Keeping the Patriarchy: Sex as Dominance in the Catholic Church

by Amanda Marcotte

To quickly summarize a recently- released,  five-year study funded by the Catholic Church on the priest sex abuse scandals: “We’ve investigated ourselves and concluded that it was the hippies that did it.”  It may be easy to be hoodwinked into believing the report isn’t as dodgy as it is, as the researchers did offer some concessions to the critics, both in denying that homosexuality is the root of the sex abuse scandals and suggesting that the church failed to deal with the problem effectively, but it’s important to look beyond these concessions and at the larger conclusions reached.  Doing so demonstrates that the Catholic Church has no interest in addressing the toxic, patriarchal culture that breeds sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-ups.  Instead, the researchers have gone out of their way to suggest that the sex abuse was a historical anomaly caused by a lascivious 1960’s culture, and that no real changes need to be made in order to prevent future incidents of abuse of children and teenagers by priests.

According to the New York Times, $1.8 million was spent by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to investigate the sex abuse scandals. Only a fraction of the funding came from an outside party, the Department of Justice, that had no interest in the outcome of the research. Most of the funding came from the Catholic bishops and various Catholic groups and foundations, all groups with a strong interest in conclusions that require no real changes in church organization or Catholic teaching. They got what they paid for; study authors exonerated the exclusion of women from the priesthood and celibacy requirements, and instead blamed feminism, divorce, premarital sex, and 1960’s youth culture.  Lay off the Pope and blame Mick Jagger, in other words.

Nearly two million dollars and five years spent, and nothing has changed.  Defenders of the church still want to claim that sex abuse wouldn’t have happened if the hippies hadn’t invented sex in 1963, and church critics still see the church as avoiding real accountability for permitting abusive priests to continue working and creating new victims.  And while the church bears most of the responsibility for this stalemate, there has been a tendency amongst church critics towards superficial criticisms of the church.  Far too many people tend to glibly suggest that letting priests marry would fix the problem of child sex abuse, as if abuse is a result of nothing more than sexually deprived men pouncing on the first available victim.  But the problems of the Catholic Church go far deeper than the infatuation with celibacy that began in early Christianity.

Many of the critics of the Catholic Church felt shock and betrayal as the revelations poured in, stories of priests attacking vulnerable children and teenagers and benefiting from a church hierarchy that coddled rapists and set them loose on new parishes full of new victims to exploit.  But for feminists, the pattern of silencing victims and letting rapists roam free didn’t surprise at all.  In patriarchal societies, letting the rapists off and re-victimizing the victims is standard operating procedure.  The Catholic Church is even more patriarchal than society at large, and unsurprisingly, that made the problem of rapist-coddling and victim-silencing even worse.

A quick look at the secular world demonstrates a similar tendency to value rapists more than victims, and the more sexist an individual society, the worse the problem is.  A high school cheerleader is raped by a star football player, and when she refuses to cheer for him at games, she is kicked off the team and eventually fined $45,000 for attempting to fight this injustice in the courts.  An 11-year-old girl in a small Texas town is repeatedly gang-raped by possibly more than two dozen young men, and the town folds in to protect the rapists while running the girl and her family out.  A famous film director is convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, and the entire country of France offers him protection from serving time for his crime.  A famous athlete—take your pick!—is accused of rape, and the fan community folds around him while accusing the victim of mercenary motives.

Sex abuse within a religious context occurs outside of the Catholic Church, and as in the secular world, similar patterns of rape apologism and victim-blaming crop up.  Sex abuse of minors is so common in the Protestant world that Dan Savage has an ongoing feature at The Slog called Youth Pastor Watch, where he chronicles the steady drumbeat of stories about sexually abusive youth pastors.  Unsurprisingly, these cases tend to be more concentrated in evangelical churches that share the Catholic Church’s highly patriarchal attitudes.

The gender of the victim does little to change the pattern, as evidenced by a Newsweek story detailing the problem of male-on-male rape in the military.  Once again, you see the rapists roam free, while the victims are the ones forced to give up their careers.  Often, the victims are repeatedly raped because it’s so easy for the rapists to get away with it.

Race, age, gender, religion–all these elements don’t change the pattern of valuing rapists over victims.  The only tool that has proven effective for real justice is feminism.  Take, for instance, the Julian Assange case.  In the immediate aftermath of accusations of rape against the founder of Wikileaks, many liberal fans of Assange started on the path of accusing the accusers of being sluts and liars.  But because this was happening on the left, where feminist sympathies have more of a hold, feminists were able to effectively pressure many of the Assange defenders into recanting their initial reactions.  Most prominently, Michael Moore shifted from sneering at the accusations to apologetically arguing that the women in the case deserve to have their stories heard.  His recantation would have never happened without pre-existing sympathies towards feminism.  Feminists have also made inroads into changing the legal response to rape, starting special victims units and passing anti-violence legislation, all of which have made it easier for victims to come forward and find support from law enforcement and their communities.

But one institution that has no love for feminism is the Catholic Church.  In a world that’s shifting more every day towards the assumption that women are full human beings who deserve the same rights to liberty and self-determination that we allow men, the Catholic Church still relegates women to a second class status with a “separate spheres” ideology that positions women as servants in their homes and ineligible for roles as priests in the church.  Under Catholic dogma, women aren’t even allowed the dignity of controlling their own fertility, but instructed to avoid contraception and have as many babies as God and their husbands would inflict on them, regardless of their health or financial concerns.

Misogyny and sexual abuse are intertwined, even in the cases where the victims of abuse are male.  Patriarchal societies construct sex as an act of dominance, where one person in an encounter is the conqueror and the other the conquered.  Catholic dogma that purports that sex should only occur within marriage only reinforces this paradigm.  The Catholic view of marriage is one where women are subservient to their husbands, and sex therefore becomes representative of the husband’s power over his wife.  When sex is a demonstration of power, turning sex into a weapon of abuse is just the next logical step.  Without feminism on hand to fight back, potential victims are uniquely vulnerable.

Ironic that the very tools that work to fight sex abuse—openness about human sexuality and feminism—are being blamed as the cause of sex abuse by the John Jay study authors.  Ironic, and frankly stupid.  Other denominations are beginning to realize that incorporating a little feminism into your religion can do wonders at slowing the stampede of believers out the door.  If the church responded to these priest sex scandals by reversing their stance on a single issue—celibacy requirements, the ban on birth control, the ban on women as priests—it would be treated by the press and by believers as a tremendous concession.  In fact, the church would get much more credit than it deserves for evolution and responsiveness.  Any one of these changes would likely not do much in the real world to fix the massive structural problems of the Catholic Church, but sometimes a demonstration of good faith can work wonders on the faithful.

Instead, the public gets a report that basically blames someone else for the sex abuse, claims that what mistakes were made are long in the past, and concludes that the church doesn’t have to change anything substantive in order to avoid future tragedies.  Any believer who has doubts would likely not be consoled by this lack of accountability but pushed away from the church.

Amanda Marcotte writes about poltics and feminism at Pandagon, RH Reality Check, and Slate’s Double X.  She’s also published in the Guardian, Salon, and the American Prospect.  Her two books, “It’s A Jungle Out There” and “Get Opinionated,” are out on Seal Press.

This article is part of The Revealer’s series on the John Jay report, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”  Read additional commentary by Frances Kissling, Elizabeth Castelli, Amanda Marcotte, Scott Korb, Mary Valle and others here.

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