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As the dank cesspool of toxic vomit laced with Bible quotes, AR-15s, and rabid jingoism known as the Trump presidency was drowning the good citizens of the United States, one of the more malignant tumors floating in that hellish vat was the Q-anon conspiracy—ostensibly believed by millions—that Democrats and their Hollywood allies were operating a large-scale pedophile ring in which children were trafficked and sexually abused, all in the service of Satan.

Frighteningly crazy, right?

While these assertions lacked any credible evidence, they did—sadly—speak to an unfortunate reality: there has been a savvy, secretive, well-functioning, and all too pious international pedophile ring in operation for a very long time. Not in the service of Satan, however. Nor in the service of Hollywood dandies. Rather, this well-maintained machine of child sex abuse has been operated by one of the oldest and certainly the wealthiest religious organization on Earth: The Catholic Church.

The latest results from an independent fact-finding committee in France are harrowing. According to their painstaking investigation, well over a quarter of a million children have been sexually abused in France over the last seven decades—mostly at the hand of thousands of priests. This abuse was meticulously and systematically covered up by an extensive coordinating network of priests, cardinals, bishops, and various unholy enablers. Some have indicated that the Popes were involved, as well.

But France is only one prominent, well-documented arena of this horrible phenomenon.

Consider: a report in Australia found that nearly 4,500 individuals were abused at over 1,000 Catholic institutions between 1980 and 2015, while a subsequent report in 2017 suggested that the number of victims was more likely in the “tens of thousands.” In Germany, a Catholic-sponsored report revealed that nearly 3,700 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014, mostly boys, with half being under the age of 14 at the time of their assaults. In Ireland, between 1970 and 1990, approximately 15,000 children were abused, and according to the Murphy Report, the Catholic church was obsessive about covering such crimes up. In the United States, another Church-generated report, published in 2004, found that more than 4,000 priests had abused over 10,000 children—mostly boys—in the preceding five decades.

Such numbers are probably only the tip of the iceberg, as we can only speculate how much abuse has occurred—and been systematically covered up—in other Catholic nations throughout South and Central America, Central Africa, the Philippines, etc. 

The MO was pretty standard: an authority figure, usually a priest, would molest children; the abuse would become known to higher-ups in the Catholic Church; rather than take action, they would place the perpetrator in some internal, Catholic-run therapy program and then re-assign him to a different parish, where the criminal conduct would begin again; this would be repeated, over and over again, with the Church doing everything it could to cover its tracks, ignore complaints, and turn a blind eye to the suffering of children.

Thus, it was a double trauma: the actual horrific abuse itself, and then the systematic enabling and covering up of that abuse. The first trauma inflicts scars and wounds on individuals, the latter trauma elevates those scars and wounds to an institutional, structural level of deep immorality.

While most Catholics are good people doing their best in the world, the facts of the extensive sexual abuse covered up by and within the Catholic Church reveal that far too many have been deeply immoral.

Let me give but one all too illustrative example—out of tens of thousands—to move beyond sheer numbers and cut to the horror at hand.

In the 1940s, Father George S. Endal, a Catholic priest, began working in Alaska. He became friends with fellow Catholic Joseph Lundowski; Endal named Lundowski a “Brother” and put him in charge of a boys’ dormitory at the Holy Rosary Mission, where Lundowski began sexually assaulting boys with Endal’s full knowledge. In the 1960s, Endal and Lundowski moved to another part of Alaska to continue their religious work; their sexual misconduct continued and was reported to higher-ups in the Catholic Church—which did nothing. Endal and Lundowski then moved to the remote island of St. Michael, to serve the mostly indigenous community there. Lundowski continued to sexually abuse children; the Catholic church was made aware of the ongoing abuse, but did nothing. Ultimately, nearly 80% of the children on St. Michael island were sexually abused by either Lundowski or Endal. Many of these children suffered psychological trauma for years; some killed themselves.

While most Catholics are good people doing their best in the world, the facts of the extensive sexual abuse and systematic covering up by and within the Catholic Church reveal that far too many have been deeply immoral. And while most conspiracies about the collective, protracted, and institutional sexual abuse of children prove to be unfounded—from current Q-anon lies to the day-care abuse hysteria of the 1980s—sometimes, they prove to be painfully true. In this case, the abusers were the dutiful servants of the Christian Lord, his Virgin consort, and their bearded, peace-loving Son

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...