Skeptics and the Pope

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 âskeptical movement?â You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I canât 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 Godâs 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 â from the guilty priest to the Pope â 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 canât 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.

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Judging from what Phil Plait said, maybe Father Tom Doyle, who was a Catholic priest in Deliver Us From Evil who opposed the Church's conduct, should lead the charge to have the pope arrested.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Presented with a deluge of headlines showing the ultimate, undeniable evidence that religiosity is either not at all or inversely correlated with morality, those who've been making that claim - and facing nonstop unfounded attacks against their own characters - are s'pozed to siddown 'n' shaddup because saying "Didn't we tell ya about fraudulent status & unmerited immunity?" will empower global warming denialists?

Your cover is blown, Nisbet! What have you done with the real Josh Rosenau?

The problem here is not just one of aberrant individuals, but a thoroughly corrupt system in which superstitiously-driven social exaltation and multi-generational sexual neurosis have combined to harm humanity in many ways. Left to their own, the most that media and law enforcement can give us is a series of perverse case histories, when the situation urgently calls for hard looks at the big picture.

Should the Watergate journalists have spent their time investigating the inadequacies of Democratic Party locks & alarms? When feminists started campaigning to raise awareness & rejection of rape, would you have told them to stick to individual cases and forget about cultural factors? Are comprehensive critiques of the Church to be left only to those inside it?

Show us where the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is complaining about their message being drowned out by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, and you've got a case. Meanwhile, if "strident" skeptics don't do what they're doing now, who will?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

OK, fine, you may be right, though I think you are undervaluing Rebecca's point that supernatural presumptions do in fact underlie the ability of priests to rape little boys. But, you have a good argument here that this is not a skeptics issue, at the "movement" or "organizational" level.

But there are two reasons that you may be wrong, which are two sides of the same coin. One, and I totally get that this is not going to sit well with any purist skeptics, when people systematically draw lines around their philosophy or policy that exclude consideration of key moral issues, look out. Check your wallet, step quietly away, don't invest too much with those people. They are tools, not much more. They are actively isolating themselves from humanity, although may be just a little. Two: There is nothing wrong with an organized body taking a position on something even if it is not their raison d'etre. And, given the overlap that is inherent to this issue (as pointed out by Rebecca), it is reasonable to not ignore it.

As a skeptic, one can proced with a caveat. "This is not a fully skeptical issue, and it is wise for skeptics or skeptical organizations to avoid politics, but .... there are some links here, life is complex, and the cost of drawing to stark a line may be greater than the benefits of ignoring that line in this case"

Great post.

However, I would like to point out that this specific analogy:

"In that sense, it's no more a matter for skepticism than the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib."

might be challenged in the sense that we can and do have something to say about why people are willing to engage in such acts. Phil Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison experiment) consulted on the Abu Graib trials, emphasizing the power of the situation in driving people to even sadistic behavior.

This kind of information - information provided by science - changes the way many people feel about it. It changes the way people view the situation morally and ethically because causal attributions are a key component of moral reasoning.

My point is that this is a very good example of how science (and, by extension, skepticism) can inform our values. THAT is appropriate; the opposite (values driving science/skepticism), imo, is not.

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.

But that's exactly the problem - a skeptic can neatly distinguish, but for a believer these issues are related, if not one and the same. If you believe the continued existence and good reputation of your organization is a necessary element in a higher power's plan for the salvation of the human race, self-preservation and the greater good (conveniently) become one.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Phillip IV: "If you believe the continued existence and good reputation of your organization is a necessary element in a higher power's plan for the salvation of the human race ..."

The catch with that idea is that even under Catholic morality, what the child rapist priests did was wrong. Furthermore, there is certainly plenty of biblical warrant for booting gross sinners from the church, but not anything for coddling them or protecting them from earthly consequences. In other words, the cover-up of child rapists was wrong even by the Catholics' standards, and attempts to rationalize the cover-up on the grounds that it was somehow necessary for God's plan don't work by those Catholic standards. The supernatural just doesn't play much of a role in abetting these rapes.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

As a lawyer, I don't see the Catholic Church's problem with pedophile priests (or, for that matter, priests who engage in sexual relationships with adults, if such relationships abuse the trust and control that the priesthood commands) as one of religion. I see it as one of employment.

The Catholic Church employs priests, and the very method of encouraging young men to consider the priesthood, the training, the conditions of employment (private housing, celibacy, etc.), and the inducements of the priesthood -- all these present a haven for men who may have "bad feelings" about sexuality. Ironically, I suspect a number of pedophile priests entered the priesthood imagining that it would be a safe place to work; that God would prevent the very sin they feared they might commit. Then they get there, see how revered they are, how much access to kids they have, how much privacy, etc., etc.

So, as an employer, the Catholic Church has a huge liability problem on its hands -- it's known for decades (if not centuries) that this was a problem; it's known for years that the Church can't contain, let alone solve, this issue as an internal matter -- and the involvement of senior cardinals is further evidence of the futility of trying to fix this through faith, prayer, or any other supernatural approach.

I'm not sure about criminal liability, but the Church is liable under Anglo-American civil law for its actions and failures as an employer.

- - -

I have a bone to pick about the false memory issue with regard to childhood abuse. While a legalistic approach to the issues of pedophile priests is reasonable, and even vital, it's not a good approach to the problem of what happened to an adult back when he/she was a child.

Adult victims of childhood abuse are often suffering from some form of dissociative disorder, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Dissociation is an adaptive coping mechanism that permits abused children to bundle away the trauma. It's not "forgetting" in the conventional sense and the work to integrate the parts of the brain responsible for keeping the trauma separate are much more about dealing with the bad feelings than about actual memories.

Memories are imprecise and unreliable even in everyday life. The Anglo-American legal system puts too much emphasis on "eye-witness" testimony despite studies that show its inadequacies in establishing proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When the "memories" have been "recovered" from hypnotic or other therapy, what remaining shred of credibility eye-witness testimony might have in the legalistic setting is essentially evaporated. There are some rare cases where a person whose childhood trauma was dissociated suddenly has access to clear and credible accounts of what happened, but those cases are rare.

According to the New Scientist, as many as 30 million Americans may suffer from some form of dissociative disorder. Some subset of those are adult survivors of childhood abuse or trauma. These people need help in reclaiming lost or damaged feelings of self-worth. The work done in therapy isn't about recovering "memories" but about exploring and accommodating the feelings of betrayal and self-blame.

Bluntly, saying a satanic cult "did it" is convenient and safer than re-experiencing the pain of knowing it was a family member or friend who abused you. So, while the recovered memories are highly suspect and should never be used by law enforcement without intense scrutiny and independent verification, they can be vital in helping the victim come to terms with the feelings of being exploited.

I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone falsely accused of having abused a child, but part of that is the realization that even well-meaning efforts to "bring the perpetrators to justice" completely miss the mark. Such an effort fails (again) the child, now an adult, who still needs intervention and appropriate therapy to help them regain perspective and reassurance that they, as children, were not at fault. Any adult victim of child abuse who was supposed to be helped by legal action against satanic cults (or whatever) isn't getting our best efforts, just our zeal for retribution.

By Magdalen Braden (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

My position has less to do with the facts of the specific cases; we are not lawyers, we cannot try cases. Also the ethical side is outside of our abilities as skeptics, moral philosophers are better equipped to handle that. But we can, I think, as skeptics notice the fact that the Church, as an institution, was an accomplice in the crime, but shuffling around and keeping quiet about it. The Church allowed it to happen, yet no one is prosecuting it? We can, I think, as skeptics ask: Why the double standard? Is it reasonable to assume that any other organization would be treated the same as the Church has? Wouldn't criminal charges have been brought against someone else, or some other institution, by this time? I think the answer is: absolutely! So why the double standard?

Asking that question I think is perfectly fine for skeptics, demanding why the special treatment is within our sphere. What is wrong with showing support for something, even though you're not directly involved? Everyone has agreed that individual skeptics can do that; so why not a skeptical organization? What is it about people coming in a group that takes away that right to express their opinion, if the group so decides?

I do not thin that any skeptical organization SHOULD throw their weight behind this issue; but I do think that if one chooses to do so, they shouldn't be crucified by the purists among us. What is wrong with say the JREF coming out and saying something along the lines of: "We believe the law should be applied as it is meant to, regardless of who is at the receiving end!". Is that really a controversial statement to make?

Skepdude: "The Church allowed it to happen, yet no one is prosecuting it? We can, I think, as skeptics ask: Why the double standard? Is it reasonable to assume that any other organization would be treated the same as the Church has?"

How many organizations are even like the Catholic Church? The head of the church and several of its top leaders live in a sovereign state of their own, which makes issues such as what laws apply and who has jurisdiction a big tangle.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

"Also the ethical side is outside of our abilities as skeptics, moral philosophers are better equipped to handle that."