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Child abuse, the Pope and organized skepticism…now what?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 12, 2010

There is a literal fire storm going on on Twitter , and the catalyst I would say is Rebecca Watson’s entry about the pope, to which I linked here earlier today.  Venerable names in skepticism are wondering out loud what the “movement’s” involvement  with this issue should be? Should we actively seek the pope’s indictment? Should we just endorse it, without getting involved too much? Should we shrug our shoulders and say “that’s not my job“? Twitter may not be the best medium to discuss this issue; 140 charachters are too little for us to be able to have any meaningful discussion, so I decided to elaborate my position here.

So let us get the technicalities out of the way: this is a purely legal issue. The pope stands accused of covering up for child rapists. Some facts have made their way into the public sphere. As is the case with most things like this, many more  very likely have not. Should the pope be held responsible? Probably. Is he guilty?  I do not know! That is why we have a legal system, to sort these sort of things out.  The question “Is the pope responsible and if yes to what extent?” is not a skeptical issue; nor is it an atheist issue. It is simply, purely a legal matter.

So from this point of view, skepticism, as a movement, has not much constructive to add to the discussion. The question then becomes, what, if any, should our involvement be? This is where it becomes a bit more of a personnal choice, and it is open to speculation. One can easily maintain that the religious beliefs is what induced the behavior, but one can just as easily maintain that greed and concern for the institution and it’s well being is what induced the behavior. Or one may come up with a host of other reasonable explanations. I do not think that enough evidence has come to light for us to pretend to know for sure what motivated the alleged misbehavior. So far, it seems that a concern about the church and the church’s reputation might be the front runner.  If that were the case, what should organized skepticm’s involvement be?

I think the correct answer here is: whatever the individual skeptic feels is the right thing! This is not a skeptical issue, technically speaking, so it would be hard to argue what the movement’s response should be! On the other hand, we are all human beings, and we all have emotional responses, as we should, especially to cases so morally clear cut as child rape is. So from the human point of view, we should all feel that outrage and that desire to see whoever is responsible brought to justice. Except that we’re seeing what appears to be a lack of response in the eyes of daming evidence, and one can only wonder how much the fact that this is the pope we’re talking about has to do with anything. Is there a ridiculous double standard playing in front of our eyes? Possibly, which should make our skeptical minds get back in gear, because something that goes counter to critical thinking is, at least partially, within our area of expertise.

However, I do not agree with those that maintain that skepticism, including the skeptical organizations out there, ought to keep quiet about this issue. There is nothing wrong with a skeptical organization showing support for something they think is right, even something not within their area of  expertise.  For example, what would be wrong if the JREF endorsed the idea of legal action towards the pope? Sure they are not a moral authority, nor a legal one, but they have their own morals nevertheless. If these morals are offended by what has happened, what is the problem with them expressing that? Does that mean that CFI is bound by JREF’s actions? Of course not, JREF does not speak for all skeptics or for skepticism as a movement; JREF is allowed to maintain positions that may leave a sour note on some skeptic’s collective mouths.

In fact, I think that showing emotion, speaking up when issues such as these are involved are very important public relations tools. We want to break the public misconception that sketpics are cynical, cold, emotionless robots, right? Well then let us show some emotion; let us show that we have a highly evolved moral code; let us break the stereotype that we’re only against stuff by showing that we are for something that many other people can relate with. And let us, those of us to whom this issue is important enough to speak out, do so without being told “it’s not your job“.

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  1. Fujaro said, on April 13, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    Why is it that both the Vatican and skeptics seem more concerned with their public image than with the principles they stand for? If skeptics ever have reason to speak out than surely the fact a grand cover-up of child abuse by an institute claiming to be aligned with divine moral guidance provides a good case for bringing skepticism into practice. The Vatican is not a democracy whose actions are monitored and questioned by parliament. There is no formal indictement made by any nation to the Vatican. Any claim of an internal mechanism to deal with the matter properly in the light of recent findings are implausible. Over the years the Vatican has failed to bring the culprits to justice and has neglected to hand ‘m over to wordly authorities. Remember that any such act outside the clergy has severe consequences and in most countries is not dealt with lightly. This is not even about atheism versus theism. In fact christians themselves may find reason to become skeptical of moral claims and oaths of repentence by this institute.

    • Skepdude said, on April 13, 2010 at 3:46 PM

      I do agree that this case provides a good public relations opportunity for the skeptical movement, nevertheless it is a moral issue and a legal one, and neither is within the area of expertise of skepticism. Based on that some folks make the, in my opinion, extreme claim that organized skepticism should remain silent. I personally disagree, I think it is an issue of logic: do we support that a person that basically covered and enable child-rape should be held responsible or not? I think basic logic dictates the answer is YES, and as such skeptical organizations are warranted to come out on support of the victims as opposed to taking a laisez-faire attitude which only makes us look bad!

      • Fujaro said, on April 14, 2010 at 3:41 PM

        Why should moral claims be free from skeptical inquiry? Skepticism is not restricted to certain kinds of truth claims. As the studied attitude of questioning and doubt it should encompass moral claims especially those based on unverifiable supernatural grounds. And that’s what is apparent here. The papacy acts as if accountability to society and the humans concerned is not applicable here. Just name me one reason why that should not be questioned by everyone who calls himself a skepticist.

        • Skepdude said, on April 14, 2010 at 4:05 PM

          I know, there is a strong push for scientific skepticism ONLY though.

  2. [...] but that event brought something into my mind. For the past few days I have been engaged in the arrest-the-pope saga, specifically in the “should organized skepticism get involved” side of it. Many [...]


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