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

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.