There has been a debate on the causes of clerical child abuse is a major aspect of the academic literature surrounding Catholic sex abuse cases. However, I wonder what is the history of child abuse in the Catholic Church.

Some Catholics, such as correspondent John Daniel Davidson, have claimed that the sexual revolution and a rise in moral relativism contributed to the problem of child abuse.

Others have argued that child abuse in the Catholic church predates these changes. A report done as part of the Australian government's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that "the most notorious cases of sexual abuse in the Australian church occurred in institutional settings in the 1940s–60s by men (and sometimes women) who were thoroughly trained in the strict morality and rigorous piety of the pre-Vatican II church," noting that "the ranks of abusers cuts right across the lines of conservatives and liberals, with both sides having their fair share of abusive clergy."

Philip Jenkins claims that the Roman Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by secular media which he claims fails to highlight similar sexual accusations in other religious groups, such as the Anglican Communion, Islam and Judaism, and various Protestant church communities. Jenkins later authored the book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice in 2003, touching on some of the same issues. Other organisations which have seen comparable large-scale sexual abuse scandals include the Boy Scouts of America and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Writing in The Washington Post in 2010, David Gibson calls the idea of an anti-Catholic media bias a "myth", saying "The annual survey of religion in the news conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that in 2008 ─ the year Benedict traveled to Washington and New York ─ coverage of the pope and of the Catholic Church accounted for more than half of all news stories about religion, and the majority were positive or explanatory."

  • 8
    Good question. Do you have a clear idea when "our time" started? In other words, how far should we go back?
    – mart
    Feb 7 '19 at 7:58
  • 1
    I don't have time to properly research an answer now, but there's lots of literature about various christian institutions for the poor in the 19th century that could help. My hunch is that the problem is about as old as organized religion.
    – mart
    Feb 7 '19 at 8:02
  • 1
    It's not a new problem. IIRC, Froissart chronicles a very serious case during the Hundred Years War, where a local lord took advantage of the young boys in the choir. The actual case was horrifying, and when discovered, the punishment meted out by the local parents was also horrific. Feb 7 '19 at 11:59
  • 1
    The only new sin was the original one. All others are old.
    – Luiz
    Feb 7 '19 at 17:30
  • 1
    Two paragraphs here are pure political commentary. The remainder shows a lack of basic research. Feb 10 '19 at 21:07

The Catholic Church has been the so-called guardian of orphans and yet, there are horror stories about abuse, tortures, death, and even mass graves on unwed women's homes and orphanages.

The idea of children's rights is quite modern. If the last 100 years are full of known incidents of child abuse and scandal. I can only assume that older times (BC - AC) were even worse.

See this scholarly journal reference:

  • 3
    Your first paragraph is packed full with references, admirable. For a big +1 now make the second paragraph just as good.
    – RedSonja
    Feb 12 '19 at 11:51
  • 2
    Dear RedSonja, thanks for the feedback! Found many more articles to support my statement.
    – Mariana
    Feb 12 '19 at 13:23
  • @RedSonja albeit to non-scholarly, newsprint sources
    – Geremia
    Feb 19 '19 at 21:15
  • Thanks to @Malandy for the suggestions to improve it! :)
    – Mariana
    Feb 20 '19 at 13:27

There isn't much evidence either way. However, the claims that it's a result of such aspects of the modern world as "the sexual revolution and the rise of moral relativism" seem to have a logical problem:

If that were the case, why would the hierarchy of the church react so consistently to the known cases, by keeping them quiet and transferring the offending priests to different jobs? It seems very surprising that recent social changes should have such uniform effects across bishops of different ages and from different cultures.

Indeed, it seems more plausible, on the face of it, that there has been a tradition of responding this way for generations. Under this hypothesis, the reason it's now coming to light is that in the modern day, the victims are less willing to keep quiet.

It certainly does seem to be the case that once the moral authority of the church had been damaged, more and more victims came forward.

  • 5
    "the sexual revolution and the rise of moral relativism" - this may just have emboldened victims to talk about it in public and therefore bring it to light, rather than enticing the perpetrators to commit it in the first place.
    – colmde
    Feb 11 '19 at 12:32
  • 3
    "If that were the case, why would the hierarchy of the church react so consistently to the known cases, by keeping them quiet and transferring the offending priests to different jobs?" Because the Church has a nearly 2000 year history of having effectively sovereign authority over internal discipline. What's changed in the past century is the loss of isolated monasteries to send erring priests to, for a life of solitary contemplation.
    – Mark
    Feb 12 '19 at 3:23
  • Some citations would improve your answer.
    – Geremia
    Feb 19 '19 at 22:35

It's actually predominately an ephebophilia crisis* (acts of sodomy with post-pubescent males), not a pedophilia crisis (abuse by an adult of a minor); cf. the John Jay Report and The Rite of Sodomy: Homosexuality and the [modern U.S.] Roman Catholic Church.

* ¾ of victims are post-pubescent, and >80% is homosexual (male abusing male); cf. pp. 52-53 of the John Jay Report. It's clearly more of a homosexual crisis than a pedophilia one.

At least as far back as St. Peter Damian (11th cen.), the Church has had to deal with these sins, which are closely related to the sin of usury, a fact Dante (14th cen.) noted when he put sodomites and usurers in the same circle of hell in his Divine Comedy (Seventh Circle (Violence), ring 3 "sins against nature"), as there is a close connection between sexual and financial sins (they both involve sterile transactions; cf. Catholic historian E. Michael Jones's Barren Metal: A History of Capitalism as the Conflict between Labor and Usury or "Bankers & Wankers").

St. Peter Damian aided Pope St. Leo IX, who valiantly worked toward combating this issue, by writing the Book of Gomorrah, which contains chapters titled, e.g.:

  • VII. On rectors of the Church who are soiled with their spiritual children

  • IX. Just as is the case with those who violate nuns, a prostitutor of monks must be deposed in accordance with the law

  • X. That both he who falls with his carnal or spiritual daughter, and he who is soiled with his penitential son, should be accountable for the same offense

  • XVI. Of clerics or monks who persecute males

The following (or similar) law was observed in the Church even before its codification in 1917:

Canon 2359
§ 2. If they [clerics] engage in a delict against the sixth precept of the Decalogue ["Thou shalt not commit adultery", which forbids all sexual sins] with a minor below the age of sixteen, or engage in adultery, debauchery, bestiality, sodomy, pandering, incest with blood-relatives or affines in the first degree, they are suspended, declared infamous, and are deprived of any office, benefice, dignity, responsibility, if they have such, whatsoever, and in more serious cases, they are to be deposed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22 '19 at 21:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.