The National Catholic Review

Nobody likes reading about clerical sexual abuse. Yet for well over a decade now, in diocese after diocese, the actions of abusive priests and negligent diocesan officials have been brought to light—and appropriately so. Unfortunately, these revelations have come not from church leaders but from grand jury filings, government reports and press exposés. Almost without exception, the official response has lagged well behind reportage. Chanceries have reacted as though stunned by accusations that they have in some cases known about for decades, appearing combative and defensive while struggling to answer lurid allegations.

Recent weeks have proved no different, as the Irish church has been rocked yet again by a government report on clerical abuse. An investigation of the Diocese of Cloyne found that between 1996 and 2009—after national standards were set for dealing with abuse allegations—such reports were ignored, handled improperly or never reported to civil authorities. Fallout in Ireland, traditionally one of the world’s most Catholic countries, has been severe. In a rare public rebuke, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, chided his fellow bishops for withholding reports on sexual abuse of minors, telling them, “Hiding isn’t helping.” Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a Catholic, accused the Vatican of covering up the “rape and torture of children.” The Vatican recalled its ambassador, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to Rome for consultation and to assist in formulating the Vatican’s official response before moving to his next post in the Czech Republic.

The sexual abuse crisis has devastated many, beginning with individual victims and their families. The morale of laity and clergy alike has been severely undermined, as has the moral authority of many bishops. Impressions of coverups and malfeasance have tainted the highest levels of church governance, triggering frequent and justified calls for mass resignations of bishops and, more recently, indictments of chancery officials. Lagging behind the story has made matters worse, fueling the impression that the church is hiding something, shielding abusers to protect “the institution” instead of vulnerable children.

As Ireland smolders in the report’s wake, a hopeful yet far less noted development has emerged in Germany—a nation also weighed down by abuse allegations. Germany’s Catholic bishops have begun taking steps to rebuild the trust that has been lost in recent years. In July they voted unanimously to grant independent investigators access to their files on sexual abuse by clergy—some cases as far back as 1945. No doubt their findings will raise serious questions about how allegations were handled and will reveal systemic failures in protecting children. Though prior damage cannot be undone, the country’s bishops are acknowledging that they need outside help to combat this problem. In so doing, they are also being proactive, not reactive.

Bishops around the world should follow their example. If the church’s own claims about abuse are true—that it is damnable yet distressingly widespread, infecting families and schools as often as churches—then there are certainly allegations against priests and religious that have yet to come to light. To date, the crisis has hit hardest in North America and Western Europe. Far fewer allegations have surfaced in other regions, including Central and South America, India, Africa and Asia. But all of these have enormous Catholic populations, and it would be foolish to presume that these locales have been free of abuse and mishandled allegations. Indeed, this is one instance in which the catholicity of the church will likely prove a liability, not an asset.

Recent years have shown that as a topic in the news, sexual abuse by clerics is resilient. Once in the headlines, it remains there indefinitely. Unless the church begins to respond differently, as the German bishops are trying to do, sexual abuse will continue to be the main story about the Catholic Church for years, even decades, as accusations surface around the world.

Countless bishops, including Pope Benedict XVI, have spoken of the crisis as an opening for repentance, conversion and purification in the church. We continue to hope that it will be so and pray that the many victims of abuse will be healed in the same measure that they have been harmed. For this hope to be well founded, however, church leaders must stop playing defense around the issue of abuse. Rebuilding relationships of trust between the hierarchy and the faithful will take more than promises from church leaders that they are trustworthy. They must prove it. This will require resignations in cases of mendacity and negligence. In more cases, it will demand that bishops be the bearers of their own bad news about abuse. This will be an act of humility, even a painful one. But there is no alternative.

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Amy Cavender | 8/8/2011 - 12:18pm
Full names, please, per our comments policy.
Clare McGrath-Merkle | 8/8/2011 - 12:11pm
The editors are too quick to laud the German bishops. American bishops also supposedly gave free access to independent investigators - the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The outcome was tainted because the investigators found only what the bishops had allowed to be left in the files. The German bishops also took on American norms that activists here know full well involve smoke screen tactics, leaving a lot of room for further obfuscation. The Germans are learning from American clerical legal experts who have had 20 years to figure out how best to delay, waffle, parse, and sidestep.

We don't need editorials but real investigative journalism - it will take decades to connect all the dots.

For example, I have counted 3 members of diocesan panels charged with child protection oversight and one chief of child protection this year alone (internationally) who have all been exposed, unbelievably, as being child molesters or users of child porn themselves -most already known to be such and put in place by bishops. In one case, Cardinal Levada, (now in charge of abuse guidelines at the Vatican) testified that he knew the man he put in charge of abuse policy and guidelines in his diocese was a molester when he gave him the position.

We not only have bishops and cardinals covering up by ignoring complaints, they are having abusers in control of monitoring and responding to the rape of children. The questions lurking behind these facts are no less than horrific.
Nicholas Clifford | 8/8/2011 - 11:31am
Besides coming clean, after all these years of hiding immoral and criminal behavior, church leaders are going to have to come to terms with the question of what it is about the institutions of church governance that have contributed to the abuse scandal. How far - to take one example - is canon law implicated in a system that sees accountability as due only to superiors, and that plays up the alleged superiority of the ordained to "simple layfolk," to use Rome's infelicitious phrase? What happens when the obedience demanded by one's superiors stands in the way of obedience to Christian ethics (such as charity)? What happens when "the gift of hierarchy" (Pope Benedict's term) turns out to be less of a gift and more of an impediment to faith (as well as hope and charity)?

Thus Archbishop Chaput has recently been moved to Philadelphia (o felix Philadelphia!) apparently in part to clean up the mess left by his predecessors. But what went wrong that made it possible for Bevilacqua and Rigali to leave such an Augean stable behind? Will anyone in a position of ecclesiastical authority be willing to face such questions? The track record, thus far, is not inspiring.

Professor John Beal (of the Catholic University) provides a useful primer to some of the problems with canon law in Chap. V of Lacey and Oakley. eds., The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2011); no doubt there are more exhaustive treatments elsewhere.
JOHN MASTALSKI | 8/8/2011 - 11:27am
The honorable conclusions of this Editorial seem 15-20 years too late. I wish the Editors at America would be bolder and not just comment on what is evidently clear-or on that which has been clear for some time. A better analysis and comment would might include why many of the bishops and priests do not trust each other, why their ranks are so divided, and why the laity are left to be the best representatives of Christ's Church and His loving mercy.


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