Thursday, May 21, 2009

Catholics and Abuse in Ireland

I would like you to pretend, for a moment, that you are an atheist.

Furthermore, I want you to pretend that a large atheist organization in another country . . . say, Ireland . . . had long ago set up a system of schools and orphanages. Then, imagine that a report has just come out saying that the people who ran those schools and orphanages engaged in a large amount of child abuse.

Now, I would like you to go to Planet Atheism and find blog postings that address a current report on a similar scandal involving Catholic schools and orphanages in Ireland. Imagine that they were, instead, written by theists in response to a report on the abuses found at these hypothetical atheist schools and orphanages.

I would like you to ask yourself how an intellectually respectable theist should cover news of such a report.

I would suggest that one of the rules the theist should follow is to make it clear that the abuses that these atheists may have engaged in imply nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. Nor does it allow anybody to infer anything about the moral character of those atheists who did not participate in this abuse.

It is perfectly compatible with the fact that these abuses occurred that there are other atheists in the world who abhor those abuses and are working to establish a different set of institutions where those types of abuses do not exist. You may want to assert that it is important that the people who created this report were also atheists for the most part trying to expose and end these abuses and reforming the organization that was responsible for them

It is a simple application of the maxim that one should do unto others as they would have others do unto them. The atheist should cover a report of this type of abuses in a religious institution (or of crimes committed by people who believe in God) in exactly the same way that they would have theists cover a similar report of crimes perpetrated by a group of atheists.

If you can cross out all references to religion, and substitute similar terms that would be applicable if the report was about atheists, and still be satisfied with the results, then one has engaged in a morally permissible form of reporting or blogging on this type of issue. However, if this substitution would result in a blog entry that would have been a morally outrageous slam against atheists, then we have reason to hold that the actual blog entry was a morally outrageous slam against theists.

One question we should seriously be asking at this point is, Why is it the case that we do not have reports of abuses at atheist schools and orphanages? Does this not show that atheists schools and orphanages are run by morally responsible individuals who simply do not engage in this type of behavior?

No. It is because there are no (or too few to mention) atheist schools and orphanages for abuses to take place in. Atheists do not even make the attempt to provide children with an education or to care for children who have lost their parents. Atheists leave these social tasks to the theists. They then complain when the theists engage in abuse, but they are not concerned enough to offer any kind of alternative.

The previous paragraph is not entirely fair. Atheists do support the education of children and care for those without parents (or whose parents were not fit to raise children). It does so mostly through the mechanism of the state, rather than setting up private charities.

Where atheists support private charities, they tend not to care whether those charities have an atheist logo. That is to say, they tend not to see helping others as a means of selling atheism. There is reason to wonder how much religious charity is motivated by genuine concern for others and how much is motivated by a desire to advertise to others – how much charity there would be if the charity was not also being used as a billboard for promoting the church.

Yet, this does not change the fact that there are very few free-thought orphanages and schools. There are very few schools that a parent can choose from where the teachers can freely discuss the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God without state intervention. Where they can freely criticize creationism. Where they can promote skepticism about astrology, tarot cards, faith healing, and dozens of other superstitions. Where the students are not required to look at posters on the wall that say, "If you do not trust in God then you are not one of us," or have classmates daily pledge to view those who do not support "a nation under God" the way they pledge to view those who do not support rebellion union, liberty, and justice for all.

Why don’t such schools exist in numbers befitting the size of the free-thinking population?

If such schools were to come into existence, we can rest assured that those who would abuse children would likely seek to exploit those opportunities. Some schools will do a better job than others of protecting children, and news reports would start to surface of how abuse became rampant in some of those schools.

How would we want people to handle When those reports surfaced? What should theists say about this or that atheist school in which abuse and neglect became widespread? This tells us what atheists should be saying about theist schools in which abuse and neglect became widespread.

In the mean time, it is very easy to criticize where others try and fail when one does not try and thus has no opportunity to fail.

14 comments:

Mat said...

First off, let me say that the message of the post is a good one.

However, I find myself much in disagreement over a few points. First, if this had been an isolated incident, I would say you've got it spot on, but this is not an isolated incident. This kind of abuse has been going on for many years in many countries.

Second, I can't think of any atheists I know that have taken vows like the Catholic priests. There aren't vows of chastity required for being an atheist. The atheist movement is not known world-wide and throughout history for being a safe haven for children. We don't have a prophet declaring in our most holy book that "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

I think the widespread and prolonged hypocrisy of the church (not only Catholics...Baptists are pretty well-represented, too), not just this one incident, is what people are responding to.

Also, I don't think you're giving atheists the credit they deserve. We may not have public orphanages and schools, but there are a lot of us who work to make our public schools better and who work to make sure childrens lives are better, including serving as foster parents and adopting children with special needs or abusive backgrounds.

My wife and I serve as emergency foster parents and we also donate every month to children's advocacy groups as well as serve as CASA's (Court Appointed Special Advocates: They help speak for a child in a courtroom to help protect the child's rights) in our community.

So, while the message to get out there and help is well-meaning, I must admit that I find the overall tone of this post demeaning. I will continue to rally against the church's continued prolonged and widespread malfeasance, and I will make darn sure that no child in my protection is exposed alone to that organization.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mat,

You wrote: "First, if this had been an isolated incident, I would say you've got it spot on, but this is not an isolated incident. This kind of abuse has been going on for many years in many countries."

Yes, this kind of abuse went on for years both inside and outside of churches. In the early 1970s there were only about 7000 reported cases of child sexual abuse per year from all sources - schools, hospitals, social workers. Nobody reported it. Everybody covered it up.

Also, how widespread would the abuse have to be among atheist schools (if they existed) for this to be a legitimate claim against atheists. I do not care if 99.9% of all atheists are moral monsters, it would not justify judging me by anything other than my own actions.

"Second, I can't think of any atheists I know that have taken vows like the Catholic priests."

Clearly it is not the case that not taking the vow would make the behavior legitimate (or less illegitimate).


"The atheist movement is not known world-wide and throughout history for being a safe haven for children."

But assume that this hypothetical athiest organization had been making such a claim. We can assume that if there were atheist schools that their practitioners would have gone around claiming that parents could trust their children in such places.

Now some of those schools have been shown to be centers of abuse. How would you, as an atheist, respond to that fact? What legitimate conclusions can be drawn from this about atheists and atheism? Would the fact that it was atheists who exposed the abuse have any relevance?

anton said...

Well said, Alonzo!

Mat: Our problem may be that Atheists don't have to make an oath and are not subject to judgment of their morality. I would imagine that few, if any, know you are an atheist. In most places in North America an atheist would not be able to perform as a Children's Advocate.

I think the test should be this. If we see a crime committed we are socially obligated to stop it, or at least, report it. What we have been witnessing for hundreds of years is that a group enjoys a special standing in their community so their crimes go unnoticed and unpunished.

I think we all agree that if an identifiable gang was terrorizing a community, the community should take steps to stop them. When members of that gang wear a cross and carry a bible, why should they escape prosecution because other gang members ship them off to another jurisdiction?

Sexual abuse is only one of the moral crimes committed by the Catholic church. The others seem to go by unnoticed. Long after I have gone maybe some of its other atrocities may see the light of day.

Ken said...

While I agree that these abuses add nothing to most theological arguments, and I admit I have not read the atheist blogs to which you linked. I think there are two major issues with this article.
 
First, I think you have fallen into the same weak analogy fallacy that many others have, that being the assumption that atheism implies a philosophy, which, unlike a religion, it does not. A religion, to some extent, implies a philosophical and moral belief system, to which it's members are expected to at least agree, if not adhere. Therefore, discussing the gap between the ideal and the actuality of that belief system is fair game, as it were. Atheism on the other hand does not have an standardized/common/ideal moral code, or belief system, to which to compare the actual and therefore the analogy fails. The cut and replace hypothetical you propose, I think, is invalid.
 
Stereotypical example: Do atheists need to justify/excuse/apologize for, Hitler's (Stalin's, Pol Pot's, etc.) actions simply because they are commonly viewed as atheists? Personally, I don't think so.
 
Second, due to the fact that these abuses were covered up, and therefore supported, by the organization in question, I think discussion of the organization's responsibility is absolutely valid. There were systemic abuses by a religious organization therefore that religious organization is completely open to criticism. The underlying religion, or theology, may not be, which I think is your point, but the church itself is.
 
If an atheist organization had committed these abuses then perhaps that organization's belief systems should be scrutinized, just as the Catholic church's are now. Are the abuses an inherent result of those belief systems? Do the belief systems result in organizations that tend toward abusive behavior? I think these are valid questions.
 
If my organization is blessed by God, then it can overall only do good and therefore these incidents are anomalies and can be covered up without too much harm. It's better for the church to exist so it can serve God, so the "more and better" good is served by protecting the church.
These are possible results of a belief system that should be scrutinized.
 
Also, the point that, I think, you were trying to make, that the failing's of the adherent are not necessarily the failing's of the philosophy, is a valid point.
And, some atheists do, regrettably, have a tendency to attack the religion for the failings of the individual.

Sorry for the lengthy post.

anton said...

Ken:
What is at fault is a belief system that oversteps its boundaries. Believing in a god is one thing. Believing that others believing in the same god share morality and other values has proven to be society's undoing. Believe in leaders is instilled from childhood. Hitler and Stalin are examples of leaders who gained power by availing themselves of a population who had been preconditioned by religion. Remember, religion championed both of them as they rose to power and only departed from their "team" when they became victims. Many in the Christian church stuck with Hitler to the end and many still believe in Hitler and his agenda. In Canada, we have had trouble bringing justice to bear on our former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his government for their complicity, knowledge and protection of evil forces that were, incidentally, financed by US America's CIA.

http://www.withoutgods.net/2009-5-20-CIA-ALLAN-1.htm

As the saying goes, "A nation who is not familiar with its own history is condemned to repeat it!"

Mike said...

I think one may criticize Catholicism directly when reporting on the abuse insofar as the cultural legacy of Catholicism bears responsibility. Namely, that it is ideologically patriarchal, sexist, and arrogant in its supposition of infallibility. If the Catholic Church was honest about it's fallibility, open to a scientific consideration of human sexuality, and generally more equitable to women, we would not have this level of abuse and the subsequent cover up of the allegations.

The fact that Catholicism also promotes charity, forgiveness, and mercy is beside the point. Those precepts are responsible for its accomplishments which are numerous. We may stil talk about the Church's moral failings, and how specific "Catholic" ideas may be culpable.

Here's an example in Bizarro world: Let's say that Atheists believe that only the male mind is capable of true atheism. At an atheist retreat, men lead all discussions and teachings while women must listen and work on removing their superstitions since they are so needy and afraid. Let's say that because women are so weak, it often takes a one-on-one discussions with male leaders to help them rid themselves of the godhead. I'd bet that at one point or another, this power dynamic will lead to rape on numerous occasions. While the man who rapes is ultimately responsible for his actions, the sexist ideology of Bizarro Atheism also can be criticized directly, as it supports a false sense of entitlement and superiority of males that lead to the rape. Never mind that many other women may have found their scientific awakening at these retreats- Bizarro Atheism can still be held responsible on an ideological level for the crimes.

Ketan said...

Alonzo,

Mat has said almost what I'd have said...religion is assumed to make people moral, that's why greater the agitation on coming to know of unethical behavior at places of worship or related institutions.

Take care.

Mat said...

Alonzo -

Ken summed it up more eloquently than I could manage, but I'll bite.

"Also, how widespread would the abuse have to be among atheist schools (if they existed) for this to be a legitimate claim against atheists. I do not care if 99.9% of all atheists are moral monsters, it would not justify judging me by anything other than my own actions."

Honestly, if abuse went on for this long and was covered up to this extent by any group, I'd be jumping all over them, too. Now, let me clarify something...by group, I mean a bunch of people with professed views so similar as to be considered the same. If there was a bunch of atheist schools, all run by an organization that held certain professed beliefs and they engaged in this sort of abuse, you bet I'd be just as angry at the organization.

Using your logic, we shouldn't speak out against people joining the neo-nazi movement because not all of them are really racist bigots intent on bringing about a whites-only world. Some of them may just be there for the coffee.

However, even the ones who are just there for the coffee are supporting the institution that made these abuses possible and covered it up. They may not even realize they're doing it. That doesn't mean that I want to go out and accuse your every-day Catholic of child abuse, but the institution itself, I think, has a lot to answer for.

"Clearly it is not the case that not taking the vow would make the behavior legitimate (or less illegitimate).

No, taking vows doesn't make the behavior legitimate, in fact, publicly professing your vows as they do in the church should make the act more reprehensible. Even worse is the fact that society views those who have taken these vows as authorities on moral teachings.

"But assume that this hypothetical athiest organization had been making such a claim. We can assume that if there were atheist schools that their practitioners would have gone around claiming that parents could trust their children in such places.

Now some of those schools have been shown to be centers of abuse. How would you, as an atheist, respond to that fact? What legitimate conclusions can be drawn from this about atheists and atheism? Would the fact that it was atheists who exposed the abuse have any relevance?"

As I said above, if the schools were run by a single group holding publicly-declared beliefs that included the protection of innocence and the safeguarding of our children, you bet I'd be angry at the organization.

CommiusRex said...

I'd just like to add that criticism of the Catholic church (in Ireland and elsewhere), rather than Catholics in general, is warranted here. The church engaged in a systematic cover-up of abuse, both physical and sexual, for many years - not just in Ireland, but elsewhere. Abuses were covered up, priests moved to different parishes rather than turned in, and the Christian Brothers in Ireland went to court to ensure none of their members were named in the report. The name and reputation of the Catholic church was considered more important than the safety and wellbeing of children. Criticism of the Catholic church as an instution is entirely justified. Criticism of Catholics in general is not.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, the institution of the Catholic Church deserves criticism and needs to be reformed so as to prevent these abuses.

However, that does not make this a religious issue. The Catholic church deserves exactly the same type of criticism as any institution - secular or religious - that committed the same crimes.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mat wrote: "Honestly, if abuse went on for this long and was covered up to this extent by any group, I'd be jumping all over them, too."

Then do so.

Prior to the 1970s the public school system was just as guilty of moving offending teachers from district to district as the Catholic Church was of moving priests from district to district.

And for the same reasons. They did not want to be publicly embarrassed by a scandal.

Michael said...

Alonzo -

First, I would like to say that I enjoy your blog. I'm a theist myself - Catholic specifically, but when you write these sort of posts (as with Tiller's murder) you say the same thing that I would say. You particularly do well to note that abuse and subsequent cover-ups occur in non-religious environments all the time, and yet the accusation that it was done because the institution was public, for example, never seems to occur. Even many of the Catholics I know seem to think that this is a uniquely Catholic problem.

I did want to take one small issue, however. You speak of "advertising" religion as a major reason the religious open orphanages and schools, do charity, etc. I think it is certainly a reason - "for the greater glory of God," after all - but the way you say "advertising" gives it an icky, materialistic, tribal undertone. In fact, that this post is about the Chuch in Ireland should show just how untenable it is to say that "advertising" is a major factor here. That's because the Church in Ireland has had a monopoly for hundreds of years, despite English Protestant rule. This very monopoly is why the Church had so many children in their schools and orphanages - when the British left Ireland finally, after centuries of rule, the fledgling Irish government had to turn to the Catholic Church as the only remaining institution with the infrastructure able to deal with millions of children. I don't mean to deny that some "advertising" goes on, but we see a lot more of it here in America than in most countries. In Ireland, as a near-Catholic monopoly, I would say that it's almost non-existent.

Now, if you were to speak of a more personal "advertising" of one's religious faith that goes on in a religious society, I would agree with you. It's even something Jesus himself talked about, the Pharisees who would pray or give charitably loudly and obviousness so that they would gain social credit. That requires a religious group large enough to be worth the effort on the part of the charitable person. The type of institution-level advertising of which you speak, however, I would suggest is a fairly minor factor in most places, and only takes on a particular prominence in America because of our unique situation of being suspended between secularism and religion, which does not hold in most countries.

oliver said...

Yes, all of these posts are interesting, but I am more interested in Chapter 6 of the Report. It dealt with the finances of the Christian Brothers organisation. Note the use of so-called Visitation Fees, and Congregation Building Funds. Where the Christian Brothers liked to style themselves as having worked for the boys, it is more likely that it was the boys who worked for the Brothers.

The Commission didn't mention any fees charged on the Provinces for the running of the Casa Generale (Headquarters) in Rome. I wondered why.

Kristopher said...

i think that your talking around an issue that you agree on.

does the catholic church deserve some scrutiny and condemnation as an orginazation? yes.

but we must be careful to make sure we condemn them without bigotry the same way we would condemn someone from our in-group that was caught in the same circumstances.

for instance the child sex scandals in the secular state run foster care and public school problems with student teacher relationships. you wouldnt condemn all teachers or fost parents... you would condemn a system that systematically covered it up. but probably not the entire education system, just teh beuracrats involved in the cover-up. lastly if teachers and foster care workers said they were better than average humans for some reason you would call that reason into question based on the fact that they have average test score or child molestation rates. (yes, the child molestation rates in the chatholic churches was about average for the general population.) the condemnation needs to be on specific policies and specific people. Alonzo was not tell you not to condemn them. he was tell you to make sure that when you condemn them you do it properly. because alot of people are doing a bad job.

i dont think when you disagree with him that you are arguing that we should condemn them poorly. your arguing that they deserve condemnation which is something he never argued against.