Sex abuse in US churches is a stain on America’s human rights record, and China should point that out
Robert Delaney says such a move wouldn’t excuse Beijing from its own human rights transgressions, but it might pressure the US to confront the culture of abuse and cover-up in its Catholic churches and most devout religious communities
The Chinese government is regularly subjected to charges of human rights abuses. The latest came earlier this month in the form of accusations by a UN human rights panel that 1 million ethnic Uygurs in China were being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”.
China rejected the report’s findings last week, insisting that freedom of religion in Xinjiang is protected. The issue will not end here, though. Scrutiny of the way China treats Uygurs will continue, as it should, as will similar inquiries into the rights of Tibetans and other groups in the country that have challenged the central government.
But, last week, Beijing got a new counterargument against the US, if the foreign ministry chooses to use it against critics there, in the form of a 900-page report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania. The report unveiled the systematic abuse of more than 1,000 children by “predator priests” in the state over a period of 70 years.
At first glance, you might point out that judicial bodies in the US are publicising the abuse, and therefore conclude that America is doing the right thing.
But that conclusion would overlook several facts.
For one, only two among hundreds of the perpetrators of the abuse revealed by the report will ever be brought to justice. The reason: too many years have elapsed since they used the smokescreen of the Catholic theological theatre – the incense, the stained-glass windows, the Latin incantations – to keep their paedophilia rackets going.
Also, similar scandals by “predator priests” sheltered by Catholic Church leaders at the highest levels have been brought to light by the media in the past in Boston, Nebraska and Philadelphia, among other areas. Very few convicted church paedophiles have gone to jail and, more importantly, the churches responsible for these atrocities will continue operating, tax free, as though no one was harmed by them.
The psychological scars of sexual abuse last a lifetime, crippling many people, but Catholic dioceses get away with it. Christianity – whether Catholic, Baptist or any of its many other denominations – gets special treatment in the US, often in contravention of the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state.
Despite US founding father Thomas Jefferson’s insistence on this separation, religious figures in the US government have found ways to undermine it, helping to keep the church’s darkest deeds from view for decades.
In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” to the American pledge of allegiance. “In God we trust” is emblazoned on US currency. These transgressions against the separation Jefferson wanted are both a reflection of, and pretext for, much of the harm churches inflict on vulnerable Americans.
Not only are Catholic lives destroyed by priests, who are often unable to keep their vow of celibacy and therefore prey on minors. Countless people – women and children in particular – suffer in the US under strict interpretations of the Bible.
The Mormon church, America’s home-grown version of Christianity, has been hit with a series of sexual abuse scandals only recently for crimes that stretched over decades.
If an incident of sexual abuse ever surfaced in a class run by the Confucius Institute in the US, you can bet that the matter would have the attention of law enforcement officials right up to the FBI within hours.
In some fundamentalist Christian communities, the misogyny and homophobia, efforts to keep congregations pliant, and the general disdain for civil society, mirror the restrictions faced by many in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia.
The pattern of unacknowledged mental and physical abuse within America’s most devout religious communities undermines its authority in the area of human rights.
Using these incidents as a defence does not excuse the Chinese government for the increasing pressure it puts on Uygurs to abide by and conform to the Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda. It would, however, expose yet another example of American inconsistencies around what constitutes a human rights violation and would force the US government to take abuse in its most sacred communities more seriously.
Those who criticise China for its one-party rule would need to question whether living in a nation “under God” is any better.
Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York