"While the moral panic of Salem's witches may be over, an equally pernicious panic continues to grow -- that of the pedophile priest." Anne Hendershott. 1
"Nothing much can shock us in today's world, but in the past weeks we've seen things, heard things, and read things that we never would have dreamed of." Father Raymond Mann, St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, MA, on Palm Sunday,
What is a moral panic?
"Moral panic" is a sociological term which has been defined
"a form of
collective behavior characterized by widely circulating rumors which greatly
exaggerate the threat posed by some newly identified form of deviance. In a
moral panic, there is a heightened level of concern over the behavior of a
certain group and a greater than normal fear about the consequences of this
behavior for the rest of society. The sentiment generated by the newly
identified threat is referred to by sociologists as a 'kind of fever --
characterized by heightened emotion, fear, dread, anxiety, hostility and a
strong feeling of righteousness.' " 1
Past moral panics:
There have been many moral panics during the past in North America. Three
of the most famous were:
In western Europe, starting in the late 16th century, there was a
widespread fear of Satan-worshipers. They were viewed as having dedicated their lives to
killing and harming others through black magick. There is no evidence that
any of these "Witches" actually existed, beyond a few
harmless, delusional, and mentally ill people. However the "burning
times" continued for about three centuries; tens of thousands of innocent people were
convicted of "Witchcraft" and executed.
(Estimates of the number of victims have ranged up to ten million;
however, this was based on guesswork and poor research. More recent
studies place the numbers in many tens of thousands.) The moral panic also affected some towns in New-England -- notably
Salem, MA. About two dozen innocent victims were hung there because they
wouldn't confess to being witches. One victim was
pressed to death because he refused to enter a plea.
The publishing of the book "Michelle Remembers"
triggered a Satanic panic throughout North America, starting in 1980.
This was a novel about
Satanic Ritual Abuse. It was promoted as a
documentary, as the real-life abuse experiences of a child, Michelle Smith.
After reading this book, and several copy-cat works of fiction, much of
the public started to believe that an underground, secret, evil cult of Satanists
were kidnapping up to 60,000 infants and children a year in the U.S. Their victims were
believed to have been sexually abused, ritually murdered, and sometimes even
eaten. Many dozens of localized panics broke out across North America, mainly
in rural areas. Some parents kept their blonde, blue-eyed children out of
school to protect them. The panic was reinforced by the false memories
recovered by tens of thousands of victims of Recovered
Memory Therapy (RMT). Some twenty years later, the
panic collapsed because of the complete lack
of hard evidence of any such evil cult. By 2010, there are few traces left of the Satanic Panic and belief in RMT.
During the early 1980's young children started to disclose
horrendous stories of physical and sexual abuse at
nursery schools, pre-schools and day-care centers across North America.
These turned out to be based on false memories
-- on real-feeling images of events that never happened. They were
generated during interviews with young children by child psychologists, social
workers and police investigators. At the time, researchers did not know
that repeatedly asked, direct questions about abuse would often result in
disclosures of non-existent abuse events. Later, these descriptions of
molestation became implanted in the children's minds. The moral panic
dissipated in the late 1990's. Many dozens of adults, once imprisoned
for committing criminal acts that never happened, have been released
from prison. Meanwhile, those
children who were victimized by the system have grown up and are now
young adults. Many wrestle with the memories to this day, and remain
partly disabled by the false memories.
Sociologists call the alleged perpetrators -- Witches, Satanists, and teachers
in the three cases cited above -- "folk devils." They are seen by
the public as the personification of evil.
A common thread shared by many moral panics is sexual perversion. For
Satan-worshiping female "witches" in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
were believed to engage in mass sexual orgies with each other, and with
Satan and some of his demons.
Modern-day, evil Satanic cultists were believed to have kidnapped, sexually abused
and tortured infants and children.
The latest moral panic involves allegations of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church. The folk devils in this case are some of the church's priests.
The panic seems to have reached a critical point early in 2002. At this point:
Many Roman Catholic dioceses had felt obligated to open their sex abuse
files to the police and/or public.
Many liberal individuals and groups who had advocated reforms in the church
joined the chorus of accusations against the church. Some felt that
the abuse problem would be eliminated or greatly attenuated if only the church
would end the requirement of priestly celibacy and allow the clergy to
marry. Others argued that if women were ordained as priests and
consecrated as bishops, that abuse would be very much reduced.
Many adults went public with their personal stories of having
been abused by priests when they were children or youths.
In moral panics, as in wars, truth is often the first victim. There is
massive speculation about the type and scope of the abuse. But there is also an
almost complete lack of reliable data. Much heat is being generated, and very
little light. For example:
Abuse rate: Few people seem to be asking whether sexual abuse of children is more common in the Roman Catholic church than in Protestant churches or
other faith groups. Philip Jenkins, author of "Pedophiles and
Priests" found no evidence that the incidence of child molestation
among Roman Catholic priests was any greater than within other Christian
Magnitude: Using terms like "The Sins of the Fathers,"
some in the media are implying that child sexual abuse by priests is
extremely common throughout the U.S. church. The best estimates that we
have seen indicate that only a few percent of priests abuse children. As
Pope John Paul II stated, the panic casts a "dark shadow of suspicion
over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty.''
Meaning of terms: The original meaning of the term "pedophile" was an adult who
has a sexual interest in a pre-pubertal child -- whether that desire was
acted upon or not. In recent decades, the term has developed a second,
meaning: an adult who is not only sexually attracted to a young child, but who actually abuses them. This moral panic seems
to be emphasizing the latter meaning. This will leave no word in the English
language for a non-abusive adult who has a sexual attraction to children
but who does not act upon the temptation. This may lead to the
assumption by the public that all pedophiles are abusers.
Ephebophilia: Little attention is being given to the exact nature of
The panic seems to be focusing on abusive pedophilia -- the sexual
molestation of pre-pubertal children by priests. Yet most of the abuse appears to
be by abusive ephebophphiles -- adults attracted to post-pubertal adolescents.
"[In] other than isolated cases like the Boston one, the overwhelming
majority of cases involve gay priests who have been sexually active with
young seminarians or 16- or 17-year-old boys. While such homosexual
activities with minors are criminal offenses -- and immoral -- they are
certainly not examples of pedophilia or child molestation."
1 If the age of consent for homosexual activity were lowered
to the age of 16, as it is in many countries, most of the criminal acts would disappear. The
remaining would still represent an ethical quagmire, however. They would
be a gross violation of the priest's ordination vows and would
extremely harmful experiences to most of the teens.
Public bias: The public may view sexual abuse by priests very differently from
similar crimes by Protestant clergy. The Roman Catholic Church is
generally seen as a monolithic organization with a clearly defined
rigid hierarchy. Thus a case of abuse becomes a "Roman Catholic scandal" rather
than a local parish problem. A similar molestation in a Protestant
church would probably be viewed as a local problem isolated to a single
congregation, because of the decentralized nature of most Protestant
Some of these memories appear to have been forgotten and then
triggered back into consciousness in a rush, as a result of having
seen the picture of the alleged abuser or having read an article about
abuse by priests. These may well be fairly accurate recollections of
real abusive events.
But other accusations seem to be based on memories that were
pieced together gradually during therapy -- either self-administered,
within a mutual-support group, or with a therapist. Previous cases
involving family incest and Satanic Ritual Abuse have shown that such
memories are generally not related to real events.
Comparison of the current and past moral panics:
There is one novel feature involved in previous moral panics. The accusations were groundless.
There were no Satan-worshiping evil witches murdering and hurting
people with black magick.
There were no underground Satanic cultists kidnapping, torturing,
killing and eating children.
There was no ritual abuse at pre-schools and day care centers.
But many of the accusation of abuse by priests appear to be grounded in fact.
If this moral panic develops like previous ones, then some of the following
disasters may emerge:
The vast majority of Roman Catholic priests who are ethical,
dedicated, and celibate will be subjected to public suspicion.
The good work of the Church will be ignored as overwhelming
attention is paid to the moral panic.
Abuse by non-Catholic religious leaders may be largely ignored.
Victims of recovered memory therapy whose memories of abuse are
unrelated to real events will be partly or completely disabled
emotionally by false memories.
On the other hand, some individuals who seek change in the Roman Catholic Church may see a silver lining to these tragic events:
The case for the ordination of women and married persons may be accellerated.
The public will become more cautious when involving clergy in their children's lives.
The moral standing of the Church will weakened in the eyes of the public. This may lessen the Church's influence in various matters relating to human sexuality.
Anne Hendershott, "A perfect panic," San Diego Union-Tribune,
2002-MAR-20, Page B-7. Professor Hendershott is a sociologist at the
University of San Diego. She is the author of "The Politics of
Jennifer Peter, "Abuse scandal shrouds beginning of Holy Week:
Catholics asked to take solace from Easter message of victory over evil,"
Associated Press, 2002-MAR-24. Published in Toronto Star, 2002-MAR-25,