Jonathan Zimmerman: Anti-Catholic Bias Irrelevant to Scandal

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at]

In 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury concluded that at least 63 priests in the city's archdiocese had sexually abused hundreds of children. The victims included an 11-year-old girl raped by her priest, who later took her to get an abortion; a fifth grader molested inside a confessional booth; and a 12-year-old boy who was told that his mother had consented to a priest's abuse of him.

But to the archdiocese, it was the victim. In a scathing 70-page response, officials called the grand jury report "a vile, mean-spirited diatribe" that was comparable to the "rampant Know-Nothingisms of the 1840s."...

If all of this sounds like a bit much, that's because it is. As the church's defenders note, America has a long, hideous history of anti-Catholic bigotry. But whereas earlier attacks on Catholics were based on fantasy, the abuse scandal is altogether real. By ignoring the difference, church apologists end up diminishing the real discrimination that Catholics suffered in the past.

Start with our pilgrim forefathers, who barred priests from the Massachusetts colony and required officeholders to take an oath denouncing the pope. Even the New England Primer, the era's most popular schoolbook, trafficked in anti-papal diatribes, introducing the letter A with the phrase, "Abhor that abhorrent Whore of Rome."

To the author of the Declaration of Independence, meanwhile, Catholics represented a profound threat to the fledgling American republic. "History furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," Thomas Jefferson wrote. "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty."...

So do the contemporary sexual abuse charges reflect this long and ignoble anti-Catholic tradition? Hardly. First of all, nobody seriously disputes the charges themselves. Across the country, hundreds of priests have molested and raped thousands of children. That's not fantasy; it's fact.

Second, the most vehement critics of the abuse - and of the church's inadequate response to it - have often been Catholics. In a Temple University survey after the 2005 grand jury report in Philadelphia, 40 percent of Catholics described themselves as "very dissatisfied" with the way the archdiocese handled the issue. An even greater share of Catholics - 77 percent - said bishops or cardinals should be removed from office if they knowingly reassigned abusive priests without notifying the police.

I agree with that. And saying so doesn't make me anti-Catholic - any more than criticizing the president makes me anti-American. Shame on the pope and his apologists for invoking a sordid history to escape their own responsibility.

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