Fifth place — Grad student essay contest: Angela Wu
The absence of great responsibility
FFRF awarded Angela $1,500.
By Angela Wu
“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must die” (Deuteronomy 17:12).
The bible has long been one of America’s most cherished works, and this remains true in the 21st century. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 26 percent of Americans believe the bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, while 47 percent believe it is inspired by God and should be taken somewhat literally. When taken literally, the verse above subsequently indicates the death of one who challenges the authority or wisdom of a religious leader. When taken figuratively, the verse nevertheless urges readers to implicitly trust the judgment of religious authorities, as these authorities are ordained, exceptional and representative of God himself.
However, in the words of a character from another cherished American work (Spider-Man), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Indeed, there perhaps exist few greater powers than the power to hold a subordinate’s unadulterated trust. Despite this, the responsibility associated with this great power has failed to consistently emerge among American church officials and religious institutions, resulting in detrimental consequences for individuals and society as a whole. This is particularly relevant in regard to clerical sexual abuse in the United States.
First, as the bible’s teachings imply literal or figurative death to those who question their priests, abusive behavior by members of the clergy go potentially unreported. This is because priests enjoy the presumption of infallibility on the basis of their priesthood. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, specifically states that ordained individuals are given “sacred character” by the Holy Spirit. This sacredness implies that priests and their actions are morally correct by nature, enabling abusive behavior to go unchecked or unnoticed. This has been particularly damaging for minors, but other populations are also vulnerable. All priests are, of course, not predators or morally corrupt, but the halo effect afforded to religious leaders has led to systemic patterns of abuse within American society.
In Minnesota, the Catholic archdiocese reported its clergy had sexually abused over 450 children. In Texas, approximately 380 members of the Southern Baptist Church sexually abused more than 700 individuals in its congregation. These instances of misconduct have all been in recent times, but evidence of clergy abuse also dates back hundreds of years. In fact, William Caxton published a book in 1483 specifically detailing clerical sexual misbehavior in medieval London.
Furthermore, verses like Deuteronomy 17:12 enable religious figures to be held above the law, even when survivors consult secular authorities. Historically, in England and the American colonies, clergy members were given exemption from capital punishment if they could produce letters of ordination. Such explicit judicial exemptions no longer exist in modern-day America, but religious institutions still enjoy many unspoken benefits that diminish legal accountability. Victims of clerical abuse may, therefore, run into substantial roadblocks when they choose to pursue their abusers in court. For example, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office issued a report noting how government officials stopped investigating cases of clerical pedophilia upon the request of a bishop, who “openly boasted about his influence over local office-holders.”
Additionally, church-led lobbying efforts can further impede victims of clerical abuse from seeking justice. In 2019, a report revealed that the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million over eight years “to lobby against legislation that would benefit victims of child sex abuse.” These lobbying efforts are perhaps unwittingly aided by the special privileges afforded to religious institutions in the United States, such as automatic tax-exempt status. These instances of special treatment make it more laborious for victims of clerical abuse to obtain justice, fundamentally infringing on the right every American citizen has to equal protection under the law.
Deuteronomy 17:12 is a biblical teaching that continues to give priests and religious institutions enormous privilege in American society, even in the face of obvious misconduct. This endangers individuals in church congregations, but it also endangers the civil liberties of all potential sexual abuse survivors through church-led lobbying efforts. As historically witnessed, priests and ministers have the potential to commit wrongdoing just as easily as the unordained, even as stringent readings of the bible continue to imply otherwise. As a result, in the absence of great responsibility, the civil liberties of vulnerable societal populations continue to suffer.
Angela, 23, is from Sparks, Md., and attends the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She graduated from the University of Maryland, where she majored in life sciences and sociology, with a focus on social psychology. She is also particularly interested in research and has previously published neurosurgical and ophthalmological papers with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.