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Unholy Influence: Sex Scandals and Political Power


It is not news that the Roman Catholic Church has a sex problem. It isn’t easy promoting a pre-modern sexual morality in the postmodern world. On topics such as masturbation, birth control, oral sex, premarital sex, reproductive technologies, abortion, and homosexuality the Church has adamantly refused to move into the modern era and as a result has faced enormous criticism from both within and outside of its ranks.

But as much as it has refused to budge on the basics of its theology of sexuality it has adamantly refused to deal publicly and honestly with the issue that has now gripped the US church in a near stranglehold: both accusations and admissions of the abuse of minors by priests.

While the accusations of sexual molestation of children – almost always boys – by Roman Catholic priests has been in the news for more than two decades the revelations of widespread abuse in the archdioceses of Boston has shocked even the most hardened and cynical church members and church critics.

Beginning in 1992 with the news coverage of the slew of charges against former priest James R. Porter, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has been in the spotlight for how the archdioceses has dealt with this issue.

The ongoing investigation of, and criminal cases against John Geoghan – who now faces charges of over one hundred cases of child sexual abuse – has brought to light the fact that over the past twenty years Cardinal Law has repeatedly reassigned priests accused of abuse to new parishes rather than keep them away from young parishioners, that the archdiocese has quietly arranged out-of-court settlements, totaling between thirty to forty million dollars for at least seventy priests accused of child molestation and on March 6 announced that they will pay a comparable amount to men claiming to be abused by John Geoghan over the past twenty years.

It is estimated that these out-of-court settlements may end up costing the archdioceses over one hundred million dollars. And that is not counting any costs that may be incurred by future criminal cases.

The fall out from this avalanche of scandals has been tremendous. While many of the settlements are covered by insurance, increasingly some insurers are refusing to pay claims stating that the problem was caused by negligence on the part of Cardinal Law and the archdiocese.

Across the country other dioceses – Dallas and Sante Fe in particular – have been driven to the point of bankruptcy by sexual abuse claims.

According to a Boston Globe poll forty-eight percent of Boston Catholics believe that he should resign, sixty-four percent think that the Church is more interested in protecting priests then helping people who have been abused, and seventy-eight percent believe that church leaders have covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests.

But as devastating as all of this is to the Catholic Church – both in Boston and nationally – an even greater, and in the long run far more consequential, effect is the incredible tell this has taken on the church’s considerable political clout.

While many religious institutions have actively attempted to influence public and social policy over the years, the Roman Catholic Church has been particularly successful at lobbying against legislation that sought to liberalize law concerning sexuality, reproduction, and related issues. While this is true of many, if not most, U.S. cities the case of Boston has been particularly notable. Historically Boston legislature has been predominantly Catholic – at the moment it is seventy-five percent Roman Catholic – and uncommonly susceptible to the influence of the Archbishop and the Chancery office.

For instance an anti-gay discrimination bill was introduced into the State legislature in 1972. It was not passed in 1989, and year after year the major, and most effective, lobbying against it was done by the archdiocese. During that time there have been repeated debates to repeal the Massachusetts’s seventeenth-century sodomy law.

And even though the scope of the bill has been limited over the years by judicial decisions, the Massachusetts House of Representatives has never acted on any of the attempts to repeal because of a strong, and persistent lobbying from the archdiocese.

But this is just not about gay and lesbian issues. The archdiocese lobbied heavily, and successfully, against the Domestic Partnership bill (which would have extended health care benefits to the unmarried partners of state worker) not just because it granted homosexual couples “special rights” but because they granted rights usually reserved for married couples to unmarried couples. The lobbying was the primary reason that Former Governor Cellucci refused to sign the bill.

Despite the archduchesses’ efforts the State legislature did pass a bill that mandated on private employers to provide contraceptive coverage in their group health insurance plans. The plan was denounced by the Church – even though it contained an exemption for religious organizations – because it weakened the role of marriage and the family.

The Catholic Action League, a nonprofit that works closely with the Cardinal and the archdioceses on public policy issues opined in a press release: “Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a renewed clamor, particularly among conservatives and Republicans, about this country’s high immigration levels, yet they refuse to recognize the root social and economic causes of America’s immigration crisis.

The widespread practice of abortion and contraception has resulted in a below reproductive birth rate for the nation’s European-American population. Even second generation Hispanics are starting to feel its effects. Laws and public policies which promote contraceptive use are a formula for demographic suicide and societal euthanasia.”

Boston is not a special case of how the Roman Catholic Church influences legislative and social policy, although the historic centrality of the church in its political life makes it a good example of the enormous power it does have.

What is becoming clear now, however, is that the sexual abuse scandals and their attendant negative publicity will increasingly hamper the American Catholic church from taking the moral high ground on issues relating to sexuality, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, or gender.

In many ways this is simply the hurrying-up of a process that has already been set in motion by the efforts of feminist and queer activists, as well as the force of history. Over the past decade polls have shown that self-identified, churchgoing Catholics have already substantially pulled away from the Vatican’s teachings on issues of sexuality:

seventy percent disagree with the church’s position on birth control;

sixty-three percent disagree with its teaching on divorce; fifty-four percent disagree with its prohibition on premarital sex,

and fifty-one percent disagree with its stand against homosexual activity.

While the Church has maintained its lobbying power – even without the pew power to back it up – until now it is certain to lose a great deal of it in the wake of these sexual abuse scandals.

While there has been much talk about the pain of the victims in these cases, there has been an underlying sentiment of satisfaction among progressives that the Church and its hierarchy is finally getting the bad press it deserves.

Such a reaction, while completely understandable, is petty. The reality is that the ripple-effect of the sexual abuse cases involving Catholic clergy are the beginning of the end for the Church’s influence on U.S. social and legal policy.

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