Since the reports made by Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald in the 1950s, it has been known that the Catholic Church has a problem with pedophilia in its clergy. Media publicity of the problem began in the late 1980s, and it has been in the news periodically ever since. The majority of the abused children were between the ages of 11 and 14, but some have been as young as three years old.[3,4] The United States has the highest number of reported cases, followed by Ireland, but is a problem in many countries with a significant Catholic presence. A 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 4,392 Catholic priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 have been plausibly accused by 10,667 individuals of sexual abuse of a minor, with “plausibly” defined as “neither withdrawn nor disproven”. This represents about 4 percent of the priesthood.
The response of the Church has been lackluster at best. While Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken out against the abuse of children by priests[9,10], Pope Francis accused victims of making false allegations before apologizing for doing so. Lower members of the Church hierarchy have argued that media coverage of sexual abuse has been excessive. Before 2001, the Vatican left management of such cases to local dioceses. Even after taking a more active role, a 2004 report found that the Church had moved priests accused of sexual misconduct to other countries and put them into settings where they would again be in contact with children. Because the law in most countries privileges communications between clergy and congregation, those who confess their behavior under the Sacrament of Penance tend not to have their crimes made public.
Some priests have been defrocked and laicized, while others live in retreat houses in a condition resembling house arrest. In many cases, the crimes are reported after the statute of limitations has passed, so the offenders cannot be imprisoned. Since 1950, civil suits against the Church have resulted in more than $3 billion in damages[1,16], and at least six dioceses in the US filed for bankruptcy. Sexual abuse scandals cost each American diocese about $300,000 each year.
This problem is of interest for a libertarian reactionary because it provides an example for consideration of the limits of capital punishment. In the abstract, putting an offender to death for a rape, let alone a lesser sexual assault, may seem disproportionately harsh. But real life is not lived in the abstract; within context, there are several factors that merit escalating punishment to the level of the sword. Let us consider the aggravating factors that weigh in favor of executing pedophile priests, then consider the religious, libertarian, and reactionary arguments for capital punishment of child molesters in general.
Effects on Victims
Let us begin by exploring the damage that child sexual abuse can inflict. Child sexual abuse may result in internal lacerations, bleeding, and damage to internal organs which can be fatal in the worst cases. Due to the immaturity of a child’s genitalia, there is a heightened risk of sexually transmitting infections from abuser to child. The traumatic stress inflicted by child sexual abuse has deleterious effects on brain development, including reduced volume of the left hippocampus and corpus callosum, reversed hemispheric asymmetry, greater left hemisphere coherence, abnormal transverse relaxation time in the cerebellar vermis, electrophysiological abnormalities, and increased incidence of ictal temporal lobe epilepsy-like symptoms associated with over-excitation of the limbic system.
The psychological impact of child molestation is even more pronounced, affecting between 51 and 79 percent of sexually abused children. These include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, conduct disorder, depression, dissociative identity disorder, eating disorders[26,30], low self-esteem, oppositional defiant disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances[31,32], and somatization. People who were sexually abused as children are more likely to withdraw from social activities, abuse alcohol and drugs, treat animals cruelly, engage in self-harm and risky sexual behaviors, and commit suicide. Victims also demonstrate lower performance on standardized academic tests, with strong correlation between duration of abuse and magnitude of lower scores. Sadly, these effects are not limited to the victims, as the children of child sexual abuse victims are more likely to have emotional and social problems.
With the severity of this offense understood, let us examine the Christian argument for capital punishment of child molesters. The Bible is the foundational document of the Church. In it, many relationships and communities are formed and discussed in terms of covenants, including the Church itself. To knowingly and willfully enter into a covenant is to be bound by its terms, which for clergy means that they should be subject to the rules and punishments prescribed in the Bible. The Bible contains several verses which apply to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. First, let us turn to Leviticus:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Lev. 20:13 (KJV)
About 81 percent of the victims of Catholic priests were boys and young men, so this verse calls for the death penalty in at least those cases. Fortunately, other verses make clear that the victims are not to be executed as well. In Deuteronomy we find the following:
But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her and lie with her, then the man only that lay with her shall die. But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death. …For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her. Deut. 22:25–27 (KJV)
Sadly, this describes all too well what has been done to so many children in what should be the safest place for them outside of their own homes. The children, who either cried for help or were too shocked and scared to do so, should not be punished for being victimized. But the priests should be dealt with most harshly under their own code, both for committing such atrocities and for being “none to save” the children. The method prescribed for punishing many sexual sins in the Old Testament was execution by stoning. In the New Testament, we find Jesus expressing a similar opposition to offenses against children in general, but with a different suggestion for punishment:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a little child unto him, and sat him in the midst of them, and said, “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” Mat. 18:1–7 (KJV)
Similar content to verses 6–7 may also be found in Luke 17:1–2. We see here just how great a departure the behavior of pedophile priests truly is from how a priest is supposed to behave, and that the punishment of execution by drowning for such a grievous offense is suggested. The execution methods from both Testaments might be combined in some form that involves drowning but is carried out by a multitude. One possibility is to place the condemned in water and have each victimized person take a turn in adding weight to them until they cannot keep themselves afloat. Another possibility is to chain the condemned to the bottom of a tank and have each victim add water until the condemned is covered. A third possibility is to put the condemned in water and stone them until they cannot keep themselves afloat. Regardless of method, capital punishment is justified because the condemned priest knew or should have known the terms of the covenant that he entered into by joining the clergy.
At its core, libertarianism is an answer to the question of when it is appropriate to use force. It says that initiating the use of force is never acceptable, while using force to defend against a force initiator is always acceptable. It is hopefully self-evident that sexual conduct toward a child is an act of aggression because the child lacks the capacity to consent to such behavior, but what should be done to a child molester once the offender’s crimes become known? First, let us consider proportionality. Murray Rothbard writes,
[M]ust we go along with those libertarians who claim that a storekeeper has the right to kill a lad as punishment for snatching a piece of his bubble gum? What we might call the ‘maximalist’ position goes as follows: by stealing the bubble gum, the urchin puts himself outside the law. He demonstrates by his action that he does not hold or respect the correct theory of property rights. Therefore, he loses all of his rights, and the storekeeper is within his rights to kill the lad in retaliation. I propose that this position suffers from a grotesque lack of proportion. By concentrating on the storekeeper’s right to his bubble gum, it totally ignores another highly precious property right: every man’s—including the urchin’s—right of self-ownership. On what basis must we hold that a minuscule invasion of another’s property lays one forfeit to the total loss of one’s own? I propose another fundamental rule regarding crime: the criminal, or invader, loses his own right to the extent that he has deprived another man of his. If a man deprives another man of some of his self-ownership or its extension in physical property, to that extent does he lose his own rights. From this principle immediately derives the proportionality theory of punishment—best summed up in the old adage: ‘let the punishment fit the crime.’”
He asserts this but does not justify it, so let us do so. Libertarianism is a logical construct, therefore it is subject to logic in the form of consistency. To claim a right for oneself while violating the equivalent rights of another person is inconsistent. A hypocrite is therefore disallowed from advancing his own hypocrisy as a rational argument. (Of course, this subjective variety of pragmatic contradiction only applies to the hypocrite; it would be absurd to argue, for instance, that everyone should lose the right to own property just because one thief has stolen something.) Thus, a criminal loses his own rights to the extent that he has deprived other people of their rights. In other words, one should be able to kill murderers, take property from thieves, subject slavers to forced labor, etc. in proportion to the crimes an aggressor has committed. Therefore, in determining the appropriate punishment for a child molester, we must consider what rights a child molester has forfeited through his aggressive behavior, which would include bodily integrity and psychological health. Physically preventing them from having further interactions with children would also be justified. But putting child molesters to death requires additional justification, which will come later in this section.
Second, let us consider restitution. A result in which an aggressor is punished and the victim is made whole is self-evidently more just than a result in which the aggressor is punished only. Therefore, it is best for a criminal to perform restitution whenever possible, and be forced to perform if he will not do so willingly. Of the proper extent of restitution, Rothbard writes,
“But how are we to gauge the nature of the extent? Let us [consider] the theft [of] $15,000. Even here, simple restitution of the $15,000 is scarcely sufficient to cover the crime (even if we add damages, costs, interest, etc.). For one thing, mere loss of the money stolen obviously fails to function in any sense as a deterrent to future such crime (although we will see below that deterrence itself is a faulty criterion for gauging punishment). If, then, we are to say that the criminal loses rights to the extent that he deprives the victim, then we must say that the criminal should not only have to return the $15,000, but that he must be forced to pay the victim another $15,000, so that he, in turn, loses those rights (to $15,000 worth of property) which he had taken from the victim. In the case of theft, then, we may say that the criminal must pay double the extent of theft: once, for restitution of the amount stolen, and once again for loss of what he had deprived another. But we are still not finished with elaborating the extent of deprivation of rights involved in a crime. For A had not simply stolen $15,000 from B, which can be restored and an equivalent penalty imposed. He had also put B into a state of fear and uncertainty, of uncertainty as to the extent that B’s deprivation would go. But the penalty levied on A is fixed and certain in advance, thus putting A in far better shape than was his original victim. So that for proportionate punishment to be levied we would also have to add more than double so as to compensate the victim in some way for the uncertain and fearful aspects of his particular ordeal. What this extra compensation should be it is impossible to say exactly, but that does not absolve any rational system of punishment—including the one that would apply in the libertarian society − from the problem of working it out as best one can.”
In short, we have a principle that Walter Block calls “two teeth for a tooth,” plus some extra amount. As Rothbard correctly notes, it is impossible to precisely calculate what this extra amount should be, as there is no price system which would allow one to do so and no way to examine a counter-factual world in which the crime was never committed to see what difference was truly made in the victim’s life. A critic may claim that this makes the theory impractical, but in practice this extra amount would be decided by mutual agreement between the criminal, the victim, and any hired agents they may have. The task here would be to estimate how much in monetary damages a child molester owes to his victims, but this is an offense for which economic restitution is impossible. No amount of money can undo the damage done to a child who is sexually assaulted by an adult, especially a member of the clergy who should be able to be trusted more than anyone else.
Third, let us consider active aggressors versus subdued aggressors. If an aggressor is active, then any amount of force necessary to subdue the aggressor may be used, for any standard short of this would not only fail to be logically consistent, but would allow an aggressor to succeed simply by escalating the use of force beyond what his victims are allowed to use in defense. The only permissible limitation on defensive force is that which ceases to be completely defensive. Rothbard writes,
“How extensive is a man’s right of self-defense of person and property? The basic answer must be: up to the point at which he begins to infringe on the property rights of someone else. For, in that case, his ‘defense’ would in itself constitute a criminal invasion of the just property of some other man, which the latter could properly defend himself against.”
Therefore, killing an unrepentant child molester who intends to keep offending is within the bounds of libertarianism. But what should be done once a child molester is subdued? On the matter of physical assault in general, Rothbard writes,
“In the question of bodily assault, where restitution does not even apply, we can again employ our criterion of proportionate punishment; so that if A has beaten up B in a certain way, then B has the right to beat up A (or have him beaten up by judicial employees) to rather more than the same extent.”
This seems straightforward, but actually leads to an interesting conclusion. It is possible to beat a man within an inch of his life, as there is a maximum amount of physical damage that a person can sustain without giving up the ghost. To express this mathematically, let us define L as the amount of damage required to kill a person. If A assaults B and does damage of L–X for a vanishingly small value of X, and the principle of “two teeth for a tooth” is applied, then B has the right to do lethal damage to A. Even the principle of beating up B to “rather more than the same extent” would result in lethal damage. Given the severe and lasting damage that child molestation does to a victim, this can justify a lethal response, especially for those who have attacked several children in this manner.
Finally, a victim has the option to negotiate an agreement with the criminal to reduce or even eliminate the criminal’s obligation to perform restitution or suffer punishment. Rothbard writes,
“In short, within the limits of his proportional right of punishment, the victim should have the sole decision how much, if at all, to exercise that right.”
Rothbard neglected to mention one caveat here. While the authorities could be obligated not to prosecute or punish a child molester if the victims desired to forgive the offender, no such limitation exists upon a third party acting solely out of concern for logical consistency and personal or communal safety. As explained above, a child molester forfeits the right to be free from attacks on bodily integrity and psychological health, so while the courts may be bound by contract and the victim’s wishes not to punish a particular child molester, the courts would also have no cause to prosecute someone else who did punish the offender. A critic may claim that this standard risks the devolution of civilization into a violent free-for-all, but a person who attacks a non-molester becomes a violent criminal himself, subject to all penalties thereof. This creates a potent disincentive against attacking someone in the name of protecting children from pedophiles who enjoy freedom unless one is absolutely sure that one is targeting the correct person. Also of concern for the particular crime of child sexual abuse is the psychological damage done to victims, which may render them incapable of passing the proper judgment upon their attackers.
The primary objective of reactionaries is to correct bad decisions and undo the damage done by them in order to establish, secure, and advance a healthy and stable social order. Given the amount of damage done by child molesters to their victims, the suppression of this behavior must be a top priority. A competent sovereign must take appropriate action to protect children within his territory from sexual predators. Permanently exiling child molesters to a secure place outside of the civilization is a workable solution, as is declaring them to be outlaws subject to the whims of whomever would lay hands upon them. But both of these solutions are inferior to formal capital punishment with respect to strengthening the social order.
A brutal and public execution for the purpose of making an example of someone who has committed a great wrong provides a strong deterrence against future crimes of the same type. The end result of making such an example, if done properly, is that cruel punishments will only be necessary on rare occasions. This may be done with or without community participation in the execution, but the former has several advantages. First, if a multitude of people strike blows against a criminal, then no one can be sure that his blow was the coup de grace. This helps to assuage feelings of guilt, however misplaced such feelings might be. Second, though some of the damage done by child molestation is permanent, allowing victims and their loved ones to gain retribution in this manner can offer some sense of closure. Third, whereas a group identity is defined just as much by who is excluded as by who is included, defining an outsider and working together to destroy him can be a powerful bonding experience for members of a community. Finally, this allows a community to identify with its leadership as the administrators of justice as they put evil away from them.
To see what a reactionary solution may look like in practice, let us return to the Jay report. Of the 4,392 priests and deacons listed, 56 percent had one allegation of child sexual abuse against them, 27 percent had two or three allegations against them, 14 percent had between four and nine allegations against them, and 3 percent (149 priests) had ten or more allegations against them. These 149 priests were responsible for almost 3,000 victims, or 27 percent of the 10,667 total allegations. The top tier of the 149 worst offenders definitely would be subjected to the drowning-stoning combination capital punishments discussed earlier to serve as an example, while the next tier that committed 4–9 offenses probably would be executed. Those who committed one to three abuses may be executed in some cases or exiled in others, depending on the victims’ wishes.
We have discussed strong arguments for executing pedophile priests from several perspectives. The libertarian and reactionary cases also apply outside the Christian clergy, where child sexual abuse is about as common as it is inside the Church. Any legitimate governance structure should respect the rights of people to form covenants and internally resolve their issues, up to and including the administration of criminal justice to their members in accordance with the terms of the covenant. That the current structure of progressive globalist nation-states would act to stop this is an important sign.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Catholic Church has shown little interest in taking appropriate measures to stop child molesters within its ranks, and states have not done enough to address the problem. Furthermore, the global decline in cruel punishments as well as the statutes of limitations in many jurisdictions ensure that child molesters rarely face appropriate punishment. This necessitates the building of alternative structures for the provision of criminal justice (and possibly some instances of vigilantism as well) because extrajudicial punishment of criminals, while sub-optimal, is better than no punishment at all.
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- Rothbard, Murray (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. p. 80–1.
- Ibid., p. 88–9.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- Rothbard (June 1978). “The Plumb Line: The Capital Punishment Question”. Libertarian Review, Vol. 7, No. 5, p. 14.
- Winger, Pat (2010, Apr. 7). “Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males”. Newsweek.