The child, as the psychoanalytic theorist Adam Phillips points out, “remains our most convincing essentialism.” By this he means that at a time when racial, gender, and even sexual identities are increasingly understood to be constructed, permeable, and ever shifting, the category of childhood—with its razor-sharp counterpoint of adulthood—remains steadfast and enduring. Legal definitions, of course, reinforce this clear demarcation, with eighteen being the moment one crosses the presumed divide from childhood into adulthood. That some adults remain perpetual children—regressed, childlike, or developmentally arrested—long after they cross the temporal barrier between childhood and adulthood is as indisputable as is our widely accepted awareness that continuums of development make childhood and adulthood highly variable, evolving, and overlapping identity positions for us all. A fifteen-year-old looks, acts (we hope), and understands very differently than a six-year-old, despite the fact that both are understood to be children.

I begin with this observation about our contemporary moment’s deep commitment to the child as an essential identity position. I note that this commitment exists despite the dramatic, really unprecedented, variability in those individuals who are categorized as children—and despite the way that aging is always already inflecting, transforming, and finally eroding the child such that someone can never be a child in the way that they can be male or female, black or white. I do so because the corpus of material related to sex abuse and the Catholic Church uniformly relies on this cultural commitment to the child. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law apologizes for his failure to see that the protection of children must be the church’s single focus and top priority, and his admission that he has only recently come to understand this fact—to see that the child’s need for protection trumps the church’s need to avoid scandal—points to the extent of the problem and of the church’s perceived gross negligence. Therefore despite the church’s historical emphasis on the child as a privileged vehicle of faith (in other words, having the faith of a child) and the significant place that childhood sexual innocence has in Catholic tradition (immaculate conception, for example), real children, as the documents compiled by tell us time and again, bear the violent brunt of the lived distance between Catholic theory and practice—between the mandate that priests remain celibate and the stark reality of sexual need.

It is therefore specifically the sexual abuse of children that is the thrust of current social critique and moral outrage directed against the Catholic Church—a moral outrage so intense as to even motivate recent efforts to bring charges against the Vatican for crimes against humanity. While I do not want to minimize the magnitude of these crimes, I would, for a moment, like to bracket single-focused attention on them in order to add a few salient observations that might help us make sense not so much of the events but of what can appear in some of these documents to be an outraged and increasingly shrill response to them. I do so in the spirit of one trained as a literary and cultural theorist not as a religious studies scholar, and it would be my hope that the questions someone with my training might ask would shed productive light on the issues, precisely because of my discipline’s critical distance from the core fracture lines and questions that have tended to shape popular debate.

First, it is useful to remind ourselves of something that we all know—that the child has long been the privileged occasion and overwrought site for scientific, social, and personal narratives of sexual development and deterioration. We need look no further than psychoanalytic theory itself to be reminded of the child’s longstanding and foundational importance to our contemporary understanding of sexuality and to the burgeoning fields of sexuality studies. From Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud, to recent queer theorists and cultural studies scholars like James Kincaid, Lee Edelman, and Chris Nealon, the child has long been the point of origin from which to think and rethink narratives of individual sexual identity and development. The child is the scaffolding on which we tend to build our stories of sexual identity, replete with its minor chords of transgression and regression, as well as progression. In The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, Kincaid explores the social implications of this tendency to infuse the child with sexual content and meaning. The practice he terms “child-loving” has, from the nineteenth century forward, carried a latent erotic dimension for adults in ways that both belie and inform the heavy, overwrought artifice of innocence that we have constructed supposedly to protect children from the contaminating forces of the adult world.

It is provocative, of course, to insist that our love for children is not always nonsexual in nature and motive, that there is a continuum rather than a binary opposition between sex abuse and platonic child love. On the one hand, psychoanalytic theory encourages us to turn to the child to find traces and to see the origins of a ubiquitous, inchoate sexuality of which we attempt to make sense throughout our lives; on the other hand, we insist that children are sexually innocent and hermetically sealed from these very enduring, at times chaotic, sexual forces. Even as we commit to the idea that the child is innocent, sexually passionless, and in need of protection, we increasingly weigh this child down with fraught sexual meanings and content.

The large-scale social, cultural, and political implications of this fact are fleshed out nowhere more provocatively than in the work of Ian Hacking. His foundational 1991 essay “The Making and Molding of Child Abuse” summarizes the current situation in which we find ourselves as follows:

Some evil actions are public. Others are private. Child abuse is the worst of private evils. We know we want to put a stop to it. We know we can’t, but we must protect as many children as we can, and help those who have been hurt. Anyone who feels differently is already something of a monster.

And yet, even as we believe that child abuse means something definite, the behaviors that fall under the rubric of child abuse have changed dramatically over the last hundred years, such that many of the things that we currently identify as abusive were standard practice in the recent past. In other words, we’ve unwittingly and gradually been changing the very definitions of abuse and revising our moral codes accordingly.

The reason I bring Hacking up in detail here is that he reminds us of an important aspect of our urgent and visceral impulse to protect children from abusive behavior, in this case, from the abuse of priests and the church they call home. We can see that this impulse, powerful as it is, is itself indicative of our particular historical moment, and socially constructed to effect particular social transformations at the current time. It isn’t that the abuse that the children suffered in the various Catholic dioceses is warranted or acceptable or that we should overlook or minimize it as church authorities have tended to do. But how we respond to and understand these events—the outrage we feel and the emotions we let loose—are inevitably part of larger social and political processes of which we need to be aware. And, whether or not we would agree with Hacking’s conclusion that the historically unprecedented number of behaviors that now ‘count’ as child abuse are part and parcel of a larger reallocation of social responsibility from the state onto the individual (in this case the abusive adult priest and an institution that stands in uneasy relation to the state), his assertion that child abuse is one avenue through which the state negotiates and reallocates social responsibility is useful for thinking about how the child that is the centerpiece of these cases of church abuse might be operating, in this case, in the larger push and pull between church and state.

As the documents compiled at make clear, children are the rope in the ongoing tug of war between church and state. The conflict would have an inherently different feel if the sexual abuse of power were between adults. Popular antebellum narratives in the form of the escaped nun’s memoir (I think here of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures or Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent) claimed to document women’s sexual abuse within convent walls. However subsequently disproven they were, these accounts were so effective as to result in riots—in angry mobs, for example, literally burning down the Ursuline convent that Reed wrote about. At the particular time in which Monk, Reed, and others told their sensationalized stories of sexual abuse at the hands of nefarious priests, the public felt great dis-ease with the pressures that the influx of new Catholic immigrants were exerting on civic resources. Outraged readers who stormed convents looking for proof of nuns’ sexual abuse at the hands of corrupt priests were animated by a desire to regulate and bring under public control what was going on within the privacy of the convent or confessional, in an effort to manage and control a perceived threat to the sanctity and very durability of the state.

If these accounts of women’s sexual abuse at the hands of priests were the subject of violent social outrage in the nineteenth century, children seem to be functioning narratively in a similar way in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition to their truth value and the accuracy of their content, these contemporary accounts of sexual abuse of power have a secondary and collateral effect of vilifying a church that stands in uneasy relation to the hegemony of the nation-state. By contextualizing the current narratives within a longer history of popular depictions of the Vatican’s complicity in priests’ abuses of power, we can begin to see how these contemporary allegations and abuses of power might inadvertently work to further a state agenda of bringing Catholic church practices and those individuals who implement church authority under state control, surveillance, and regulation.

This effort to exert state authority over church life—and church resistance to the encroaching state control—shapes the very language that both constituencies use to narrate recent history. When victims say that they don’t accuse abusive priests of sin, but rather of crime, they are drawing a crucial distinction between spheres of influence to insist that priests, like all citizens, are subject to state authority. Conversely, when Bishop Thomas Daily says he is not a policeman but a shepherd, he is insisting on the church’s distance from such authority. And when the 2002 grand jury report on the Rockville Centre describes the abusers as “predatory, serial, child molesters working as priests” rather than “priests troubled with the human frailty and sinfulness in need of succor and protection,” they are insisting that state definitions and the law that upholds them precede and preempt the logic of the church.

Children’s significance to this negotiation and struggle for control extends beyond their role as victim of abuse, and the child—as metaphor, imaginative construct, and developmental stage of life—is a powerful referent that molds how those on all sides of the conflict conceptualize, describe, and understand the current situation. Church leaders often narrate the course of events surrounding their response to abuse reports in ways that associate themselves with childlike qualities—as ingénues who didn’t have the knowledge, the experience, or the wisdom that they needed in order to contend with issues of such magnitude. If these leaders self-describe as being developmentally immature, inexperienced, and innocent at the time the abuse surfaced, offending priests are often described as being like the children they abuse. John Geoghan, for example, is described by the rector of St John’s Seminary in 1954 as having “a very pronounced immaturity,” with psychological testing showing an “immature and impulsive nature.” The Grand Jury Report of the Rockville Centre includes a facility report that observes that Priest C “was still attracted to adolescents and indeed strongly considered himself to be one.” Even congregants who welcome priests into their homes explain their misplaced trust by describing the priest as being like one of their children. Perpetrator as well as victim reach for the cultural category of the child in order to explain and mitigate their culpability and to lay claim to the position of innocent victim rather than pernicious perpetrator.

And so it is not simply that children were systematically abused under church authority, but that the idea of the child as a vulnerable subject in need of special protection and succor has seeped into every aspect of the narratives we are generating around these events. In other words, the child’s privileged status as a person in need of special protections and advocacy is being utilized by every constituency at the table—from the adult priests’ and bishops’ claims that they are child-like to adult victims’ ongoing self-identification as children—and is the unacknowledged driver in the tense struggle over authority that is ensuing between church and state. A scan of the powerful materials compiled by reveals how much of the current debate about sex abuse and the Catholic Church depends on a sharp opposition between child and adult. Not only do victims and their families emphasize victims’ minority (even when victims exceed the child’s legal age limit) but priests repeatedly liken themselves to children, as part of an effort to self-understand as victim rather than perpetrator. It is this dimension of the debate—so often unrecognized—that gives accusations and refutations of abuse such emotional force and power.

As you can see, the questions that literary and cultural studies might productively bring to the child abuse and study of religion analytic field are ones concerned with relations between individuals, institutions, and the state and the way that the complex meaning-making that the child occasions as an identity category is integral to that process. Further, focus on the child as a powerfully constituting dimension of this analytic field helps to tease out the delicate dance in which church and state are both involved about authority, privacy, financial resources, and ultimately the legislation of bodies as well as selves. Literary and cultural studies scholars have paid all too little attention to religion in textual analysis. We, and I include myself in this, have tended to conceptualize the child’s significance to cultural formations in secular terms—to see the child as a complex identity category interfacing with a state pried loose from spiritual concerns. The intellectual challenge that this archive offers is one that asks us to revisit this assumption and to see the child as embedded in the crosshairs of spiritual, sexual, and secular concerns. Doing so offers us the possibility of seeing the full implications of our current abiding commitment to the child as our last essential identity category. It also offers us the possibility of seeing the way that church as well as state turn to this last bastion of pre-postmodern humanism in efforts to shore up their constituencies. And, finally, it offers us the opportunity to perceive how the child for whom we urgently advocate operates in the struggle for authority, power, market share, and resources between the two.