Reading Dyan Elliott’s The Corrupter of Boys: Sodomy, Scandal, and the Medieval Clergy (U. of Pennsylvania 2020)

By Leslie C. Griffin

            You might be reluctant to read this new book. It is very scholarly, written by Professor Elliott, an eloquent professor of medieval history. Its title—The Corrupter of Boys—might scare you away from reading a book whose name suggests something terrible. But its dedication, “to all those, living or dead, who have suffered sexual abuse,” gives you reason to read it.

            As a law professor who works with CHILD USA to combat child abuse, I found in the book many historical insights that confirm the modern work we have undertaken. We want to hold religious institutions responsible for their abuse of children as well as expose the abusers’ supervisors’ determined efforts to hide that abuse no matter the cost to the survivors and to the public.

Medieval and Modern Times Are the Same

            Professor Elliott refers several times to the Pennsylvania grand jury case, which discovered terrible abuse by Roman Catholic Pennsylvania dioceses that harmed thousands of children and hid that harm for many years. I co-authored a brief with CHILD USA CEO Professor Marci Hamilton for  that case, explaining why the church had no religious-freedom right to keep its abuse secret. Elliott explains that the Pennsylvania case reminded her of very similar early cases in the church’s history, where, faced with an abuser, the church decided to “keep silent, and, when the opportunity arises, move him” (p. 1). The coincidence motivated her to write this book, which emphasizes that the “report from Pennsylvania had only helped to confirm my dark premise: what we are witnessing in the contemporary church is no aberration but a continuation of a practice that spanned centuries” (p. 2). That is why I think the law should be strong in stopping the church’s terrible practices today.

            Even Elliott was advised—by two of the press’s anonymous readers–not to make the connection between history and the present. She disagreed. “So this book unabashedly posits a tragic continuity between the clerical sexual abuse that was tacitly tolerated in the medieval church, protected by theologians and canonists alike, and the abuse we are now witnessing in the contemporary Catholic Church” (p. 13).

            That such abuse has been going on for so long provides legal reason to stop it. Many elements of Elliott’s history explain what went wrong in the past and why it continues to go wrong today.

 Lawless Clerical Celibacy

            The clergy had great power in the church, and the church always protected them. It is very important to notice that the clergy were not subject to the secular law. “Clerical exemption from secular courts was an ancient prerogative” (p. 31) that kept the church’s clergy from being investigated and punished for their horrible actions.

            The church made its decision to keep its clergy celibate. This meant that the greatest threat to the church was from women. The church did everything it could to keep priests away from women. Married clergy were viewed as heretics. The church did so much to keep priests from women that they often avoided even thinking about same-sex activity. As one of Elliott’s stories recounts, “There was one thing that they would apparently not have tolerated, however, …and that was any involvement with a woman. As long as Stocker limited himself to boys, he remained a pious priest” (p. 188). Elliott’s stories confirm her  conclusion that

                       “The struggle for clerical celibacy is a dark story, marked by unintended effects and tragic consequences. By insisting on absolute chastity, Western religious authorities were, in essence, constructing a capacious closet that accommodated all manner of sexual behaviors: male-female, male-male, human-beast, solitary acts, and the places in between” (p. 61).  

            The terrible medieval stories that Elliott tells show that the focus on women allowed the church to ignore the priests’ terrible abuses of children. In her words, the “physical avoidance and mental suppression of women left a void, however, and it was filled by boys” (p. 43).

Children, not the Clergy, are Seducers

             Boys were not viewed as innocent children, but instead as seducers who used their evil to appeal to  the clergy and to lead them to temptation and sin. The sin is the children’s fault, not the priest’s, and children often get punished when the priest does not.

             Elliott compares her medieval stories to the recent Pennsylvania report, observing that the Pennsylvania case found that “church officials dismissed an incident of abuse on the grounds that the 15-year-old had ‘pursued’ the priest and ‘literally seduced’ him into a relationship” (p. 150).

             Old and new, medieval and modern, the same facts, the same argument.  

 The Church Protects Itself Against Scandal

             Elliott explains how the fear of scandal motivated the church and led it to suppress news about sodomy and sin. The church feared that the community would be scandalized by accounts of terrible sins, and so the best thing to do was to keep them silent and hidden. Scandal was so troubling that it led to silence because the community would be scandalized if the abuse were revealed. Therefore church officials repeatedly decided to protect the abuser and the church instead of the survivors. Elliott explains how sodomy was “the sin not fit to be named” and so not talked about. If people do not talk about it, however, they cannot prosecute it and they can just ignore it, no matter how many times children are harmed.

             Sodomy was also hidden  by the church’s practice on confession. If a sin had received a lot of publicity, it might be important for the priest to go through public confession, so that everyone could see he was being punished. But the fear of scandal gave the church a reason to let priests have private confessions, so that scandal would not be caused by a public confession of a terrible sin. Private confession was more silent than  public confession. Confession’s insights were protected by the seal of confession, which did not allow the person hearing the confession to release news about it. And, to top it all off, clergy had a procedure, canonical purgation, that let them publicly forgive themselves and undermine the claims made again them. In the purgation, “the rector was probably allowed to clear himself by canonical purgation—the standard procedure when a cleric was accused of a public crime or was otherwise defamed, but where concrete proof was lacking. The accused cleric would proclaim his innocence by oath, also producing a number of oath supporters…who would attest to his good reputation,” (p. 143) and so as usual he avoided punishment for his sins or any finding of guilt.

             Incredibly, those sins were lesser sins, because in the celibate world, child abuse was not as bad as relationships with women. Child abuse was the “lesser of two evils,” even while boys were repeatedly raped. “Rather than looking inward to the threat of same-sex relations among the clergy, they directed their attention outward to the threat of the clergy’s sexual relations with women.” (p. 57).

The Old is the Same as the New

            Elliott is correct to see the similarities between the old church and the new. In Pennsylvania, the dioceses protected abusers from investigation or punishment for many years. They argued that the grand jury report should be secret. They thought clerical interventions took care of everything, and the law should not get involved.

            This matched other cases around the country. The church had repeatedly argued that all its documents and decisions are protected from court review by the First Amendment. They believed the courts had no business investigating their personnel decisions about priests. They insisted that the First Amendment protected all their actions from evaluation. They claimed the seal of confession protected them from any duty to report misconduct. They repeatedly ignored how the survivors described their terrible abuse, and instead blamed children for the sins of their clergy. The church was silent about wrongdoing, always preferring to protect its clergy instead of their victims. Its leaders protected the institution from scandal instead of its members from sexual abuse.

             A recent report shows that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick repeatedly assaulted men and boys, and yet the popes promoted him to the advanced position of cardinal. The Catholic church and other religions repeatedly argue that the First Amendment frees them from any legal liability.

            Then and now, they think the church can continue to promote the clergy at the expense of children, keep everything silent. and continue to abuse without punishment. They think that is religious freedom.

             The law has slowly realized that church clergy are like all people, human and sinful. They do not deserve immunity from the law. Instead, they, like everyone else, should be punished for the terrible harm they have done to children and the extra harm caused by their cover-up. After so many centuries, as Elliott explains, the church does not deserve to be shielded from accountability for all its wrongdoing. The First Amendment must never protect wrongdoers.

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