The sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic Church worldwide has been one of the most disillusioning things I have had to face as a Catholic Priest. It is a source of shame, anger and frustration for me and many other faithful Catholics. Abuse can and has happened in many contexts but is amplified when it occurs in the Church, an institution that many trust and seek help and protection from. Even more deplorable is the fact that accountability has not been what it should have. So how, then, do we move forward? By RUSSELL POLLITT.
Since the crisis erupted in the USA in 2001, the Church has put strict protocols in place to prevent such scandalous behaviour recurring. The South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has had a Protocol in place for a number of years which is publicly available on their website. The Bishops in South Africa insist that every parish Church display, for all to see, an independent person’s contact details (a “contact person”) so that accusations of sexual abuse against Church personnel can be reported independently and efficiently. The Protocol insists that allegations of abuse be reported to civil authorities.
While these steps have been welcomed, many people – especially victims of abuse, feel that the Church has not taken full responsibility for what has happened. Some Church leaders stand accused of covering up abuse cases and others, after allegations were made, did not deal with offenders in a decisive manner. Shameful stories emerged of how offenders were moved from place to place when they were accused and so the abuse was perpetuated.
This week Pope Francis took an unprecedented step. He not only apologised and expressed his own “deep pain and suffering” at what happened but admitted that for too long abuse has been “hidden, camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained…” He calls this scourge a “crime and grave sin” and says that these “despicable actions” are like a “sacrilegious cult”. He pledged a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of minors by clerics and lay people working in the Church. These are the strongest words that have ever been used by a Pope to address the devastation caused by sex abuse in the Church.
There was mixed reaction to the Pope’s hard words. Some abuse victims labelled this a “publicity stunt” and others feel that it still does not go far enough for justice to be done. It is hard to know if justice can ever really be done where sexual abuse is concerned. I understand the hesitancy with which victims of abuse have reacted; abuse is evil and has destroyed lives and families. The devastation caused by abuse is unparalleled. The abuse scandal in the Church will be recorded as a scandalous and dark time in the history of the Catholic Church, as shocking as the Crusades in the Middle Ages. Abuse can and has happened in many contexts but is amplified when it occurs in the Church, an institution that many trust and seek help and protection from. Even more deplorable is the fact that accountability has not been what it should have.
On the other hand I am encouraged by what Pope Francis said and did this week. This was his first direct meeting with victims of abuse. He has alluded to the scourge of abuse before but has never met victims. Some commentators have criticised him for taking so long to act – he has been in office for 16 months. He did, however, set up a Commission for the Protection of Minors in December. Francis has not simply ignored the abuse scandal as some suggest. He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, to head the Commission. Boston was at the epicentre of the crisis in the USA and O’Malley was made archbishop and led the Archdiocese of Boston through this very difficult time. He had to close many parishes and sell property to pay lawsuits. The Church in Boston was deeply scarred by the scandal. O’Malley is one of few bishops who faced the crisis head on. By appointing him, Pope Francis gives a clear message: he wants someone who experienced and knows the destruction caused by abuse to help clean up the Universal Catholic Church. O’Malley is also a bishop “on the ground” (like Pope Francis was himself in Argentina) and not an administrator in a Roman office. This gives him a very different perspective on things. He also appointed an Irish woman, Marie Collins, to the commission. Collins is a victim of abuse. When the commission was set up Vatican spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi SJ, said that the task of the commission would be to “look to the future without forgetting the past, taking a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection. These will include taking criminal action against offenders, educating people about the exploitation of children, developing best practices to better screen priests, and defining the civil and clerical duties within the Church.”
Another encouraging sign is the direct and strong language the Pope used. This is the first time a Pope has not just admitted abuse took place and apologised for it (Pope Benedict XVI did this on a number of occasions). Pope Francis admitted that there were cover-ups (a long standing complaint of many victims, some even labelling the cover-ups a “second” abuse). He said, unambiguously, that abuse would not be tolerated. Significantly, he mentioned that nobody, including bishops, would get away with it. Many priests have been convicted and sentenced but few bishops have been held accountable even when it seemed likely that they heard and knew of allegations against personnel in their territories. The Pope said decisively that bishops who fail to protect minors “will be held accountable”. There has not been a Papal promise like this to date and so, Pope Francis suggests, that he himself is willing to be held accountable. Recently he defrocked an ex-Vatican diplomat (and Archbishop) to the Dominican Republic for sexual abuse.
Many people feel that what the Pope has said and done this week has been too little, too late. On the other hand a number of victims have also said that this is a welcome step forward and will hopefully lead to effective institutional change in the Church when it is confronted with abuse cases. One of the victims from the UK, Peter Saunders, described meeting the Pope this week as “a life-changing event.” Another, Marie Kane from Ireland, said it was a “huge vindication.” Bob Hoatson, a former priest who runs a nonprofit called “Road to Recovery” to help sex abuse victims and their families, said: “Let’s capitalise on his [Pope Francis’] sincerity and commitment to hold bishops and the Church accountable.” This might be the greatest test of Francis’ Papacy and integrity. He will now have to push hard to ensure change actually takes place. The big question is: will he be able to do this and bring about systemic change in the Church when it comes to facing up to sexual abuse all over the world?
For a long time the Catholic Church will have to live with this scourge and its aftermath which has lead to inconceivable pain for victims and their families. It has damaged the image of the priesthood and undermined the excellent work that many priests and bishops are doing. It has also eroded the moral authority of the Church and led some, sadly, to be cynical about Christianity. Others have lost faith altogether. I hope that the events in Rome this week are a strong signal and encouragement to us all: strive for transparency and take responsibility – even when it’s painful. DM
Photo: A handout photograph provided by the Vatican newspaper L’ Osservatore Romano, showing Pope Francis (L) looking at tablet PC with Claudio Maria Celli (C) at Domus Santa Marta, Vatican, 07 July 2014. Claudio Maria Celli currently serves as President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Pope Francis also on 07 July 2014 met privately with a small group of victims of paedophile priests and apologized for the way the Catholic Church covered up child sex abuse perpetuated by clergy members. EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO