So there’s no confusion, I’m entirely down with the skeptical movement. I’m on the board of Bay Area Skeptics (the oldest local skeptic group in the US), I’m helping organize SkeptiCal: The Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference (register now). I’ve hosted the Skeptics’ Circle blog carnival. Yay skepticism.
I’ve also jumped on the recent stories about the Pope’s role in covering up rape by priests. I do that not as a skeptic, not as a scientist, not as an agnostic, not as a Democrat, not as a fan of Firefly and The Wire. I do it as a person concerned about the wellbeing of my fellow men and women, and especially defenseless children.
As such, I basically wanna say “what he said” to Phil Plait’s post about the proper role of the skeptical movement in the discussion about child rape by priests. It’s a response to a lot of discussion (much of which he helpfully links) about the issue. A lot of the recent round of discussion on the blogs and on Twitter (oddly, my twitter feed is much more skeptic-heavy, while my RSS feeds are mostly science and politics) has focused on this claim by Rebecca Watson, replying to criticism that Richard Dawkins’s involvement will tend to undermine both skepticism and the movement for accountability of the Catholic Church’s child rape cover-up:
So is this effort going to somehow hurt the “skeptical movement?” You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I can’t bring myself to seriously consider a movement supposedly based on the defense of rationality that would turn its back on children who are raped by men they trust because those men claim a supernatural being gives them power, wisdom, and the keys to eternal life with a direct line to God’s ear.
I would hope that no person with a heart would be indifferent to child rape. I’m not, Rebecca Watson isn’t, nor is Phil Plait. But is child rape a topic that skepticism as a concept has any bearing on? Not really. If the Church is using a supernatural defense, that’s certainly subject to skeptical inquiry, but the politics and law of how to hold the Church accountable are simply not skeptical matters. Skeptics will follow them with interest, naturally, and will be involved to varying degrees, but not qua skeptics.
There is a role to be played by skeptics in this discussion, but not at all the role some skeptics seem to want to assume.
Let’s step back and ask abstractly how skeptics should respond to claims that a massive and secretive organization had been organizing child abuse on a massive scale. That victims of this abuse did not speak up at the time for fear of the organization itself and some only came forward decades later thanks to memories which resurfaced thanks to media reports and psychotherapy?
Skeptics have dealt with such cases in the past, most notably in response to claims that “recovered memory therapy” had exposed widespread child abuse in a heretofore unknown, yet widespread, movement of satanic churches. The gradual unraveling of the story, from the bogus techniques of the recovered memory therapists, to the role of mass hysteria in causing more and more people to claim similar abuses to those reported in mass media, and the ways in which politicians, psychiatrists, religious leaders, and others have taken advantage of the situation for personal gain.
Skeptics rightly investigated these complex situations. People innocently accused and convicted of abuse were ultimately freed, and the way courts deal with child testimony and recovered memories was changed as a result. That was a healthy and necessary application of the skeptical toolkit to a case with remarkable parallels to the situation now embroiling the Catholic Church.
There are also big differences, and because of the nature of evidence at hand, I’m not suggesting that the current scandal surrounding Joseph Ratzinger is anything but what it seems to be. But the job of a skeptic qua skeptic in cases like this is not to hatch legal schemes for arresting the Pope, but to carefully examine the evidence and ensure that, if the Pope is to be arrested, any criminal prosecutions be grounded in solid evidence.
The reason I don’t think this is a case of fraudulent accusation rests partly on the fact that in at least some of the cases, no one – from the guilty priest to the Pope – disputes the basic facts. Other cases may be more ambiguous, and skeptics should not take the solid evidence of child rape in some of these cases as proof of other allegations which may be less well-founded. The real scandal at this point hinges not on whether sexual abuse occurred, but on how the hierarchy of the Church either covered up the abuse by moving priests from parish to parish, or by failing to defrock abusive priests for fear of harming the reputation of the Church.
It isn’t clear how those issues, which will be settled through study of the paper trail, testimony of those involved, and the work of historians and journalists mining those records, are skeptical matters. For the anti-religion branch of skepticism it may serve as grist for the mill, but the fundamental issues at hand right now are not even within the scope of anti-religion skepticism. The Pope isn’t offering supernatural justifications to excuse his misbehavior, and the whole situation reeks of a coverup, of petty self-preservation and efforts to protect institutional power and privilege. In that sense, it’s no more a matter for skepticism than the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib.
To paraphrase Ms. Watson, I can’t bring myself to seriously consider that any moral being would turn its back on children who are raped and tortured by men and women in their nation’s armed forces. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a topic within the skeptical scope. If the Pope says rape is justified because of woo, or that the healing powers of woo can erase the trauma inflicted on the children abused, it’ll be a different discussion. Until then, skeptics and other people of good will can (and I’d say should) continue criticizing the church’s abuse of power, but claiming that they do so as skeptics merely muddies the waters around a term which suffers from confusion caused by climate change deniers and others.