God, sex and greed go global

IN FACT, OF COURSE, they went global long ago, but the reference here is to an article which has just appeared in the US-based business journal, Forbes Magazine under the title Sex, God & Greed. Written by journalist Daniel Lyons, it focuses on the quite extraordinary financial dimensions of the sexual allegations currently being made against the Catholic Church in the United States. Some of these claims – possibly the majority of the early claims – are genuine. Others, including a number based on bizarre recovered memories, are apparently false.

There can be no doubt at all that the church has greatly exacerbated its own predicament by adopting policies of concealment and denial towards some entirely genuine cases where priests have sexually exploited the young people whose spiritual welfare had been entrusted to their care. On far too many occasions the church has sought to suppress the facts. Out of naivety or moral dishonesty or both, it appears to have created situations in some dioceses where known sexual offenders were given new opportunities to re-offend rather than being stopped.

The folly and dishonesty of the policies which have been adopted by the Church in the past, however, cannot and should not be allowed to disguise the fact that the Church has now been demonised. The process of demonisation has inevitably made it into a target for a growing  number of allegations.

Naive onlookers may assume that all these claims are being made spontaneously. In fact, however, a significant proportion are being generated by lawyers who have discovered that sexual allegations have suddenly given them access to the deep pockets of the Catholic church and who are actively encouraging potential clients to make new complaints.

The pattern which has resulted, in which a core of genuine complaints has come to be surrounded by a penumbra of false allegations  (1)   (2)   (3), many of them led by lawyers and financially driven, is one which will be familiar to anyone who has some knowledge of the growth of care home allegations in Britain.

In the past, one of the factors which has protected the United States against the kind of explosion of retrospective cases we have seen in Britain has been the existence of
statutes of limitation which have effectively outlawed the majority of late allegations. However, such has been the power of the moral panic generated in recent years in relation to Catholic priests that some states are contemplating doing away with these restrictions. Last year the state of California led the way by suspending its statutes of limitation for an entire year. In effect it declared an open season for retrospective allegations of abuse not only against the Catholic church but against any other institution.

According to Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis
, the current frenzy of allegations stems from a decade-long campaign by plaintiff lawyers: ‘It’s like warfare,’ he says. ‘Phase One was for plaintiff lawyers to maximize bad publicity and destroy the credibility of the Church. Phase Two is to use that publicity to push for legislative changes. Phase Three will be to collect.’ The problem, he says, is that fraudulent claims could get paid off with legitimate ones. ‘Who’s going to doubt them? I worry about the person who was an altar boy 30 years ago, and his life has been a disappointment, and now he realizes he has a lottery ticket in his pocket.’

If we were to reduce what is happening in America simply to its financial dimensions it would be tempting to conclude that the days chronicled by Charles Dickens, when Fagin organised a gang of nimble-fingered young boys who enriched their master by picking the pockets of London gentlemen are
finally over. The modern Fagin, it might seem, is a law-abiding attorney, resident in the United States, who recruits indiscriminately genuine victims of sexual abuse alongside deluded adult recipients of therapy and a significant number of opportunistic perjurers. Their function is not to fish silk handkerchiefs and gold watches from the pockets of unsuspecting gentlemen; it is to extract millions of dollars in settlements from frightened institutions.

This bare, money-centred perspective would certainly seem to be the one which is favoured by Daniel Lyons. ‘Some of these cases,’ he writes, ‘are likely to bankrupt some Catholic dioceses, but this legal assault seeks even deeper pockets: big insurers. Put aside the pious talk about protecting kids, and the racket boils down to this: Plaintiff lawyers are going after old insurance policies written decades ago under entirely different circumstances.’

The analysis is both hard-headed and beguiling. But it is also in some respects misleading. What it leaves out of account is that, although the lawyers in question are undoubtedly driven by financial incentives  (more so, perhaps, than they would care to admit to themselves) there is another even more powerful motivation. These lawyers are not crooks engaged in what Lyons describes as a ‘racket’. They are professionals whose idealistic zeal to protect children from harm is, in almost all cases, undoubtedly sincere. Ultimately they are driven by something which is more powerful than mere money; they are driven by a sense of their own righteousness.  

It is no coincidence that the most visible victim for the moment of this new American righteousness is the Catholic church. As Philip Jenkins has argued in his book The New Anti-Catholicism, the church is particularly vulnerable because of the deep strain of anti-Catholic prejudice which has always been a part of American history – and prominent in American Puritanism. But no institution which has had pastoral responsibility for children can be considered safe. Click on www.stopmormonsexualabuse.com and you will immediately find yourself being addressed by lawyers who are already making the assumption that you are a victim of sexual abuse:

You Are Not Alone.
For years the Mormon Church has been a safe haven for child molesters. It is time for the Mormon Church to take responsibility for the injuries to scores of children that it’s clergy has perpetrated. Attorneys Jeffrey Anderson, Timothy Kosnoff, and David Slader organized the Victims of Mormon Sexual Abuse Project to help those victims.


Nor is it only the Catholic and the Mormon churches which are in the firing line. Have you been visited by any Jehovah’s Witnesses recently? If so then  www.lambsroar.org  have some questions for you:

Are you aware of who may be knocking on your door?
Are child molesters being legally sent to your door?
Are you and your children safe from exposure?
Have you, or someone you love, been affected by the policies within the Watchtower organization?

If the answer to the last question is ‘yes’, then the time for lambs to be silent is over. It is time for them to roar. Lawyers are on hand to help them to do so – especially if they live in California.

The reality into which Daniel Lyons’s article affords a disquieting insight is one in which the existence of real sexual abuse has been used in order to license the unleashing of  a traditional crusading mentality. This in turn has been combined both with militant secularism, and with the fiercest kind of economic liberalism in order to create a new and extremely dangerous kind of witch-hunt.


Whether they are in fact guilty or not, Catholic priests accused of paedophilia are imagined as belonging to an evil organisation which must be punished, humiliated and – if necessary – bankrupted.


Driven as it is not only by ideological zeal and irrational fears but by the financial acquisitiveness of both plaintiffs and lawyers, this new secularist witch-hunt seems to be directed principally at churches – which are by their very nature global institutions. Given this fact it seems quite likely that the modern sexual abuse witch-hunt, which until now has been most powerful in the English-speaking world and in Scandinavia, is set to become a global phenomenon.

16  June 2003                                                  


© Richard Webster, 2003



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