“Dark” Matter and the Child-Abuse Crisis

skepticAs a rule, I seldom pay much attention to the Academy Awards. I say “seldom” instead of “never” because there are occasions when movies in a genre I am especially simpatico with are nominated that were conspicuously well done, e.g, the genre of fantasy as represented by Lord of the Rings. This year, the genre of docudrama, so well represented by the movie Spotlight, brilliantly directed by Tom McCarthy, about the award-winning work of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” corps of investigative journalists who brought the child-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church to light in 2001, is such an exception, not only for what the heroic work of the Globe reporters revealed, but even more so for what it did not. The priest-pedophilia crisis is like dark matter / dark energy: the “visible matter” of the pedophilia crisis in the Church, as initially revealed by the Globe, like that in the Universe at large, is only a tiny percentage of the story.

Unless you have been asleep since 2001, you are surely familiar with at least the broad outlines of the “visible matter” part of the pedophilia story. So you have some general familiarity with how the most senior episcopal leadership of the Church – bishops, archbishops, cardinals, all the way up virtually every echelon of the Hierarchy, the Vatican Curia, and almost certainly extending up as far as several Popes – conspired to facilitate priests’ raping and gross repeated sexual molestation of children – many of whom are now grown – by not reporting such crimes to secular law enforcement, by continuing to allow such priests access to children, and by shuffling sick priests around from parish to parish, often from diocese to diocese, in order to camouflage their (the priests') predations. (I perhaps should say at this point that, yes, I do recognize that priests are also citizens, and as such have constitutional rights to due process, no obligation for self-incrimination, right to legal counsel, etc., and that nothing I say in what follows should be construed as to advocate abridgement of same.) Furthermore, “conspired” is precisely the appropriate word to use, because, as the “Spotlight” investigators discovered to their horror, and eventually to that of the public, this was no isolated “one-off” incident, or even a coincidental series of such, but a deliberately engineered conspiracy of concealment, duplicity, premeditated deception, and coordinated silence – what a Mafia don might well call omerta or what a conspiracy of dirty cops might call the “blue wall” – in the service of protecting the Church’s reputation … and financial solvency. The moral reasoning behind the outrage is as simple as it is devastating:

The_Boston_Globe,_April_18,_2011o In all such child-abuse / -molestation cases, the episcopal authorities, without exception, knew quite well what was going on.

o All such authorities had it within their power to stop it by isolating priests professionally and ministerially from any more potential future victims – just as, in the secular world, parents suspected of child abuse may be isolated from their children – and notifying the appropriate secular law-enforcement authorities.

o Yet, despite both the above circumstances, those same Church authorities did nothing.

In other words and more succinctly: knowledge plus power equals responsibility. Knowledge plus power also equals accountability. From knowledge and power we can also fairly infer intent and premeditation in whatever actions follow.

Well, of course, that is all old news. You could have skipped reading everything down to this point and been none the worse. I agree with the above three premises myself, and have said so repeatedly. This, in summary, is the “visible matter” of the Church’s child-abuse Universe.


Now for the “dark matter” …

Over the years since the child-abuse story broke, I have read many dozens of books, articles, straight news, and “think pieces,” and have attended several gatherings in parishes, universities, theology classes, and other venues, extending back to just after the “Spotlight” stories first broke. To this day, thinking back on this history, I am astounded by the fact that only once – only once – in the entire sweep of that history have I ever heard anyone, in any venue, on any occasion, ask what I still consider the key question in all this:

Where was God while all the above was going on?

 This, in a few words, is the “dark matter” of the child-abuse crisis. (The single exception was a question asked back in … I think it was … 2001 or 2002 by the mother of 3 little kids at a gathering on the child-abuse crisis I attended in a large Catholic parish.) This question is, in my experience, both obvious and almost – with that one exception – universally evaded. Indeed, the questions discussed by participants in those gatherings, panel discussions, journal articles, books, etc., etc., etc., always -- not "almost always" but "always" -- concern themselves with the "mechanics" of the Church:  screening processes for seminary candidates, transparency in assigning priests to parishes, financial disclosure (including legal fees) of what dioceses do with their money, including lay voices in the assignment of priests and even bishops, etc., etc., etc.  Now, honorable people can disagree honorably about the answers, but the questions are all legitimate.

However, taken together, they also constitute a giant smokescreen, a diversion, a decoy away from the real bedrock issue:  the foregoing question in red.

Why? Because the three premises used for the moral indictment of the senior episcopal leadership of the Church apply equally -- quite arguably, even more so -- to the God the Church professes to worship, love, and serve.  Yet -- and this is the "dark" part of the "dark matter" analogy -- vanishingly seldom, and in my experience never, do the people most strident in railing against Cardinals Law, Bevilacqua, et al., ever hurl similar imprecations against the Cardinals' ... well ... the Cardinals' Boss.  Consider this paradox:  greater responsibility and greater accountability are ascribed to the bishops and cardinals, who, being human, had only a finite measure of those faculties, than to the God Who, at least according to traditional orthodox theology, has an infinite measure of both.  If power plus knowledge equals responsibility, then why should we not conclude that infinite Power plus infinite Knowledge equals infinite Responsibility? Granted that the hookers are guilty, why does the Pimp escape blame? At least three answers suggest themselves immediately -- none of which suffice:

o People are imperfect and fallible, and so often make imperfect and fallible choices, up to and  including child abuse. This is true, of course, but the reason we have in place the majestic edifice of criminal law is precisely because we as a society recognize that not all freely chosen actions deserve to be implemented, and so we apprehend and punish people who make destructive choices.  Just because an action is freely chosen does not mean that the actor should get a pass.  Even with our finite knowledge, we understand this. Can we not expect God to do so, as well, and to act accordingly? I dealt with this at greater length in a recent "Skeptic's Collection" column.


o God has great knowledge, but not literally infinite knowledge -- which might be a logical contradiction, anyway -- and, in any case, is still in the process of learning how to deal with human beings. This amounts to saying that, every so often, God exclaims "Oops!" Well ... the abuse of children is one helluvan "Oops!" Power and knowledge need not be infinite in order to justify responsibility and accountability. Human knowledge and human power are cases in point. And even if God's power and knowledge are finite, they still exceed the corresponding qualities in human beings by an immense margin.  Granted that learning is a concatenation of "Oops"es. But if your daughter, e.g., bangs up your car while learning to drive, do you not hold her at least somewhat responsible?

o Perhaps God just ... well ... perhaps God just does nothing. About anything. Not just "does little", but "does nothing". Maybe God does not "do stuff". There are ample precedents:  the detached "Architect God" of the classical English deists, the quasi-God comprising the entire structure of physical law some allege Einstein believed in, the God of Spinoza, the God of Descartes' Meditations, etc., etc. Over the last several years, I have discovered that an astonishing -- at least, to me -- number of people find such a God comforting. And that, in this case, is perhaps the key to the puzzle:  comfort.  Even a God Who does nothing is at least there, at least aware ... and that awareness lends the human presence in the Cosmos a kind of forlorn, Camusian dignity:  to be endowed with dignity is to be simply regarded by God.  That's all:  just regarded.  Just noticed.  And a God Who does nothing -- even a God Who does nothing to the point of not keeping children safe from the pathologies of those most solemnly charged with their care -- but Who is nevertheless aware, is better than no God at all.

But that potential answer raises an even more terrible question.  Please note:  I am scrupulously careful to phrase the following as a question. I know only my own mind and heart.  I do not -- cannot -- know those of others. With that caveat in mind ... here is the question that may be ... perhaps ... possibly ... the key to the "dark matter" of the child-abuse crisis:  is the willingness to direct rage at the finite Church leadership, while withholding an even greater rage from the Church's infinite God, rooted, not in rational considerations of morality, but rather in the knowledge that, while we can reject the Church leadership, we are terrified, at the level of gut and gland, at the prospect of following that logic to its inevitable conclusion by rejecting its God?

In other words, do many of us on that marrow-deep level need God even more than we need kids to be safe? What price comfort?

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

Spotlight ... Creative Commons (CC0) license

Mark Ruffalo ... Wikipedia ... Public domain

Boston Globe ... 11 December 2015 ... Own work ... Ensenyament.CNLBarcelona

Bishops ... GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 ... Own work ... Carolus 18:48, 13 May
2007 (UTC)

Suffering Christ ... Wikipedia ... Nationalmuseet ... Creative Commons

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