New book examines clergy sexual abuse — in the wide lens of history

National Catholic Reporter

October 10, 2020

Book Review by Thomas P. Doyle

About Corrupter of Boys: Sodomy, Scandal, and the Medieval Clergy
by Dyan Elliott

The “Catholic sex abuse crisis” is not a crisis. A crisis is a temporary period or series of events of an unstable and dangerous nature. It passes and the original situation is either better or worse than before.

Violations of the Christian obligation of chastity by clerics have been part of the life and culture of the Christian community since the first century. Throughout the two millennia of church history, the leadership elite — popes, bishops, abbots et al. — have tried in a variety of ways to keep the various violations covered by secrecy. History has shown that their success rate has been inconsistent.

Prior to the 1970s, public knowledge of the Catholic clergy’s problems with celibacy had been largely limited to occasional stories of priests who have left the priesthood to marry or who were caught in an illicit relationship with a woman. Wrapping a good Catholic mind around the real possibility of the sexual violation of a child or a young adolescent by a priest was close to impossible in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s or even in the post-Second Vatican Council ’70s.

It turns out we exposed only a tiny tip of a massive iceberg. The bulk of that iceberg, which is hardly a solid mass but a mind-bending quagmire of little- and not-so-little-known documents from the primitive church to the late medieval period (third through 16th centuries), contains a landscape of the church that holds answers to most of the vexing questions that put our experience of sexual abuse into an entirely new light. The search for answers and explanations has been taken to a radically new and previously unstudied level by the intensive and extensive research of Dyan Elliott, a medieval scholar from Northwestern University.

The results of her research are nothing short of remarkable, stunning and most importantly, authentic. The results are in her new book The Corrupter of Boys, being released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I have been privileged to read an advance manuscript of it. I will readily admit to having been obsessed with discovering and exposing every historic layer of the key elements of the systemic causes of the sexual abuse phenomenon. This requires plumbing the church’s legitimate and unrevised history to its depths. Elliott has done this, and her work changes the conversation in dramatic and invaluable way.

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