Since the reports made by Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald in the 1950s[1], 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[2], 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[5], followed by Ireland[6], but is a problem in many countries with a significant Catholic presence.[7] 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2002 have been plausibly accused by 10,667 individuals of sexual abuse of a minor, with “plausibly” defined as “neither withdrawn nor disproven”.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.[8]

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[11] before apologizing for doing so.[12] Lower members of the Church hierarchy have argued that media coverage of sexual abuse has been excessive.[13] Before 2001, the Vatican left management of such cases to local dioceses.[7] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[17]

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.[18] Due to the immaturity of a child’s genitalia, there is a heightened risk of sexually transmitting infections from abuser to child.[19] The traumatic stress inflicted by child sexual abuse has deleterious effects on brain development, including reduced volume of the left hippocampus and corpus callosum[20], reversed hemispheric asymmetry, greater left hemisphere coherence[21], abnormal transverse relaxation time in the cerebellar vermis[22], electrophysiological abnormalities[23], and increased incidence of ictal temporal lobe epilepsy-like symptoms associated with over-excitation of the limbic system.[24]

The psychological impact of child molestation is even more pronounced, affecting between 51 and 79 percent of sexually abused children.[25] These include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder[26], anxiety[27], conduct disorder[26], depression[28], dissociative identity disorder[29], eating disorders[26,30], low self-esteem[26], oppositional defiant disorder[26], post-traumatic stress disorder[31], sleep disturbances[31,32], and somatization[33]. People who were sexually abused as children are more likely to withdraw from social activities[34], abuse alcohol and drugs[35], treat animals cruelly[36], engage in self-harm[37] and risky sexual behaviors[38], and commit suicide[25]. Victims also demonstrate lower performance on standardized academic tests, with strong correlation between duration of abuse and magnitude of lower scores.[39] 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.[40]

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  4. Lattin, Don (1998, July 17). “$30 Million Awarded Men Molested by `Family Priest’ / 3 bishops accused of Stockton coverup”. San Francisco Chronicle.
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  42. Ibid., p. 88–9.
  43. Ibid., p. 77.
  44. Rothbard (June 1978). “The Plumb Line: The Capital Punishment Question”. Libertarian Review, Vol. 7, No. 5, p. 14.
  45. Winger, Pat (2010, Apr. 7). “Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males”. Newsweek.