This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Religion's Real Child Abuse

In the wake of the current scandal over child abuse by priests , I have had a letter from an American woman in her mid forties who was brought up Roman Catholic. She has two strong recollections from when she was seven. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And around the same time a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent was led to believe by the then official doctrine of her church. Her view now is that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst. She writes:

"Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as 'yuchy' while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest ? but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares."

I am sure her experience is far from unique. And what if we assume a less altruistic child, worried about her own eternity rather than a friend's? Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.

Happily I was spared the misfortune of a Roman Catholic upbringing (Anglicanism is a significantly less noxious strain of the virus). Being fondled by the Latin master in the Squash Court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire. As soon as I could wriggle off his knee, I ran to tell my friends and we had a good laugh, our fellowship enhanced by the shared experience of the same sad pedophile. I do not believe that I, or they, suffered lasting, or even temporary damage from this disagreeable physical abuse of power. Given the Latin Master's eventual suicide, maybe the damage was all on his side.

Of course I accept that his misdemeanors, although by today's standards enough to earn imprisonment followed by a life sentence of persecution by vigilantes, were mild compared to those committed by some priests now in the news. I am in no position to make light of the horrific experiences of their altar-boy victims. But reports of child abuse cover a multitude of sins, from mild fondling to violent buggery, and I am sure many of those cases now embarrassing the church fall at the mild end of the spectrum . Doubtless, too, some fall at the violent end, which is terrible but I would make two points about it. First, just because some pedophile assaults are violent and painful, it doesn't mean that all are. A child too young to notice what is happening at the hands of a gentle pedophile will have no difficulty at all in noticing the pain inflicted by a violent one. Phrases like 'predatory monster' are not discriminating enough, and are framed in the light of adult hang-ups. Second (and this is the point with which I began) the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

It will be said that the Catholic Church no longer preaches hell fire in its full horror. That depends on how upmarket is your area and how progressive your priest . But eternal punishment certainly was the normal doctrine dished out to congregations, including terrified children, back in the time when many of the priests now facing expulsion or prosecution committed their physical abuses. Most of the victims bringing or supporting lawsuits are now in their middle years. They therefore, along with many others who were never physically abused, probably experienced mental terrorism of the hell fire type. The long retrospect of the law entitles middle-aged victims to lucrative redress, decades after they suffered physically. Nobody thinks the physical injuries of sexual abuse could possibly last decades , so the damages now being claimed have to be the mental consequences of the original physical abuse. A typical claimant, now 54, said that his "life was marred by inexplicable confusions, anger, depression and lost faith." (Parenthetically, one can't help marvelling at the idea of a life being marred by lost faith. Perhaps it would get the sympathy of a jury.) But the point is this. If you can sue for the long-term mental damage caused by physical child abuse, why should you not sue for the long-term mental damage caused by mental child abuse? Only a minority of priests abuse the bodies of the children in their care. But how many priests abuse their minds? Why aren't Catholics and ex-Catholics lining up to sue the church into the ground, for a lifetime of psychological damage?

I am not advocating this course of action. Much as I would like to see the Roman Catholic Church ruined, I hate opportunistically retrospective litigation even more. Lawyers who grow fat by digging dirt on long-forgotten wrongs, and hounding their aged perpetrators, are no friends of mine. All I am doing is calling attention to an anomaly. By all means, let's kick a nasty institution when it is down, but there are better ways than litigation. And an obsessive concentration on sexual abuse by priests is in danger of blinding us to all their other forms of child abuse.

The threat of eternal hell is an extreme example of mental abuse, just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse. Most physical abuse is milder, and so is most of the mental abuse inherent in a typical religious education. The priest who urged a 14-year-old altar boy to give him oral sex, "blessing it as a way to receive Holy Communion " wasn't only abusing the trust normally enjoyed by any teacher, youth leader or scoutmaster. He was cashing in on the years of religious brainwashing that the child had endured as a cradle Catholic. Holy Communion: nice one! But again, only an extreme example of what churches ? and also mosques and synagogues ? do to child minds in their care, in the normal course of events.

'What shall we tell the children?' is a superb polemic on how religions abuse the minds of children, by the distinguished psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. It was originally delivered as a lecture in aid of Amnesty International, and has now been reissued as a chapter of his book, The Mind Made Flesh, just published by Oxford University Press. It is also available on the worldwide web and I strongly recommend it. Humphrey argues that, in the same way as Amnesty works tirelessly to free political prisoners the world over, we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them. He is right, and the same lesson should inform our discussions of the current pedophile brouhaha. Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds.



The racism of the respectable

Nick Cohen - The Spectator Comments

To be a racist in Britain, you do not need to cover yourself in tattoos and join a neo-Nazi party. You can wear well-made shirts, open at the neck, appreciate fine wines and vote Left at election time.

The rebranding of circumcision as...

Brendan O'Neill - The Telegraph Comments

The rebranding of circumcision as 'child abuse' echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe

German court rules religious...

AFP - - Comments

Circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled

Religious Extremism In Public Schools:...

Katherine Stewart, R. Elisabeth... Comments

Religious Extremism In Public Schools: R. Elisabeth Cornwell & Sean Faircloth interviews author Katherine Stewart

Roman Catholic Church official...

NBC News - MNSBC Comments

A Roman Catholic church official was convicted Friday of child endangerment but acquitted of conspiracy in a groundbreaking clergy-abuse trial

[Update] How Christian fundamentalists...

Katherine Stewart - The Guardian 36 Comments

How Christian fundamentalists plan to teach genocide to schoolchildren



Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

Richard Dawkins - Comments

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

No Precedent? Then Set One!

Richard Dawkins - Comments

No Precedent? Then Set One?

Why I won't take part in debate with...

Richard Dawkins - for the Press and... Comments

I was invited several months ago to speak at the Faclan Book Festival in Stornoway and I was delighted to accept, as I have a great affection for the Highlands and Islands but have never visited Lewis and have heard such good things about its beauty and about the friendliness of the islanders.

It's What Moral Philosophers Do

Richard Dawkins - Comments

It's What Moral Philosophers Do

You don’t need God to be good . . . or...

Richard Dawkins - - Comments

Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists – whatever name non-believers go under, they are not America’s most popular minority.

The Descent of Edward Wilson (with...

Richard Dawkins - Prospect 188 Comments

Richard Dawkins's review of The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O Wilson (WW Norton, £18.99, May) - (with Polish translation)



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment