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How the New Atheists are Abusing the Truth

Did Catholic priests really rape 10,000 children over the past 50 years, as respectable media outlets claim? No, they didn't.

Brendan O’Neill from Spiked Magazine, *** 13 September 2010

Apparently the British state is about to roll out the red carpet for a seriously evil rape facilitator. Pope Benedict XVI is the boss of a church that acts as a ‘patron, protector and financier of child rape’, says one secularist writer. Last week the UK Independent reported that in America, ‘over 10,000 people have come forward to say they were raped as part of this misery-go-round’ overseen by His Holiness and His Lackeys. In Ireland alone, a tiny country of 4.5million people, ‘Thousands were raped in reform schools’, said a British broadsheet headline last year, ramming home the ugly truth of how many kids have been raped by the Catholic Church’s army of paedophile priests.

But how true is this ugly truth? Were 10,000 children in America and thousands more in Ireland really raped by Catholic priests? In a word, no. Instead, what has happened is that in the increasingly caliginous, almost Inquisitorial mindset of sections of the New Atheist anti-pope lobby, every allegation of abuse against a Catholic priest - whether it involved sex talk or fondling or actual penile penetration - has been lumped together under the heading of ‘rape’, and every allegation has been described as an actual proven ‘rape’ regardless of whether it resulted in a legal trial, never mind a conviction.

The term ‘paedophile priest’ has become such a part of everyday cultural lingo that most people, when they read in last week’s relatively respectable UK Independent that ‘over 10,000 children have come forward to say they were raped [by Catholic priests]’, would probably think, ‘Yeah, that’s possible’. But it isn’t true. The Independent was referring to a study commissioned in 2002 by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was published in 2004 under the heading ‘The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States’. This study covered the period of 1950 to 2002, and it did indeed find that 10,000 individuals in the US - 10,667, to be precise - had made allegations of sexual abuse against priests (against 4,392 priests in total, around four per cent of the 109,694 Catholic priests active in the US between 1950 and 2002). But this doesn’t mean that these 10,000 ‘[came] forward to say they were raped’.

The 10,667 made various allegations, ranging from verbal abuse (being forced to indulge in sex talk) to being shown pornography to being touched by a priest over or under their clothing. Then there were the more serious allegations, which included being coerced into mutual masturbation, oral sex and, in some instances, rape. Yet where 3,553 of the individuals claimed to have been touched over their clothing and 3,981 to have been touched under their clothing, a smaller number claimed to have been subjected to what is described in the report as ‘penile penetration or attempted penile penetration’, that is rape or attempted rape; 990 boys and 213 girls made this allegation – a total of 1,203 individuals, not 10,000.

Moreover, if we are serious about such Enlightened ideals as justice and equality before the law, then we have to accept the fact that not all of these allegations were ultimately proven to be true. Out of the 10,000-plus allegations made against priests in America, 3,300 were not investigated at all because they were made after the accused priest had died (surely even the most riled anti-pope commentator accepts that a man who is no longer around to defend himself cannot be convicted of a crime). Of the 4,392 priests in America who were accused of sexual abuse in the period of 1950 to 2002, 1,021 were investigated by the police, and of these, 384 were charged, of whom 252 were convicted. So around six per cent of all American priests who had allegations made against them were finally convicted. (Of course there are many reasons for this relatively tiny number of convictions: some alleged victims were pressured to keep quiet; some (25 per cent in the US) didn’t make their allegations for more than 30 years after the alleged incident occurred; and in some instances there was just a lack of evidence.)

So nothing like 10,000 individuals in America ‘say they were raped’ by Catholic priests. In truth, 1,203 made this allegation. And not all of them resulted in a conviction. Every allegation of rape should be treated seriously, of course, but what happened to the idea of innocent until proven guilty? How did a complex US report about all manner of allegations against priests come to be translated in the words of the Independent into the idea that ‘over 10,000 people have come forward to say they were raped [by priests]’? Because in the outlook of certain sections of the intolerant New Atheist lobby, everything from sex talk to fondling to being shown a porn flick is ‘rape’ - if it’s done by a priest, that is - and every priest is guilty of what he is accused of despite the question of whether or not he was convicted in a court of law.

A similarly warped conflation has been made in relation to Ireland, now widely looked upon as a country where crazy priests spent most of their days handing out communion wafers and/or raping children. When the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was published in May 2009 - with its analysis of accusations of abuse made by individuals who had attended Irish reform schools between 1940 and 1999 - the media reported it as if it had uncovered apocalyptic, Caligulan levels of sexual depravity. ‘Thousands were raped in Irish reform schools’, said the Independent. ‘Thousands raped in Ireland’s Christian Brothers schools’, said the Belfast Telegraph. ‘Thousands raped and abused in Catholic schools in Ireland’, said the Guardian.

So were thousands of children - in particular boys, the main focus of the media reports - raped in Irish reform schools? No - 68 were, allegedly. Two-hundred-and-forty-two male witnesses made 253 reports of sexual abuse against the staff of Irish reform schools at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse - and of these, 68 claim to have been raped. Once again, not all of the allegations resulted in convictions. Some witness reports involved priests who had died, and out of the 253 male reports of sexual abuse, 207 related to the period of 1969 or earlier; 46 related to the 1970s and 1980s. How did 68 claims of anal rape made against the staff of Irish reform schools over a 59-year period translate into headlines about thousands being raped? Because once again, everything from being neglected to being smacked to being emotionally abused - which thousands of Irish reform-school kids were subjected to - was lumped together with being raped, creating a warped image of a religious institution that rapes children on an almost daily basis. (If it were true that 10,000 Americans had claimed to have been raped by priests between 1950 and 2002, that would have amounted to more than one alleged priest-rape every two days.)

Why is it worth pointing out these basic facts? Not in order to defend the Catholic Church, which clearly has a sexual abuse problem, or to minimise the suffering of those individuals who ‘only’ suffered being verbally abused, shown dirty photos or fondled over their clothing by Catholic priests - all of those acts are abhorrent and potentially punishable in a court of law. No, it is worth pointing out the reality of the extent of allegations against the Catholic Church in order to expose the non-rationalist, anti-humanist underpinnings of the current fashion for Catholic-baiting amongst the liberal, opinion-forming classes in the US and the UK. The wildly inaccurate claim about thousands of children being raped by the representatives of an institution which actively ‘protected and financed child rape’ suggests that modern-day atheism, this New Atheism, has zero interest in applying the tools of rational investigation and critical questioning to the problem of certain religions’ infrastructure, and instead is hellbent on using the politics of fear to invent a fantastical rape-happy ogre, in contrast to which it can pose as the pure defender of childlike innocence and societal integrity.

The irony is almost too much. For in the past, of course, it was the Catholic Church, especially during the period of the Inquisition, which viewed being accused as the same thing as being guilty, and which demonised its enemies, on the basis of questionable evidence, as depraved perverts whose mad habits posed a threat to morality and stability. Now, somehow, bizarrely, worryingly, the so-called New Atheists have adopted these very tactics in their drive to depict religion as the greatest evil of our age.

THIS WEEK: On 16 September, as the pope arrives in Britain, spiked will be publishing a special on religion, atheism and tolerance in the twenty-first century. Don’t miss it!

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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*** MY NOTE: As per Wikipedia, Spiked is a "British Internet magazine focusing on politics, culture and society from a humanist and libertarian viewpoint". (One of its main contributors Frank Furedi has stated that the stance of Spiked springs from the tradition of the "anti-Stalinist left".)