Writing for London’s Catholic Herald (which he once edited), William Oddie argues that the available evidence makes it abundantly clear that sexual abuse is a problem throughout society—not just in the Catholic Church. As he puts it:
"This is a problem we share with everyone, though actually we are less guilty of it than society as a whole and are doing a lot better in acknowledging such child abuse as does exist. We need to get that, and the evidence for it, firmly into our heads."That’s undeniably true. But it’s an awfully difficult argument to get across—and not only because the media harbors an active bias against the Church. So difficult, in fact, that I question whether it’s prudent to make the effort.
When an individual caught in wrongdoing claims that “everybody’s doing it,” we regard that as a lame excuse, and rightly so. Coming from the Catholic Church-- the Bride of Christ—the argument that we’re no worse than the rest of society sounds particularly hollow. We set higher standards for conduct in the Church. If society at large expects more virtue from Catholic priests, that’s a compliment, and we should welcome it.
We know, and we should certainly continue to point out, that child abuse occurs throughout society. We know and should point out that other institutions have failed to come to grips with the problem. We can and should lobby for the safety of children in all phases of life—in public schools, in urban subway systems, and in the womb. Indeed one of the more painful aspects of the scandal is the way that it has damaged the public standing of Church leaders, making it more difficult for them to speak out when they should come to the defense of innocent children.
Still, we cannot respond to the exposure of abuse within the Church by remarking that there is abuse elsewhere, too. That response may be an indictment of society—and society deserves the indictment—but it is not a defense of the Church.
Moreover, this line of defense lends credence to the mistaken impression that the abuse of children constitutes the whole of the scandal. Not so. The abominable behavior of abusive priests is only the first half of the scandal; the second half—the more damaging half—is the failure of bishops to curb the predators’ transgressions.
The remedy to the current scandal lies not merely in “acknowledging such child abuse as does exist,” but in holding people responsible. If William Oddie is arguing that society at large should hold people responsible for the abuse committed under their supervision—whether it is in the Church or in the school or in the home or in the hospital—then I wholeheartedly agree. If he is arguing that Catholics should lead the charge to make everyone accountable, I agree with that, too. But in order to be credible leaders in any such movement, we Catholics must first hold our own leaders—the bishops—accountable for their appalling mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal.