The Culture Wars Continue: Catholic Church Blames the 1960s for Priests’ Pedophilia


A report commissioned by the Catholic Church is blaming 1960s-era culture (epitomized in public memory, perhaps, by scenes such as this, at Woodstock) for sexual assaults committed in recent decades by Catholic priests against children. Why are conservatives still so deeply interested in invalidating the experiences of that epoch? Wikimedia Commons/Derek Redmond.

A report on the child abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church — released in mid-May and reported in the Guardian — “concluded that the permissive society of the 1960s was to blame for the rise in sexual offences by priests.”

The May 19 Guardian article goes on to report that the investigation, which was commissioned by Catholic bishops, concluded that the peak incidence of sexual abuse by priests in the 1960s and ’70s reflected the increased level of other deviant behaviors in American society in the period, including “drug use and crime, as well as social changes, such as an increase in premarital sex and divorce.”

Many responses to this report focused on the way it seemed to exonerate bishops who routinely ignored reports of this abuse or simply transferred the abusive priests from one church to another without warning the new church of the charges against the priest, and because the report exonerated the priests of pedophilia by defining pedophilia as only including sexual assaults on children under age eleven (most of the victims were between eleven and fourteen years old).

We have some different questions to ask: Why are conservatives still so focused on the 1960s? Why are they so deeply interested in invalidating the experiences of that epoch? Why do they hold on so deeply to the cultural struggles that emerged in that period?

To really understand this, we need to remind ourselves of the deeper struggle that has been going on for much of humanity in the past five thousand years: the struggle between two worldviews about the nature of what human beings are and can become.


On the one hand, there is the worldview of fear and domination... Credit: Sheila Pinkel (

On the one hand, there is the worldview of fear and domination. It maintains that each of us is thrown into this world by ourselves and find ourselves surrounded by hostile others who are only interested in maximizing their own pleasure and power, and will do so at the expense of everyone else. The result is a struggle of all against all, which, according to this fear-based worldview, only gets restrained in two ways:

1. Through the imposition of rigid external controls by means of a religious or governmental arrangement that makes people contain their tendency to take advantage of others.

2. Through the creation of partnerships in which a small group of people form a corporation, church, or religious or political organization in which they cooperate with some people while seeking power or protection from everyone who is not part of that particular partnership.

In both cases, those who are outside these arrangements are seen as “evil others” whose well-being is of no concern, and who are suspected of seeking to advance their own interests by taking away from us whatever we’ve managed to accumulate in the way of wealth, power or security. The only rational path, given this view of reality, is to dominate and control these “others” before they succeed in dominating and controlling us. I call this the worldview of the Right Hand of God, or the worldview of fear, domination, and control.


On the other hand there is the worldview of love, generosity, and hope... Credit: Creative Commons/B Tal.

On the other hand there is the worldview of love, generosity, and hope. It is a worldview that insists that from the very start of our lives that we are in constant connection with a loving other. From the moment we are dependent on our mother in her womb through the early years of life, we would never have survived without caring others providing us with food, shelter, and love. As we grow older, we see that others are able to care for us as well, and to show that caring behavior in schools, in play with potential friends, and eventually with adult relationships and loving families of our own. These experiences lead us to trust that our own safety and security need not depend on domination or control of others, but rather on our ability to evoke in each other the love, kindness, generosity and desire for mutual recognition and caring that can become the glue holding together families and societies. Homeland security, according to this caring-based worldview, comes not from control and domination, but from genuine caring about others.

Now most of us have heard both stories — we have both stories deeply ingrained in our own consciousness, and we are all located on a continuum between the worldview of fear and the worldview of hope. Where exactly we are on that continuum is continually changing, affected in part by our childhood experiences, adult life experiences, the worldviews or religious systems we’ve embraced, and our assessment at any moment of where the social energy is moving. When it moves more toward fear, the stories we’ve been taught about not trusting others seem more plausible and we are enticed to give them more credibility. Conversely, when the social energy moves more toward hope of a world based on love and caring, the parts of us that resonate with that view come to the fore and we feel safer in acting from the standpoint of generosity and trust in others.

The 1960s and early 1970s was a time when there was a huge upsurge of hope, and with that a huge upsurge of caring, generosity, and love that seemed to “break on through to the other side” of the walls that many people had built to protect themselves from making themselves vulnerable to the worldview of love. They built those walls because they remembered the pain of previous disappointments when they trusted others and then were betrayed.


Pope Benedict (above), the former head of the Church’s Inquisition office, has been a voice for more doctrinal rigidity within the Catholic Church, in stark contrast to Pope John XXIII. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fabio Pozzebom.

One important dimension of that upsurge of hope took place in Vatican II, which, under the guidance of Pope John XXIII, sought to open the Church to a new era in which love and kindness would replace the Church’s dominant ethos of rigidity and bureaucratic power struggles. Vatican II overturned the Church teachings of hatred toward Jews, which had helped create the pop-anti-Semitism in Europe elaborated upon by Hitler and the Nazis. It sought to translate the Mass into spoken languages so that Catholics around the world could understand what was being said. Like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John XXIII became a symbol of the rise of hope and a spirit of generosity. No wonder that the insider Vatican bureaucrats have worked so assiduously to erode his legacy and remake the Church in the image of more autocratic figures, including the former head of the Church’s Inquisition office, the current Pope Benedict.

It would be a wild exaggeration, however, to say that the ’60s and early ’70s were defined by that upsurge of hope. First of all, most people in our society never experienced the upsurge of hope that was being sung about the Beatles and the counterculture. On the contrary, American society as a whole was engaged in a brutal and senseless war in Vietnam based on a worldview of fear. Even those who did experience the upsurge of hope also acted out against each other at times because of a depressive certainty that they couldn’t really trust that others were ready for a world of love.

So while embracing consciously the ethos that led to the creation of a vibrant and unusually creative art and music scene, the flourishing of social change movements including those seeking peace, environmental sanity, social justice, and equality and liberation for African Americans, women, LGBT people, and Native Americans, internally and unconsciously many of the people engaged in supporting this upsurge of hope also experienced an upsurge of fear that led them to act in destructive ways. Many of these brand-new converts to a new way of thinking projected anger at those who had not yet converted or embraced “the good news” that the world need not be based on fear. As a result, they communicated to others that anyone who had not yet joined their “new consciousness” was probably irredeemably lost in uptight, narrow-minded, materialistic, and hateful patterns of living and hence were “the enemy.”

These dynamics made it possible for ruling economic and political elites to assault the spirit of the ’60s and early ’70s as “elitist” and to point out to Americans that these bearers of a new consciousness, whether in the counterculture or in the social change movements, were really just haters who despised the lifestyle and concerns of ordinary Americans. And while this was not true of most of the people in the counterculture and the social change movements, it was true of a minority, and that minority became the focus of media attention so as to dramatize to most other Americans the most hateful and put-downish part of the counterculture and the political movements.

An inordinate amount of American politics in the past forty years has been shaped by this struggle, and even in the second decade of the twenty-first century it still resonates, enough that conservative forces refer to it as if to warn people that if they don’t stay away from those oriented toward love, generosity, and compassion, they may be opening the gates to a new upsurge of ’60s consciousness.

But why think that when the social conditions are so different today, the economy so much less secure, the social movements barely limping along?

The answer is simple: because even those who now denounce the ’60s still have within them a part of their consciousness that wishes for a different kind of world. And because of that, they know that everyone else must have a similar part of their consciousness, and so the desire for a society based on generosity, love, and caring for others could reemerge at any moment, even now, just as it did in the 1930s in the midst of a terrible depression.

And their fears are well based. The fact is that the part of each of us that I call the Left Hand of God is ontologically based. We are created in the image of God, or to put it less theologically, we are theo-tropic, always attracted to the possibility of a world based on love and generosity, and so it takes a lot of conditioning and education (and sometimes even coercion) to repress that desire to build a world of love and generosity.

That’s why ruling elites spend so much time and energy on a media and an educational system that will knock that part out of us, or at least force us to keep that part repressed. Because if it surfaces again, it may lead us to build a society that no longer privileges wealth and power, but love and generosity.

We have consistently argued that one place that this 1960s energy is badly needed is in the Arab-Israeli struggle. It’s not some new political formula that will make everything change, but rather in a fundamental change of heart on both sides.

A society that privileges love and generosity would respond with respect and caring to the raw and immediate pain of those abused and traumatized by the Holocaust and/or the Naqba. And a love-based society would respond with similar caring to the survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, in part by refusing to cover over the violence of those who assaulted them by subsuming it within a polarized and politicized culture war.

The report commissioned by the Catholic bishops showed a lack of care toward the assault survivors by making their response all about who’s to blame for the violence, rather than seeking to prevent future violence and asking the abused children what they need to heal and to feel safe.

We need to struggle against replicating that fundamental disrespect toward the survivors of assault by responding only to the ridiculous claims made by the Catholic Church, rather than speaking more directly to the abuse survivors’ needs.

Our attempts to give confidence to each other to be able to articulate what almost everyone most deeply wants in their heart but is fearful to acknowledge in public — namely, a world based on love, generosity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation — is the central cultural, intellectual, and psycho-spiritual battle of our times, and why the establishment will go to such lengths to try to demean and knock out of us our most idealistic and love-oriented consciousness.

And the task of Tikkun and our Network of Spiritual Progressives is not to let that happen!


12 thoughts on “The Culture Wars Continue: Catholic Church Blames the 1960s for Priests’ Pedophilia

  1. The Catholic church has a long and storied history, but that history is a burden. Since the Protestant reformation, Catholic priests have been accused of perverse and unholy practices. Some of those accusations are clearly simple religious prejudices born of differing views of the clergy and its responsibilities. But, in light of the widespread abuse documented in recent years, it is hard to believe that some of those accusations did not arise from a pattern of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy. It is unfortunate that good priests become tainted with the evils of their brethren’s corruption, but rot is known to spread.

  2. Placing the blame for the sexual abuse at the feet of the ‘permissive ’60’s’ is beyond belief. I am a product of that generation and recall how sex was more open. However, sex was between consenting young adults. It was not preying on youngsters. There is more to the sexual abuse crisis that needs attention. It cannot be dismissed in this way. It is about twisted views of authority and perceived power over. This crisis is the end of the Roman Catholic Church.

    • I completely agree. I would also add that the reason there are more cases reported that occurred during that time is because those who were abused received enough love and support to stand up and speak out.
      I would argue that the sexual abuse of women and children is as old as the Roman Catholic Church itself and that this is why the Pope seeks to place blame rather than clean house and seek forgiveness.

  3. Dear Michael Lerner,

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece on the recent “report on the child abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church.” Thank you too for the many other thoughtful pieces that you regularly write.

    Regarding this article, however, I write to note that its headline and one statement within it commit an error called in logic the ‘fallacy of composition.’ This fallacy mistakes the part for the whole. I hope that you will not mind if I take some time to explain why this is so, for the explanation requires some geographical and functional clarification.

    The article’s headline commits the fallacy of composition by stating that the “Catholic Church Blames the 1960s for Priests’ Pedophilia.” An accurate logical headline would have read “U.S. Catholic Bishops Blame …” So too, later, the article again makes this same fallacious error with the following statement: “the ridiculous claims made by the Catholic Church.”

    The U.S. Catholic bishops are very important for U.S. Catholics, and they certainly have the ecclesial right and duty to speak authoritatively about Catholic doctrine, including social doctrine.

    But the U.S. Catholic bishops’ public release of this particular report, which endorses a particular cultural judgment made by certain academic scholars about a particular church problem, while quite newsworthy, hardly qualifies as Catholic doctrinal teaching. So the U.S. Catholic bishops’ action should not be predicated generally of the “Catholic Church.”

    Further, this statement is only an action of U.S. Catholic bishops, who are a small minority of the vast number of Catholic bishops across the world. So the statement should not be predicated generally of the “Catholic bishops.”

    For these two reasons, it is a logical fallacy of composition to write that the “Catholic Church blames …” or to make the evaluative statement concerning “the ridiculous claims made by the Catholic Church.”

    The 400-plus active and retired Catholic bishops in the U.S. only account for approximately 0.00058% of the more than 68,000,000 members of the Catholic Church in the U.S. In turn, these same bishops account for less than 0.00004% of the more than 1,000,000,000 members of the Catholic Church across the world.

    I presume that it was not your intention to link this report with the more than 68,000,000 Catholics in the U.S. Similarly, I presume that it was not your intention to link this report with the more than 1,000,000,000 Catholics worldwide.

    But the article does make that logically fallacious link, and does so twice.

    Unfortunately, the logical fallacy of composition often feeds a wider problem of cultural or religious stereotyping and prejudice, something which I am certain that you oppose.

    Perhaps a statement of correction would be helpful.

    Every best wish for you and your important work,

    Joe Holland
    President, Pax Romana/Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs USA, Washington DC
    Professor of Philosophy, St. Thomas University, Miami Gardens FL

  4. Thanks to the pope that was recently beatized (Pope John Paul II) the Church moved back into the Dark Ages aligning itself with the religious right and a single issue – abortion. The consistent ethic of life has been disregarded for a simplistic right-wing ideology based on control of the masses through power against the powerless. Central America, particuarly through the 60’s to the Reagan 80’s, the Church crushed the base communities liberal theology movement thtat identified with the true teachings of Jesus Christ for a more top-down domination of Catholics in the pews. movent Pope John Paul II’s visit to Central America taking time to physically slap a Nicaraguan priest for his role in stnading up to the U.S. funded death squads against the poor is a prime example of the radical right-wing tunr by the Catholic Church. Rome denutted the liberal American Catholic bishops who supported nuclear disarmament, the anti-war movement, and the Central American corporate exploitation by the U.S. government was the reason for my exiting the church. The patriarchial church’s all out assault on women via the a male dominated church and the abortion issue, as well as no support for femal ordination, leaves the medievil church stuck the past before the Age of Enlightenment. My personal hero was Pope John XXIII who in the 60’s opened up the dusty and damp doors of Catholicism to reveal a Christ for the poor and powerless of our society. I cannotm intellectually or spiritully relate to the new (old) church that revelas itself to be a rigid, male dominated “universal?” church dictating its tenets as though the pope and the red hats have superior knowledge over the people. I will not be coming back to this archaic institution until it embraces liberation theology and social justice from the heart and not by lip service.

  5. The leaders of the Roman Catholic church have committed a sin so pernicious not even Lucifer would have put them up to it. They made God boring. And that really is a mortal sin.

  6. As I understand it, the John Jay Study was meant not to be an “in house” report, but something done by an outside agency that would give greater credibility to the findings. It is therefore a distortion (and not only seen in Tikkun, unfortunately) to say that this report is the bishops’ “own” explanation for the sexual abuse problem. The Canadian bishops did a report back in the 1990s that is, in my opinion, more nuanced and self-critical, but it is hard to find! As for sex between consenting adults, alas, it was Paul Shanley, the convicted priest pedophile from Boston, who wrote essays in favor of pedophilia in the 1970s in various Boston street newpapers; no one has ever indicted the editors of those newspapers for promoting illegal and abusive behavior. And this behavior was indeed promoted in certain corners of the “sexual revolution” far beyond the world of the Catholic Church. I first heard about the phenomenon from college friends who told stories about high school football coaches, not about priests. Is this the “end” of high school football? Let’s get real.

  7. This publication whether from an outside agency or admitted by Bishops from the Catholic Church is not admissible. It is an imaginary excuse not acceptable. Pedophilia is an abuse to a child. At not time of the 60’s, 70’s or now has been acceptable. Please, don’t obscure the issue. Celibacy is the damaging reason.

  8. The obsession of the Catholic Church with sexual matters in view of the required and claimed celibacy of its clerics during centuries of “sinful” and criminal pedophilia should raise extremely serious questions for all members of that church, not just outsiders. The pedophilia and other crimes of commission and omission stretch far back beyond Woodstock, Haight-Asbury and other 1960s love fests. A church so besmirched with these and other crimes must be questioned. The hierarchy, from Benedict XVI on down, are still trying to cover as much as they can, and that is immoral. Immorality is added to immorality. Crime is added to crime.

  9. Pingback: | The Greanville Post

  10. But the Church won’t blaim there genocides across the america’s – on there perverted POPE …. At what point does a organized religion become a criminal orginization??? when they all become part of the cover up of crimes….

    There was 3 men standing watching – not saying a word – A guy was being beaten
    – and all he had – was stolen from him even his cloths – then his house began to burn –
    seeing these 3 men just watching – he screamed out to them – The first man said –
    do not yell at me – I was a police Officer – I would have given my life – To save
    you – bit you laid me and lots of other officers off – Now I have no health-care
    and I will not risk being hurt for you any longer – My family needs me – I have also
    become selfish – The secoind man – said – do not yell at me – I was a fireman – and I would
    of given my life to have saved your house – But I too have become selfish – I can not
    afford to get hurt – My family needs me – The 3 man – said I still have my job – but the
    city doesn’t have any money to fix anything – I just stopped to stand with these two other men –
    and watch a free show – and by the way – the water pipes are busted – there wasn’t any water to
    put out your house anyway – and I’ll tell you this too – There is no investorgators at city hall
    – your not getting anything back !!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *