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The mainstreaming of Bill Donohue

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, purchased a full-page ad yesterday in the New York Times entitled “Straight Talk about the Catholic Church.” In it, he attempts to dispel alleged misconceptions about the pervasiveness of child abuse committed by priests, insisting that the extent of wrongdoing is being exaggerated by various opportunists for financial and political gain.

Donohue writes that “Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Denis Leary, George Lopez, ‘The View’ panelists, and others” have cemented the erroneous public perception that priestly abuse remains a problem.

The refrain that child rape is a reality in the Church is twice wrong: let’s get it straight—they weren’t children and they weren’t raped. We know from the John Jay study that most of the victims have been adolescents, and that the most common abuse has been inappropriate touching (inexcusable though this is, it is not rape). The Boston Globe correctly said of the John Jay report that “more than three-quarters of the victims were post pubescent, meaning the abuse did not meet the clinical definition of pedophilia.” In other words, the issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia.

In focusing on whether the technical definition of “child rape” applies to the majority of abuse cases, Donohue distracts from the overriding issue: that subservient relationships between young people and clergy were often exploited for the latter’s sexual gratification. Homosexual or heterosexual, it’s an egregious manipulation of authority.

These arguments have been recapitulated for years now; Donohue’s presumption is always that devout Catholics are under siege by a menacing secular elite. What may be more interesting than that debate is the role Donohue himself plays in overseeing the Church’s PR. The Catholic League claims to be a lay organization without any formal relationship to the Church hierarchy, which means they “don’t have to worry about violating church and state lines,” according to the organization’s About page.

It’s a quite convenient arrangement: Donohue can freely claim that the goal of Planned Parenthood is to “sexually engineer society” without directly implicating the Church, just as he can assert that “it is more acceptable in our society today to defend the rights of Gitmo detainees than Catholic priests.” The fact that he’s not an official organ of the Church hierarchy made it possible for U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President Timothy Dolan to enthusiastically cheer him on in December: “Keep at it, Bill! We need you!”

Some Catholics object to Donohue’s role as unofficial Church spokesperson on the grounds that he, they claim, represents the far-right wing of Church thinking. But if the laity assigns that label to Donohue, then they must similarly dismiss Timothy Dolan and all the other archbishops who lavish praise on Donohue’s organization, like Mahony of Los Angeles, Chaput of Denver, and O’Malley of Boston. Donohue is successful in drawing attention to himself largely because his positions are indeed reflective of the institutional Church’s position on cultural issues du jour.

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