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

“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)

A couple of weeks 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 TSW 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 every 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.

Goebbels Propaganda Against Catholic Priests

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 bisPope-Pius_XIhops 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.

It was all 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.

DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERSince 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. British atheist Richard Dawkins has declared the Catholic Church to be “a child-raping institution” and wrote in The Washington Post a few weeks ago of Pope Benedict’s planned visit to England in September:

“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. 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 conclude the Year of the Priest.

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

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    It seems people would rather embrace the liars and live the lie!
    Why is it so hard for people to see the truth staring them right in the face?
    Maybe I should ask why are people so charmed by a liar and so abhorred to someone telling it like it is?
    We sure see it in the media, hour after hour day after day! We see it in our government, our leaders. But to see it in our own church is the saddest of all.
    Our Pope Francis needs to be told what his own Bishops have done to his priests, how they have allowed them to be falsely accused and disgraced and lost to their ministries. We need to speak up loudly and without ceasing until someone finally listens.
    God bless you Father for we will be your champions.

  2. Ann Couper-Johnston says:

    I emailed you earlier and I am still reading your blog!

    I have read short biographies of both Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and as I did I formed a hunch that it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two. Thus I am most interested in your having mentioned the two.

    I need more information to discover how much they have in common, though I hesitate to embark on reading the standard biography of Bonhoeffer – the comments on the German Amazon site suggest it’s meticulously detailed, and if a German reader can say that heaven help the rest of us!

    Too bad we can’t embark on a discussion, but probably just as well as I should apply myself to this year’s studies before following the byways of theology … though I did buy “The Cost of Discipleship” as a start. I haven’t yet got next year’s assignment titles so I’m reading Michael Burleigh’s history of the Third Reich, which I understand details the way in which that regime undermined the foundations of society, thus making possible, and indeed desirable, the dreadful acts perpetrated in those years.

    Now I must get some sleep, and turn my mind to something else as thinking of the Third Reich is definitely NOT a help to quiet rest!

  3. Helen says:

    Excellent writing Father. May our LIVING God perserve You in Your Calvary. I am so sorry for the pain of Your imprisonment and false accusation. I hope that You see (and rejoice in ) the fact that You are GLORIFYING OUR GOD.

    Oh .. it often happens in pain, doesn’t it?

    I have been praying for priests, this year, more fervantly, but am asking our God for the grace to multiply this fervor, in me, for You and Your brother priests suffering in the fires of innocence!

    God bless You and grant You Your heart’s desires.

    In HIS Love,

  4. Dorothy Stein says:

    This is not the first time you have written with sensitivity and respect for the Shoah and the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust. There are some who take umbrage in any examination of the events at Auschwitz that involve non-Jews. I am not one of them. You write with great clarity and power and are a credit to your Church and profession. This was a powerful post and much appreciated. You are in our prayers.

  5. Mike Gallagher says:

    The secular press does not seem to believe that any individual who has been charged with sexual molestation can be innocent. That is especially true of the Catholic clergy.

    The thinking is: Why would someone come forward and accuse another citizen of sexual assault if it weren’t true? Well, the truth is, there are many reasons including mental instability of the accuser, hatred, and, of course, the usual one, monetary gain.

    After my exoneration of a sexual false accusation I traveled to Pittsburgh to support a public school teacher who was falsely accused by three students (he had given them extra homework, it seems). During the trial a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewed me as to the reason I would support such a person.

    Anyhow, when Ms. Zemel’s article was published the next day (July 13, 1999) she had written that I” said” I was falsely accused. When I confronted her about that word and told her I was formally exonerated by the Montgomery County D.A. and deemed falsely accused, she became agitated and walked away from me.

    Later I wrote to the editor of the PP-G and he said that the newspaper stands by its story. They never told the truth about what really happened to me and even interviewed my false accuser who said this really happened, even though our District Attorney showed her to be a liar.

    I have no regard now or ever for the ‘secular press’.

  6. Msgr. Michael says:

    What an interesting post. I personally have met Mr. Massimo Introvigne. The guy is a real genius and is the only individual that I have ever met that has an encyclopedic knowledge in his brain without dragging his computer around. You can be sure his data is accurate.

    Your article is truly an eye opener. You also write well and you are a gift for the Church.

    Pray for me. You are in my daily prayers, always.

  7. Mary says:

    Dear Father G,

    Thank you for this post. I have often thought we are living in times reminiscent of the 20’s and 30’s complete with shaky economies and sadly our own hidden holocaust re abortion.

    It is the young that I feel for most.Those of us who have studied history and are a bit long in the tooth know that all is not what it seems but the young are at risk. We need to get this information out to them so they do not lose heart and hope.

  8. Patricia says:

    Yes to Karin, frightening is what we feel. Intercessors of the Lamb prays for priests that is our main charism.

    I think my husband and I are in the state of shock over all these events. At our age (74) we sit in disbelief.

    Pope Benedict is speaking out about the priest scandals, but what about all the unjustly accused priests abandoned by our Bishops. That is frightening too…God bless you Fr. Gordon and all “Priests in Crisis”

  9. Karin says:

    It is absolutely frightening to see the parallels between Hitler’s era and our own. It seems we are ignoring history so we are bound to repeat it.

    And yes it is one thing when secular media goes and makes statements like that of Dawkins- that’s bad enough, but when it comes from the “Catholic” press that is quite another.

    The Church certainly has its enemies within the gates, which are far more dangerous than those from without. I also agree with the young man who made the comment about doing all in his power to help your case.

    Those of us who strive to be good practicing Catholics need to speak up about your case and those like it and do what we can so that history will not repeat itself any more than it already has.

    Thank you, Father for another enlightening post. Prayers as always.

  10. Connie says:

    Excellent post Fr. Gordon.

    Though it leaves me with that heavy pit-like feeling in my stomach. There is such a push by the Main Stream Media to jump on every negative story regarding anything Catholic. No questions asked. No real journalistic investigations done. Just finger pointing and gossip. Proof in their twisted Godless logic that any one with a collar must either be gay or a pedophile. I have to watch my anger!

    My prayers for Priests have increased in fervor. For you, for my Pastor and for all men that have the guts to wear that collar and live their vocation every day!
    Bless you Fr. Gordon. Praying daily for your freedom.

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