August 31, 2018

Can Social Pressure Help to Prevent Clergy Abuse?

blood pressure monitor
I'm not inclined to think that hashtag activism can cure every social ill, but I don't want to dismiss it as being wholly ineffective either. If nothing else, it can provide groups with a cost-effective means of raising awareness about important issues. That's definitely worthwhile. Although the few examples of secular hashtag activism I can recall (e.g., #AtheistVoter, #NormalizeAtheism) had small and short-lived impacts, I found myself thinking about hashtag activism again after news of the latest Catholic abuse scandal broke. It seems like it could play a role here as part of a larger social pressure campaign.

At first, my thoughts were more pragmatic than anything else. Which hashtags should I use while tweeting links to stories about Catholic clergy abuse? I wasn't sure whether it sense to co-opt #EmptyThePews for this purpose or whether a new hashtag campaign was needed. Maybe there already was a new one, and I just hadn't seen it yet. Then I started to think more broadly about how effective #MeToo had been in raising awareness about some important problems. Could something like that help to pressure the Catholic Church and/or lawmakers to take action that would make child rape by Catholic clergy less likely to occur in the future?

I think it is beyond clear that the Catholic Church is resistant to change in ways that would make clergy abuse less common. But that does not necessarily mean that they are impervious to a widespread and sustained campaign of public pressure for reform. I suspect that many of the changes needed to reduce the incidence of clergy abuse are going to have to come from outside the Church, and our lawmakers may be a bit more susceptible to social pressure campaigns than Catholic hierarchy.

I think the main challenge is that such a campaign really would have to be both large-scale and sustained. It would take more than a handful of atheists participating in it, and it could not be abandoned just because a new unrelated outrage surfaces. I suspect that the large-scale requirement could be met. Plenty of people who are not atheists are pissed off about Catholic priests raping children and then being protected by the Church. I'm much less optimistic about the ability to sustain such a campaign over time. We have short attention spans and are easily distracted, especially when it comes to outrage.

To end on a note of optimism, I'd like to remind you that many polls of ex-Catholics that have asked why they left the Church tell us that clergy abuse and the way the Church has handled it matters. This leads me to believe that filling the social media "airwaves" with reminders about the abuse of children by Catholic clergy and well-organized efforts by the Church to cover it up is worthwhile. Even if the Church continues to refuse to enact meaningful reform and even if our elected officials are slow to act, we might end up with fewer Catholics.