World

Pope Francis and the war on sex abuse

By Rebecca Davis 8 April 2013

Because Pope Francis is new in the role, this is the time at which his every gesture and statement comes under scrutiny for what it might tell us about the direction in which the Catholic Church may travel under his leadership. On Friday, the Pope announced that he wanted decisive action on the issue of sexual abuse. Just lip service, or a hopeful indicator that he is really committed to stamping out the problem? By REBECCA DAVIS.

The Catholic Church has had a pretty long time to consider what to do about its sexual abuse problem. As far back as 1967, a discussion about the sexual abuse of minors by priests took place at the University of Notre Dame in the US. Since that time, the Catholic Church has haemorrhaged finances and followers over decades of institutional mismanagement of the issue. The website BishopAccountability estimates that by 2012, the Church had paid out over $3 billion to abuse victims in settlement claims. In 2012, a police report from Victoria, Australia, listed 40 suicide deaths directly linked to abuse by Catholic priests.

When it comes to perception management, this is arguably the Catholic Church’s biggest problem. Interestingly, though unsurprisingly, there’s some evidence to suggest that many people believe sexual abuse by Catholic priests happens more often than it actually does. This is largely as a result of the media attention paid to cases of abuse by priests in the last decade: it is said that Vatican insiders believe that some of the reporting has been fuelled by “anti-Catholicism”, particularly in America.

In 2004, the John Jay report, commissioned by American bishops, investigated the amount of sexual abuse cases by priests which had taken place in the US. The report found that 4,392 American priests and deacons had been accused of sexual abuse – roughly 4% of the total clergy. Naturally, these figures don’t represent firm science: the Catholic Church can be an intimidating body, and there’s reason to believe that many victims will have been silenced. Nonetheless, a Newsweek article from 2010 made the point that those figures suggest the rate of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church may be no higher than for the general population, and no higher than for other religious denominations.

But perceptions are everything. In 2002, Newsweek notes, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll established that 64% of respondents were under the impression that Catholic priests “frequently” abused children. That, right there, is the Church’s problem: that for many people, the phrase “Catholic priest” is mainly heard in the context of tasteless jokes about sex with children.

The new Pope was always going to have his work cut out in this regard. His predecessors had been found wanting, accused of various degrees of complicity in covering up inconvenient sex scandals. Before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was inaugurated as the 266th Pope, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said that one of the “gravest” matters that the new Pope would need to concern himself with was the protection of children. “The Pope’s own house needs to be put in order,” Murphy-O’Connor said.

And Pope Francis appears to have received the memo.

On Friday, it was announced that the pontiff has already made it clear that cracking down on sexual abuse is on his to-do list. The Vatican released a statement saying that during a meeting with the Vatican’s doctrinal head, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, the Pope had asked the Congregation to “act decisively in cases of sexual abuse, promoting above all measures to help minors, help for those who in the past suffered such violence and the necessary procedures against those who are guilty”.

It’s a promising sign, but it is also still merely words. Lobby groups have thus far declared themselves to be less than bowled over by the statement. Barbara Dorris, from the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, told the Telegraph: “Once again, as has happened hundreds of times already, a top Catholic official says he’s asking another top Catholic official to take action about paedophile priests and complicit bishops. Big deal.”

If you study Pope Francis’s background for indications on how much of a priority he is likely to make the issue, there are slightly conflicting findings. He has for some years spoken out strongly about sex trafficking and child prostitution in Latin America, saying in 2007: “Children are mistreated, and are not educated or fed. Many are made into prostitutes and exploited.” It is also reported that he instructed bishops to immediately report abuse allegations to the police.

As the Washington Post pointed out last month, however, there are other details which paint a slightly different picture. The newspaper mentioned Francis’s involvement with two Catholic priests in Latin America accused of child abuse. Francis allegedly commissioned a lengthy report to argue the innocence of Julio Cesar Grassi, an Argentinian priest convicted of sexual abuse of a minor. While Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, another priest in the Archdiocese – Mario Napoleon Sasso – was assigned by church leaders to work in a soup kitchen for children, despite having previously been accused of sexual abuse. Sasso continued to sexually abuse children at the shelter.

Critics are also unimpressed by the fact that one of Francis’s early acts as Pope was to greet disgraced cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in 2002 as one of the first high-ranking church officials to be brought down by a sex abuse scandal – in his case, accused of covering up the abuse of priests in Boston. His former archdiocese has thus far paid out more than $100 million in settlement claims to abuse survivors. Law said at the time that when a priest was accused of sexually abusing a child, he would consult with psychiatrists and clinicians before deciding whether the priest should return to the pulpit.

It’s an approach which has some echoes with the unfortunate statement made by the head of the Catholic Church in South Africa, Wilfrid Napier, in an interview with BBC radio on 15 March. During the interview, Napier said that paedophilia “is not a criminal condition, it is an illness”, and added that he knew two priests who had been abused as children and had gone on to become abusers themselves. “I don’t think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished when he was himself damaged.”

The statements caused an understandable outcry. For one thing, they are inaccurate: the John Jay Report found that fewer than 7% of abusing priests had been abused themselves. But Napier wrote a contrite statement of apology, saying that his comments had been taken out of context. “My intention was never to put the abuser first, nor in any way raise their status,” Napier wrote. “To do so would seek to undermine and perhaps even negate the devastation and heartache with which victims live.”

People were cross about Francis’s seemingly friendly greeting of the disgraced Bostonian Archbishop because it was felt to send out the wrong message. David Clohessy, a Rome representative of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said: “He must have known the hurt that he would cause to already wounded victims and still disillusioned Catholics by this insensitive act.” Supporters said that Francis was simply being polite.

So far, Francis has been credited with doing a lot right. His focus on the plight of the poor has been applauded, as has his own sincere acts of humility: the fact that he has foregone the lavish papal residence in favour of the much more modest Vatican guesthouse, for instance. He is unlikely to please those who wish the Vatican would move a little faster with the times, however. Thus far, there is little indication of the likelihood of any dramatically liberalising shifts in Catholic policy under Francis: we know he has opposed abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, the distribution of condoms and the introduction of women to the clergy.

The results of a Pew Forum poll released recently showed that 84% of US Catholics view Francis favourably so far – higher than his predecessor Pope Benedict experienced at any point during his papacy. He may win himself a lot more fans – from the ranks of those who have become gradually disenchanted with the Vatican – if he is able to provide decisive and effective leadership on the matter of sexual abuse. DM

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Photo: The hand of Pope Francis is seen as he conducts blessings during a weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

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