Richard Dawkins Under Fire for ‘Mild Pedophilia’ Remarks

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
Richard Dawkins, seen here at a book signing. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday, Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

10 Myths of Abuse in the Church

Jesus-like image hiding face, Elena Ray /
Jesus-like image hiding face, Elena Ray /

Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.

I first became aware of the realities of sexual abuse in the church at the tender age of five. I happened to look at the television screen and witnessed police officers escorting my hand-cuffed youth minister in front of a crowd of reporters screaming questions. The words “YOUTH PASTOR ABUSED CHILDREN” flashed across the television screen.

I was confused and scared. My family comforted and assured me that the pastor had only “hurt” teenage boys and that I was safe. The church hired a new minister and, on the surface, life seemed to resume to normal for our congregation. But as a child I had no idea of the effects of the abuse and its aftermath had on the survivors, their families, and our church community. Many families soon experienced disintegrating marriages, friendships were broken, and faith was lost. One survivor’s family had their home repeatedly vandalized and were forced to move hundreds of miles from our town to escape fellow believers who grew angry with them for filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator. 

Church leaders shunned media attention and feared “airing dirty laundry” in public, encouraging members to keep the experience a secret for the sake of the boys and church. As a child, and then a teenager, growing up in an otherwise loving, connected church, I never remember hearing church leaders address this aspect of our shared history in the open. To some of the survivors and the broken-hearted, the silence on this topic was welcome; to others it was deafening. While secrecy was the rule, the legacy of the abuse was real and active in the community. Rather than being cared for with dignity and love, the survivors and their families felt that they were a shameful secret to be whispered about and hidden. I learned as an adult that I was intimately connected with some of the survivors but never knew about their silent pain. I had no idea that I was a participant in a culture of silence and shame that often surrounds sexual abuse and is especially pronounced when boys are abused by men in the church. 

Suffer the Little Children: Crime and Punishment at Penn State

The disciplinary actions announced this week by the NCAA against the Penn State University football program were severe.

They included a $60 million fine (equivalent to their football proceeds of one year), a four-year ban on playing in post-season bowl games, a four-year reduction in the school’s number of football scholarships from 25 to 15, vacating all of the wins of Penn State’s football wins from 1998-2011 from official records (including vitiating the numbers that made their famous coach Joe Paterno the “winningest” big-school college football coach in history), giving all returning football players the right to transfer to another school, a five-year probationary period for the football program, and reserving the right to do further investigations and impose additional sanctions on individuals for their behavior.

That will end Penn State’s dominant national football program for the foreseeable future and is a much more serious punishment than simply banning the university from playing football for a year  — aka a “death sentence”—  might have been.

I agree with the NCAA’s disciplinary decisions and would have supported even harsher penalties against Penn State.

Penn State’s Massive Moral Failure to Put The Most Vulnerable First Instead of Last

Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.
Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.

In Mathew 25, he allows no excuses, personal or institutional.

“As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me,” Jesus says without qualification. Apply that text to this terrible exploitation at Penn State and it certainly speaks explicitly to the most vulnerable children who have been so horribly abused there.

As it was done to them, it was done to Christ himself, the very Son of God. This famous text is one of the few passages of judgment in the New Testament.

Judgment is now needed at Penn State and beyond about how we continue to allow wealth, power, institutional protections, and cultural complicity to aid, abet, and enable the evil abuse of our most vulnerable children.

Busting Pedophile Rings

The American owner of a bar in Cambodia that is frequented by international pedophiles was arrested in a faith-based human rights group’s effort to bring known pedophiles to justice. Investigators from International Justice Mission (IJM) alleged that Terry D. Smith, 54, sexually abused the 11- to 14-year-old girls who worked in his bar and prepared them to be sold to tourists. The bar is now shut down. Smith gave undercover IJM investigators a trump card by telling them about his active warrants in Oregon. After confirming warrants for child abuse and sexual assault, the investigators alerted Cambodian police, the U.S. Embassy, and the U.S. Marshals Service, which issued a federal warrant for Smith’s arrest.

  “Each arrest by Cambodian police of Western pedophiles reinforces an important message: Pedophiles are not welcome in Cambodia, and they will go to jail if they assault Cambodian children,” Sharon Cohn, who oversees all IJM investigative and intervention strategies, told Sojourners. IJM heralded Smith’s arrest as the success of international law enforcement collaboration.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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Restoration vs. Retribution

Much grace and gratitude to you and Richard Rohr for "Beyond Crime and Punishment" (July-August 2002). It is so great and rare to see such a reasonable attitude of grace on this issue of pedophilia in a public forum—even in Christian circles! It was for solidarity with sinners that the Son of God came to us—even to the point of getting himself crucified. Perhaps the trouble most have with this solidarity is the misconception that it means acceptance of the sin. Is it possible to show compassion and understanding for the perpetrating pedophile without condoning the awful victimization and damaging behavior? Is it possible to offer help for healing to the perpetrator without re-offending the victim? Is showing love, or even friendship, with the sinner a sign of condoning the sin? Was Jesus a "friend to sinners"?

I guess that is part of the mystery of grace and forgiveness. Jesus lived his life on earth as the Son of Man to demonstrate this mystery and to show us how it is done. Just as Rohr says in receiving confessions, he never has direct contact with the victims of the sins he hears. Throughout the gospels, whenever Jesus forgave sin he never once consulted the hurting victim of that offense for that forgiveness. That is the seeming enormity of the fact that "No one can forgive sin except God alone" (Mark 2:7). In confession the extending of grace and forgiveness is an act of God, not an act of the priest. The same is true of the church, in the forgiveness of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Name withheld by request
Gatesville, Texas
The writer is a former minister serving a life sentence without parole for offenses against a child.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2002
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Perpetuating an Urban Legend

IN "CATHOLIC Scandal, Ecumenical Solution" (July-August 2002), Rose Marie Berger writes the following: "Philip Jenkins concludes in his book Pedophiles and Priests that while 1.7 percent of Catholic clergy have been found guilty of pedophilia (specifically of boys), 10 percent of Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia."

I regret to say that the statement is baloney. I never said it, and it's not true!

In Pedophiles and Priests, I was attacking a statistic that claimed that a proportion of Catholic priests were pedophiles on the basis that the sample was worthless, since all the men involved were undergoing psychiatric treatment. Hence, you could not extrapolate that figure to the whole priestly population. In order to demonstrate the foolishness of the argument, I cited another study of Protestant ministers undergoing treatment, which found that 10 percent of them were also pedophiles. By this argument, I remarked—as a reductio ad absurdum—that 10 percent of Protestant clergy were also pedophiles. (By the way, pedophilia is a psychiatric condition, not a criminal offense, so nobody can be "found guilty of pedophilia.")

Every time this 10 percent statement appears attributed to me, I try to debunk it, but these things have a life of their own. I have no idea what the actual proportion of pedophile Protestant clergy is, but I would be amazed if it was more than a fraction of 1 percent.

I hope that clarifies my position. Berger may well be making an excellent point—that there is no evidence that abuse rates are higher for Protestant than for Catholic clergy. But this particular figure is a kind of urban legend.

Philip Jenkins
University Park, Pennsylvania

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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What Must Be Done

Having a 3-and-a-half-year-old son has made the horrific revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests even more abhorrent. His innocence and vulnerability have been my daily context as I listen to one awful story after another. It makes a person very angry.

Concern for the victims of the widespread sexual abuse has to be our first and overriding concern. Where the Catholic Church and its leaders have begun to fully repent of these terrible sins and make those who have been irreparably damaged its principle priority, it becomes the beginning of healing. But where concerns for the perpetrators, or the priesthood, or the institution, or the financial consequences have dominated the response, the original sin has been seriously compounded. Clearly, the path that must be followed now is to put the welfare of the victims over the protection of the system. Indeed, that is the only way to save and heal the system in the long run.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2002
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