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The Necessary (and Good) Visibility of Catholic Scandals

Have you heard anything about the abrupt break between Bob Jones University and sex abuse investigators they hired from GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment)?

Or, have you heard anything about the non-investigation of Bill Gothard—an evangelical home-schooling guru with allegations hanging over his head that would make Woody Allen blush?

Probably not.

After a single RNS report a week ago about the Bob Jones debacle the story finally “broke” yesterday in a handful major media outlets. On the other hand, Gothard continues to fly under the radar.

Now you might think that Catholic sex scandals are structurally different from Evangelical scandals because they involve more people than Protestant sex scandals. This is both true and false.

Catholic scandals involve more people because whenever any one person commits a crime a hierarchy gets involved, potentially all the way up to the pope.

Protestant scandals usually involve one pastor who is the ultimate authority for a congregation. Perhaps not too paradoxically, their victims might be much more numerous.

Let me explain.

I recently gave a talk about the Catholic imagination. The work I’ve done on the topic grows out of writing my dissertation on the poetry of a Polish Nobelist, the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Part of my argument circles around showing how difficult it is for a mostly post-Protestant audience to wrap their minds around the work of a poet whose work grows out of his Catholic intellectual scaffolding.  (The other part of my argument is concerned with showing how the study of literature is a royal road into understanding theology, but I’ll save that for another day.)

At the most basic level the Catholic imagination is analogical, meaning, it looks for similarities between humanity and God by stressing the immanence of God in creation, and it tends to trust social structures as good if flawed. It’s all or nothing.

On the other hand, the Protestant imagination stresses the difference between God and his creation by putting accent on the transcendence of God. The unmediated relationship between the believer and his or her God results in a tendency to suspect social structures of being destructive of the individual. It’s nothing or all.

If you want to delve deeper into the implications of these different ways of inhabiting the world, and how I account for the exceptions to the rule, then take a look at my longer discussions of both the Catholic imagination and the Protestant imagination.

All of this has bearing on why the public sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church have totally drowned out the evangelical world’s greater problems with sex abuse. What I’d like to suggest is that this disproportion in coverage makes perfect sense.

When I say the evangelical problem is greater I’m talking about an even earlier RNS report about Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian. He reasons that the Protestant abuse problem is much worse, because of structural reasons. Here is what Mr. Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) said long before Bob Jones University fired his investigative company:

While comparing evangelicals to Catholics on abuse response, ‘I think we are worse,’ he said at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, saying too many evangelicals had ‘sacrificed the souls’ of young victims…

‘The Protestant culture is defined by independence,’ Tchividjian said. Evangelicals often frown upon transparency and accountability, he said, as many Protestants rely on Scripture more than religious leaders, compared to Catholics.

Abusers discourage whistle-blowing by condemning gossip to try to keep people from reporting abuse, he said. Victims are also told to protect the reputation of Jesus.

In other words, the “natural” Catholic trust of institutions and hierarchies, as much as they might complain about them, means that there is an accountability structure that ensures the buck will stop somewhere.

The Catholics have been working on their crisis in earnest since at least Benedict’s pontificate without much fanfare, because it’s much more profitable (both for trads and liberals) to play up the scandals to score intra-ecclesial points by other means.

Here are two stories that should set you straight on Benedict’s unfairly maligned record: “Jesuit expert calls Benedict ‘great reformer’ on sex abuse” and “Retraction: Vatican now confirms almost 400 priests defrocked for sex abuse.”

Our evangelical friends don’t have such a wide ranging accountability net to catch their problems. This is one reason why the Catholic Church, in ways different than Islam, does not need the fissiparousness of a Reformation.

It’s also the reason why—there’s no reason to bemoan it—Catholic scandals will always remain more visible than evangelical scandals. But let’s not forget the secular world’s record is infinitely worse than the religious world’s, because there’s almost no place for the buck to stop in institutions such as the UN.


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  • Pensans

    Those Roman Catholics who respond to secularist attacks on their church by attacking Evangelicals are secularists’ friends.

    It is simply not the case that Roman Catholic scandals are always better known than Evaneglical scandals. Indeed, it was precisely the success of the Roman hierarchy in decades of coverups and the endangerment of youth thereby that is the most significant scandal.

    • What secularists? GRACE is an evangelical organization.

      The bigger point is that the Catholics can run (whether from believers or secularists who want to expose abuse, doesn’t matter.. I praise them both whatever their agendas), but they can’t hide.

      • pensans

        The secular use of the Roman pedophilic priests was unfair, but so was your parade of innuendo against BJU and Gotthard. Catholics ran successfully for decades from scandal until the scandal of their hierarchies coverup became the biggest scandal.

        • Please reread what Tchividjian has to say. It explains why Catholics priests would not and have not been able to get a publicity free pass like BJ and Gothard.

  • Lewis Grant

    At the most basic level the Catholic imagination is
    analogical…On the other hand, the Protestant imagination stresses the difference between God and his creation by putting accent on the transcendence of God.

    This is an interesting analysis. It’s true that the sacramental approach certainly emphasizes the immanence of God, and that approach is much stronger in the Catholic church.

    And yet, on the other hand, what about evangelical/pentecostal/charismatic churches with very informal services in converted shopping malls singing emotionalistic songs that emphasize your “personal relationship with Jesus”? That seems to emphasize God’s immanence almost to the exclusion of transcendence. Now compare that with the formality, high liturgy, latin text, gothic architecture, and soaring ceilings of traditional Catholicism – that’s transcendence almost to the exclusion of immanence.

    There appears to be a contradiction here. Maybe both transcendence and immanence are more present throughout the whole of Christianity than our categories allow?