The Church Boom That Never Happened

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This month commemorates the twentieth anniversary of a grim turning point in American religious history.

Since the mid-1980s, sporadic court cases had drawn attention to the problem of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, but the general public had no real sense that the problem was widespread or systematic. In 1992, though, the victims of former Massachusetts priest James Porter went public with their allegations, which became the focus of a sensational exposé that July on ABC's Primetime Live.

The horrendous Porter case involved hundreds of pre-pubescent victims, abused over more than a decade, while both church and secular authorities failed to intervene. If the revelations did not exactly spark the clergy abuse crisis, then they marked a decisive new phase, as litigation generated a firestorm of new scandals around the country, making the "pedophile priest" a nightmare demon figure.

A huge amount has been written about the scandals and their impact, especially on the attitudes of ordinary Catholic believers. But the effects resonate much more widely through both religious and secular life, and the fact that we have become so used to them means that we rarely notice how revolutionary they would have seemed to an earlier generation.

If we imagine a Rip van Winkle figure from the bygone world of 1992, say -- from the dim historical era of the first Bush presidency -- what scandal-related changes would they notice in the American landscape? What aspects of the new normal would most startle these sleepers?

Most shocking, perhaps, would be the very idea of churches being the targets of massive lawsuits, a practice that was not even possible before the early 1980s. Since the Porter case, though, the U.S. Catholic Church has paid at least three billion dollars in abuse-related settlements. In Southern California alone, the three dioceses of Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego paid out close to a billion all told, not counting their legal costs. Several dioceses have already declared bankruptcy, while others are close. Still others would be vulnerable if, as seems likely, various states proceed with plans to change their statutes of limitations in civil cases. Apart from dioceses, religious orders have also been hit hard.

One result of the crisis, then, is the catastrophic weakening of the nation's wealthiest religious body. At first sight, few people would probably feel too sympathetic seeing a powerful institutions forced to suffer for past misdeeds, but the Catholic Church is a large and complex entity. It is a major owner of property in the form of churches and schools, and its charitable enterprises are an essential part of the social safety net. No diocese can afford to lose tens of millions of dollars without cutting back on services, closing facilities and merging congregations.

These changes have most acutely affected already troubled inner city areas, as dioceses have scaled back plans to build new churches to accommodate the enormous influx of mainly Catholic immigrants from Latin America and East Asia. If the abuse crisis had never happened, American cities would probably be in the middle of a church building boom much like that of a century ago, with all that implied for construction, investment, and social capital. Scholar Anthea Butler observes that the Catholic meltdown has neatly coincided with the economic collapse of many big city Pentecostal churches, which had suffered from unwise investments or outright fraud, aggravated by the 2007-2008 economic crash. Combining the two crises has left America's already troubled urban heartlands far weaker than they might otherwise have been.

Politically too, the crisis has eviscerated what had long been one of the America's most powerful institutions. Now, the Catholic Church of the 1980s was nothing like as potent a force as it had been in the age of Cardinal Spellman, when it could count on the solid electoral support of most of its faithful, and it already faced major revolts over issues of gender and sexuality. During the crisis years, though, the bishops have constantly found themselves on the defensive whenever they venture into politics.

When a bishop expresses conservative or traditional views on sexual matters, he leaves himself open to the obvious retort that the Church would be better served cleaning up perverse sexuality and child exploitation within its own ranks -- not to mention the unspoken question, "And what have you got to hide, bishop?" The abuse scandals have thoroughly liberated the mass media from any lingering sense that they need to show deference to the Catholic Church -- and perhaps to any religious leader whatever, with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama.

Imagine, again, how political matters might have played out differently if the abuse crisis had not exploded. In recent years, political observers have commented on the sharp decline of culture war issues that in the 1990s seemed so pressing and insoluble. Partly, this change reflected new concerns over terrorism, but the sabotage of the Catholic political interest also explains the sudden transformation.

One great "might have been" involves same-sex marriage. In light of present realities, it is hard to recall just how fringe and even bizarre an issue this seemed just a decade ago, and a large section of the American public is still uncomfortable about legalization. A critical turning point occurred in 2004, when Massachusetts's Supreme Judicial Court found it unconstitutional to restrict marriage to heterosexuals.

Would the politics surrounding the issue conceivably have been the same if the Boston Archdiocese had not been so overwhelmed by ongoing abuse scandals that its public voice was all but silenced? Would not other Catholic leaders in other states and cities mobilized a much more effective defense of traditional morality, perhaps making it a visible issue in presidential campaigns? In such circumstances, could gay marriage have won?

In 1996, my book Pedophiles and Priests appeared, with a rather odd blurb from Richard John Neuhaus. He was happy to commend my work, but insisted on adding the preliminary phrase, "While [Jenkins] may overestimate the long-term effects of the malfeasance he examines..." Through the years, Father Neuhaus did me so many acts of kindness that I'm reluctant to point out that in this one case, he really was wrong.

The abuse crisis has been a religious and social revolution, and it has not finished yet.

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