Clerical abuse in the news - a US view

By Martin E. Marty
March 29, 2010

The religion-in-public-life story of the week, coded as 'Clerical Abuse' is all over the place here in the US. But why so little coverage outside the general media, from those who are not anti-religious? The Christopher Hitchens-types are having a field day, or field decade, and there is Catholic coverage, of course, but where are editorials from members of other religious groups, especially Protestants?

Pre-Vatican II, as those of us who remember the journalistic climate back then will recall, Protestants would have headlined and harped on the issue, and heaped on Catholics of low and high degree – the Pope, and what were then called his “minions” most of all. Not now.

Sure, with internet word-searches you can find some Protestant-based negative comments, and there are no doubt some savage responses to be found on various blogs, as there are on most blogs. But there are now more anti-anti-Catholic comments than there are anti-Catholic statements (though some Catholics go scouting for the latter, and magnify them).

Think hard: Have you seen anti-Catholic blasts from any Protestant denominations, papers, commissions and spokespersons? Or is this not what they are doing? Why not? What has changed? I will offer five suggestions or conclusions based on wide reading.

1) Critical Catholics are taking care of the subject, from snapping fronts – quite understandably – to grieving leaders, to many of the faithful. They don’t need help from Protestants, whose critiques would carry less weight on an 'in-house' issue.

2) Protestants basically use the occasion and the coverage to examine their own houses. Statistics are hard to come by, but insurance companies who deal in the abuse field find enough betrayals and scandals in the Protestant houses – if not always on this specific subject, then on marital infidelities, adulteries, and other breakings of trust.

3) 'The old boys’ club' – and we are talking chiefly about boys – is sometimes credited or discredited for the silence. That is, here are professionals guarding their professions, wearers of clerical collars protecting their counterparts and the good name of the caste.

4) Empathy: These profoundly disturbing revelations of abuse and, more often last week, cover-ups or blindness or bureaucratic mess-ups, do hurt; they profoundly hurt good people in the priesthood and the people they serve. Thoughtful humans, who rightfully rage when victims suffer or cover-ups occur, also share the pain of the innocent or stunned, and do not demonstrate a need to display an enjoyment in the misfortunes of others – not even, as in this case, those once seen as rivals.

5) Ecumenism: It really has taken hold, not in order to blunt moral concerns but to impel and enable people across the boundaries of separate communions to be part of 'the other.' Years ago I used to tout a signal of when ecumenism has taken hold: It was evident when members of one communion came to rejoice in the good fortunes of another, or mourn when there is mourning in another, formerly a rival.

These five hunches or clues to understanding are not to be read as excuses or evasions. Justice must be done. But how and by whom the story gets told also matters.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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