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Does the Systemic Sexual Abuse Among Catholic Clergy Undermine the Catholic Church Itself?

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Recently, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report chronicling the crimes of more than three hundred priests throughout Pennsylvania, predators who raped and traumatized more than one thousand children and young people dating back to the 1940s. The grand jury further chronicled how dozens of people in the church covered up the crimes, acting in essence like a crime syndicate.

The statistics numb the mind. But it's when you get down to the individual stories that you really begin to get a sense of the absolute horror of these crimes. Consider, for example, the priest who molested five sisters from the same family. Some of these priests continued their serial abuse for up to forty years while the church in Pennsylvania covered up their crimes, in effect enabling the abusers to victimize many more children.

One anguished woman who had been raped as a child observed through tears, "The word 'God' makes me think of him."

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Even worse, this sickening revelation is but one more chapter in the ever-expanding horror story of the Catholic Church's systemic sexual abuse of children. The modern era of reporting began with the Boston Globe's 2002 reporting, and ever since then, it seems we do not go but a few months without some other terrible revelation of sexual abuse on an industrial scale somewhere in the world.

All this prompts the question: how many people reject Christianity because the word 'God' makes them think of him?

Yesterday, I posted a Twitter survey asking the following question:

"Today, yet another horrifying priestly sex scandal (300+ predator Catholic priests in Pennsylvania) hit the media. This is part of a terrible pattern of abuse going back decades. But does it provide a sufficient rational basis to reject Christianity as false?"

A full 93% of respondents said, no, it does not. And I agree with the 93%: the Catholic Church's industrial-scale sexual abuse of children does not entail that Christianity is false.

However, what if we construe the question more narrowly? Today, I asked a Catholic on Twitter the following hypothetical question: if you discovered that every single clergy member in the Catholic Church had raped a child or empowered another rapist, would you leave the church? His answer: no.

The reasoning behind that response arguably traces back to the third century when Christians debated whether the sacramental rites of priests who later apostasized would thereby be invalidated. The church concluded with a no: even if the priest turned out later to be an apostate, the sacraments would remain valid.

There is a good reason for this logic: after all, if you believe that the sacraments (e.g. baptism; confession; Eucharist) are necessary means of salvation, then you don't want your salvation hanging in the balance of the spiritual condition of the officiant, a condition that you cannot know. The efficacy must instead reside in the office, irrespective of the life and conduct of the officiant. And with that, one can conclude that even a church full of abusers and enablers would retain its objective status as the one true church.

But as for me, I would be inclined to conclude that any church whose clergy consisted solely of abusers and enablers has thereby ceased to be a true church.

And from that, we can turn away from that horrible hypothetical to the actual world, the world in which the percentage of clergy who are abusers and/or enablers is very much a minority. But if there is a threshold of abuse at which a church is finally discredited, then when is it? How widespread would the kind of behavior chronicled by the Pennsylvania grand jury need to be before you would leave the Catholic church? How widespread would it need to be before you would conclude that the church perpetuating the abuse was not, in fact, a true church at all?

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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