Blaming Clergy Abuse on the Victims' Parents

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The idea of blaming the victim makes most of us uncomfortable, and rightly so. When we hear yet another report that a Catholic priest has sexually assaulted a young child, few of us would think to blame the child. In fact, most of us are appalled when the priest or one of his defenders does so. It is in this context, though, that I have observed a new trend taking place among at least some atheists: blaming the parents of the victims of clergy abuse. Their argument boils down to the parents' role in placing the child in the situation in which the abuse took place. It was the parents, they say, who endangered their child by entrusting him or her to the Catholics. With all the coverage these cases have been receiving, they should have known better. They should have kept their child far away from the Catholic Church.

While I can understand why someone might feel this way, it still makes me uncomfortable. First, I believe that the blame in these cases rests with the clergy and the Church. Blaming the parents of the victims seems to diffuse at least some of this responsibility, and I am not crazy about that. Second, blaming the parents reminds me of the claims made by Muslim men that their women must cover up because they have so little self-control that this is the only way they can refrain from assaulting them. I'm not saying these are they same thing because they clearly aren't. I'm just saying that blaming the parents of abuse victims for the abuse reminds me too much of this mindset. Again, I think the person doing the assaulting and those concealing it deserve most of the blame.

Some will protest that parents who take their children to Catholic Church are placing them in danger, and others will take a few additional steps to claim that such parents are basically handing their children over to sex offenders. Again, I have trouble seeing it this way. Even though it is hard to deny that the Catholic Church has a serious clergy abuse problem, the number of clergy perpetrating this abuse is quite small. The odds of any individual child being abused by a Catholic priest are also small. Thus, most parents are right to think that their priest is not one of the bad ones and that their child will be safe.

I don't think we would blame a parent of a child who was abused by a public school teacher even though most of us are probably aware that abuse does sometimes happen in this setting. We would not say that the parent should have pulled their child out of school. Similarly, we do not blame parents of victims of school shootings for not pulling their children out of school. Sure, the base rates are different; however, I think these examples are relevant because they should remind us that the vast majority of children who spend time in Catholic churches and around Catholic clergy are not sexually assaulted just like the vast majority of children who attend public school are not sexually assaulted by teachers or shot by school shooters.

I do think we should continue to encourage people to leave the Catholic Church. I also think that bringing more attention to clergy abuse and the many efforts by the Church to conceal it are among the ways we should do so. At the same time, I can't bring myself to condemn parents who drag their children to church for what some priests do to these children. I'll continue to criticize any parent who forces their children to attend religious services against their will, but that is very different from blaming them when their children are sexually assaulted.