Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich: Rise and Fall of a Moral Panic

science | Jan 10, 2011 | By Gordon MacRae

Joseph Goebbel's dead children

“The great mass of people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Ch. 10 (1925)

Eight months ago, I posted a tribute to Saint Maximilian Kolbe on the April 28th anniversary of his ordination. I made a controversial point in that post: Almost without exception, the typical claims of abuse by Catholic priests so roiling the news media were alleged to have happened thirty to forty years ago.

“Go back just another thirty to forty years,” I wrote, “and you will find yourself right in the middle of the Nazi horror that engulfed Europe and claimed the lives of six million Jews and millions of others.” I suggested that Catholics should not accept what some would now impose: that the Catholic Church is to be the moral scapegoat of the Twentieth Century.

A reader responded to that insight by sending me a rather startling document. As I began to read it, I almost tossed it aside dismissing it as just another sensational headline. You might be tempted to do the same. Resist that temptation, please, and keep reading:

“There are cases of sexual abuse that come to light day against a large number of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately it’s not a matter of individual cases, but a collective moral crisis that perhaps the cultural history of humanity has never before known with such a frightening and disconcerting dimension. Numerous priests and religious have confessed. There’s no doubt that the thousands of cases which have come to the attention of the justice system represent only a small fraction of the true total, given that many molesters have been covered and hidden by the hierarchy.”

This isn’t an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, nor is it the opening gun in a new lawsuit by Jeffrey Anderson. It also isn’t a quote from S.N.A.P. or V.O.T. F. It is part of a speech delivered on May 28, 1937 by Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich.

As a direct result of Goebbels’ speech, 325 Catholic priests representing every diocese in Germany were arrested and sent to prison. The story was uncovered by Italian sociologist and author, Massimo Introvigne and republished by According to Mr. Introvigne, the term “moral panic” is a modern term used since the 1970s “to identify a social alarm created artificially by amplifying real facts and exaggerating their numbers” and by “presenting as ‘new’ events which in reality are already known and which date to the past.”

It all has a terribly familiar ring. Though “moral panic” wasn’t a term used in 1937, it describes exactly what Joseph Goebbels was called upon by the Third Reich to create. And the propaganda campaign, like the current one, had nothing to do with protecting children. It was launched by the Third Reich because of a 1937 Papal Encyclical by Pope Pius XI entitled “Mit brennender Sorge” – “With burning concern” – in which the Pope condemned Nazi ideology. According to Matthew Cullinan Hoffman of, the encyclical was smuggled out of Rome into Germany and read from every pulpit in every Catholic parish in the Reich.

The propaganda campaign launched by Goebbels was later exposed as a clear exaggeration and exploitation of a few cases of sexual abuse that were all too real, but for which the Church had taken decisive action. In the end, the vast majority of the priests arrested and imprisoned, their reputations destroyed and the Church’s moral authority in Germany impugned – were quietly set free. When the campaign finally evaporated, only six percent of the 325 priests accused were ultimately condemned, and it is a certainty that among even those were some who were falsely accused.

By the end of the war, according to Introvigne, “the perfidy of the campaign of Goebbels aroused more indignation than the eventual guilt” of a relatively small number of priests – a number that was a mere percentage of those first accused.

The accused priests were not Goebbels’ real target, of course. The Nazi Ministry of Propaganda targeted the Church and its bishops and papacy declaring a cover-up of the claims and keeping the matter in the daily headlines.

According to Massimo Introvigne who uncovered this story, “Goebbels’ campaign followed the same pattern seen in recent media attacks on the Church.” Like today’s moral panic, the Goebbels campaign attempted to revive old claims that had long since been resolved to keep the matter in public view and to discredit the Catholic Church because of the Papal encyclical denouncing Nazi ideology and tactics and defending “the Church’s Jewish heritage against Hitler’s racist attacks,” according to Hoffman.


How the Massimo Introvigne article came to me makes for an interesting aside. It was sent to me by a victim of sexual abuse perpetrated twenty-two years ago by a priest in my diocese, a priest with whom I once served in ministry. The young man he violated has worked to overcome his anger and to embrace the grace of forgiveness. He sought and obtained a modest settlement for the abuse he suffered years ago, and he used it for counseling expenses. This man is a reader of These Stone Walls who recently wrote to me:

“I have been scouring the Internet and doing a great deal of reading … For what it is worth, I believe you are serving an unjust sentence for a crime you did not commit. If I do not do everything in my power to be of assistance to you, I would be committing a grave sin.”

That is certainly a far different reaction than the rhetoric of most other claimants against priests and their “advocates” among contingency lawyers and the victim groups that are receiving major donations from contingency lawyers. My more recent exchanges with this man lead me to conclude something I have long believed: that the people most repulsed and offended by false claims of abuse and the rhetoric of a witch hunt should be the real victims of sexual abuse.

It is no longer the Nazi state that stands to win big from the creation of a moral panic targeting the Catholic Church and priesthood. But the current propaganda campaign is little different in either its impetus or its result.

Dr. Thomas Plante, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University, published an article entitled “Six important points you don’t hear about regarding clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church” (Psychology Today, March 24, 2010). Dr. Plante’s conclusions from studying the empirical data are far different from what you may read in any propaganda campaign – either the 1937 one or the one underway now.

These are Dr. Plante’s conclusions:

“Catholic clergy are not more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general.” [As I pointed out in "Due Process for Accused Priests," priests convicted of sexual abuse account for no more than three (3) out of 6,000 incarcerated, paroled, and registered sex offenders.]

“Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic church cannot be blamed on celibacy.” The majority of men convicted of sexual abuse are married and/or divorced.
“Almost all of the clergy sexual abuse cases that we hear about in the news are from decades ago,” most from the 1960s to 1970s.

“Most clergy sex offenders are not pedophiles.” Eighty percent of accusers were post-pubescent teens, and not children, when abuse was alleged to have occurred.”
“There is much to be angry about,” Dr. Plante concluded, but anger about the above media-fueled misconceptions is misplaced Why this isn’t clearer in the secular press is no mystery. As one observer of the news media wrote, “More than illness or death, the American journalist fears standing alone against the whim of his owners or the prejudice of his audience.” Lewis Lapham, Money and Class in America, Ch. 9, (1988).


If you read “Fifty-Seven Times Around the Sun,” you know I was born on April 9, 1953. That was just eight years to the day after Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at age 39 on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. It was to be Hitler’s last gesture of contempt for truth before he took his own life as the Allies advanced on Germany in April, 1945.

Since childhood, I have been aware that I shared this date with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man I greatly admire. He was imprisoned and hanged because he made a decision of conscience to resist Hitler with every ounce of strength God gave him. I concluded my Holy Week post with an excerpt of his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.
The truth of what happened in Germany and Poland emerged into full public view just sixty-five years ago. The entire world recoiled in horror and revulsion. The revelations changed the world, radically altering humanity’s world view. It marked the dawn of the age of cynicism and distrust. How did a society come to stand behind the hateful rhetoric of one man and his political machine? How did masses of people become convinced that any ideology of the state was worth the horror unfolding before their eyes?

As the truth slowly emerged during the years of war and slaughter, The New York Times, in its 1942 Christmas Day editorial declared:
“No Christmas sermon reaches a larger congregation than the message Pope Pius XII addresses to a war-torn world at this season. This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

In 1942, The New York Times was joined in its acclaim of Pope Pius XII by the World Jewish Congress, Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir. The March 2010 issue of Catalyst reported that Pope Pius was officially recognized for directly saving the lives of 860,000 Jews while the chief rabbi in Rome, Eugenio Zolli, converted to Catholicism and took the name “Eugenio” in honor of the Pope’s (Eugenio Pacelli) challenge of the Nazi regime.

The New York Times has sure changed its tune since then, and has helped build a revisionist history of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church that takes a polar opposite point of view. Today, commending a pope, or even mentioning Christmas, would be anathema to the Times’ editorial agenda.

By the end of April, 1945, within days of ordering Dietrich Bonhoeffer hanged, Adolf Hitler took his own life. Joseph Goebbels, intensely loyal to Hitler, murdered his wife and children before also committing suicide. The terror and propaganda of the Third Reich were over.

The propaganda of the current moral panic is just getting fully underway, however. Last September, British atheist Richard Dawkins declared the Catholic Church to be “a child-raping institution” and wrote in The Washington Post ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to England:

“This former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares 
set foot outside the tin pot fiefdom of the Vatican and he should be tried in an appropriate civil court.”

Does this sound like reasonable discourse to you? And it isn’t just the secular press engaged in this sort of hate speech. I was utterly dismayed a few weeks ago to see a highly respected Catholic weekly newspaper box off and highlight a letter from a reader calling for the imprisonment of all priests accused from thirty and forty years ago.
Don’t be so quick to consign 80-year-old men to prison for things alleged to have happened decades ago – things that cannot be proven at all; claims that are brought by adults whose own names are protected from public view, and stand to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars for making such claims.

It’s tempting to toss the rights of all priests out the window in the heat of a global media witch trial, but it is not the way of our Church to abandon all reason in favor of the mob. The secular press is going to do what it always does: sell newspapers to the mob. But this hateful rhetoric should not be appearing in the Catholic press. Calling upon the Vatican to set aside the rights of priests under Church law is no way to follow the Year of the Priest.

Adopting the rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels simply doesn’t bring light to the issues. It brings only heat. It is caving in to our basest nature, and reflects not the Truth upon which our faith is built. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a courageous Lutheran, would be calling upon Catholics to live a much higher standard of discipleship.

Fr. Gordon J. MacRae edits His writings from prison have appeared in First Things, The Catholic Response, Catalyst, Op-ed News, Spero News, and many on-line Catholic venues. The above article was modified from one that originally appeared at



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