication used to occur if cases of abuse were not reported to the Church within one month of the abuse occurring. The 1983 Code of Canon Law stated it was the duty of the bishop to investigate abuse cases. Until 2001 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was only involved if it involved 'solicitation' which is not a criminal offence but a canonical one involving abusing the sacrament of Penance (inside or outside the Confessional) to obtain acts of a sexual nature. Sexual abuse of minors (below 16) could lead to dismissal from the priesthood. Since 2001 when the CDF took over sexual abuse of minors (below 18) can lead to dismissal from the priesthood.

  • paulsays

    no smoke without fire, should the Church really have to defend against allegations like this?

  • Mark

    I'm puzzled here. Why if God is all knowing, all seeing and Omnipotent would he allow his representatives on earth to abuse children? Would God be aware of the situation 20/30 years ago? Of course. Surely his representatives should be beyond reproach and God would not allow them to harm a child – why not send an angel to intervene?

  • Ssmith

    Complete and utter nonsense. Seems Mr Oddie's arguments are twofold:-
    – Catholics no worse than any other church. Oh well that's alright, off to the confessional………..
    – We didn't really understand paedophillia (or ephebophilia – the distinction seems to be important, sex with a teenage ain't as bad as sex with a child) in the 70's and 80's. Didn't we? Of course we did;, it was as wrong then as it is now.
    Shame on Mr Oddie.