Clerical sex abuse: Rome takes charge

There was a time -- and it lasted many years -- when the crisis caused by clerical sex abuse happened outside the Vatican's walls. Even when it was no longer seen as just an Anglo-Saxon problem, it remained a bishops' problem, "a question for the local Church" as it was known in Rome. There was plenty of eye-rolling and shaking of heads and not a few rude words said about the media. But a noli me tangere cloud hung over the Eternal City. Under Pope John Paul II, a group of powerful cardinals -- among them Sodano and Castrillon-Hoyos -- ensured that it stayed that way. Denial ran deep. Hence the disasters named Groer and Maciel. 

A lot has changed since 2005 -- not least the detonation of the crisis in central Europe, the Maciel revelations, and the Irish reports. The denial ceased some time ago. But it may only be this year that historians will later regard as the moment when the Vatican finally took lead on the issue, exercising firm leadership over the global Church. Ireland is the lynchpin. Following the devastating Murphy Report last year, the entire Irish episcopate was summoned to meet Pope Benedict in February. In Lent, Pope Benedict's long letter to the Irish people promised a Vatican-led investigation or "Visitation". Now, the senior churchmen who will lead that investigation, known as apostolic visitors, are in Rome planning the Visitation. They will report directly to the Pope.


The four Irish archdioceses are being placed under the Vatican spotlight. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retired Archbishop of Westminster, will inspect Cardinal Brady's archdiocese of Armagh; Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston will inspect Dublin; Toronto's Archbishop Christopher Thomas Collins will investigate Cashel; Ottawa's Archbishop Terence Prendergast will look at the west of Ireland archdiocese of Tuam. An investigation of the state of Irish seminaries will be conducted by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. The first two, above all, have valuable experience in dealing with the legacy of abuse, and restoring trust in the Church.

And if anyone knows the price to be paid for failure, it is Cardinal O'Malley. I am in Boston at present, and spent Monday being given a tour of Boston College, which has acquired huge swathes of former archdiocesan property, sold to pay the abuse lawsuits. Entering Cardinal Law's former palazzo, I felt like a peasant in Versailles shortly after the French Revolution.

Those five British and North-American church leaders are meeting today with the four bishops of those dioceses under investigation -- Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Dermot Clifford and Archbishop Michael Neary -- at the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.

You can hear the sound of the new policy in the words of the Vatican's spokesman, Fr Lombardi, who yesterday told a Catholic communications conference in Rome that “there was a great loss of trust in the church – partly justified and partly caused by a negative and incomplete portrayal of the problem – but this damage, as the pope has said, can be overcome . . . if we move in the direction of a profound purification and renewal". The sex abuse crisis, he went on, was "a test, a fundamental testing ground, for the credibility of the Church" and its capacity for reform. He then carried on to say that the Church must learn to be as open and transparent in answering questions about its finances, since the Vatican is still popularly believed to be rolling in cash. "A church that is credible before the world is a church that is poor and honest in the way it uses its resources, able to give an account of how it uses them" he said.

To recap: Fr Lombardi appears to be saying that the clerical sex abuse crisis has exposed structural failings in the Church, and that its capacity for repairing those failings is linked to the Vatican's ability to be open and transparent -- in other words, its capacity honestly to face those failings.

Paddy Agnew of the Irish Times sums this up in a headline over his story: "Scandal has made Church 'more open'".

You can see the new policy, too, in the dedicated page of the Vatican's website entitled 'Abuse of Minors. The Church's Response' with links to key documents and speeches. 

Of the "pontifical documents"  -- that's speeches, homilies, letters and so on by the popes -- on the page, more than a dozen are by Pope Benedict. Just two are by Pope John Paul II. As an illustration of how things have changed, that says it all. 



Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kate Smith
8 years 5 months ago
I think someone forgot to tell the Jesuits' man in Rome, Adolfo Nicolas, that he is supposed to take charge now.    Fr. Nicolas ignores clergy sexual abuse, even lets Jesuit abusers return to ministry and lie about it.
Molly Roach
8 years 5 months ago
We'll see about "more open" when the men involved move past words into credible action.   Credible action is the key.  More words is the same old same old.
Rosemary McHugh
8 years 5 months ago
As a family physician who has met many victims who have been sexually abused by priests, I feel that the title of this article by Mr Ivereigh "Clerical Sexual Abuse: Rome Takes Charge" is very misleading.

From everything that I have read, Rome has always been in charge of the priest sex abuse crisis throughout the world and abusers have been protected by Rome.

That is why our Church is in the mess that it is in!!!  

The culture of the celibates in the Roman Catholic Church, in my experience, has always been to protect the reputation of the Church, and to treat it as more important than protecting the innocence of children.  

Even today, Pope Benedict refuses to admit to his personal part in spreading the scandal of clergy sex abuse throughout the world.  

Also, the Pope reversed the resignations of 2 Irish bishops who were complicit in the Irish scandals of clergy abuse of innocent children.  How responsible was that decision, if the Pope really wants to clean-up sex abuse in Ireland?

I have had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Martin of Dublin and I know that he wants to clean-up clergy sex abuse in Ireland.  From what I know, the people in Ireland trust Archbishop Martin!  Many in Ireland do not trust the Pope!

Sincerely,  Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., Illinois, USA 
8 years 5 months ago
There are clearly two sides to the continued handling of clergy sex abuse in Catholicism:
one, like the author here,  emphasizes advances under BXVI;
the other, looking at little to nothing being done to bishops or even curialists (or even BXVI himself) who overlooked such abuse and perhaps even abetted it, see little change and hence damage at the upper levels of Church beauracracy.
For many, including myself, Bernatd Law, sitting in power in Rome after "resignation", symbolizes  the nub of the problem.
Joseph O'Leary
8 years 5 months ago
The Irish Archbishops look dazed after their encounter with the Vatican. It seems that the Vatican's idea of how to handle the crisis is to urge more traditional devotion and a return to Frequent Confession.
Carolyn Disco
8 years 5 months ago
Words, words, words! The actions of men are the best interpretors of their thoughts. (John Locke)

Are even the most egregious complicit bishops still in office around the world, enjoying the prestige and honorifics of office? See photos #26-32 and 44 with Law being feted, as he often is, around Rome at seminaries, as a model of priesthoood, perhaps?

Has the Vatican refused to share documents with the Murphy investigation in Ireland?

Has the Vatican stopped obstructing Irish bishops' guidelines that call for mandatory reporting to authorities?

Do bishops hide evidence of criminality from law enforcement, ignoring court orders to produce documents and fighting page by page to keep the secrets?

Has zero tolerance been set as a standard for the entire church?

Has an international database been set up of the names of all credibly accused priests removed from ministry to serve as a resource to prevent their being reassigned?

No more passive voice apologies and euphemisms, please. Has there been any honest admission of personal culpability by bishops for criminally endangering children, and obstructing justice?

Lombardi says,''the Church must learn to be as open and transparent in answering questions about its finances.''

Oh my, that's a real howler. Wait until Jason Berry's new book, ''Render unto Rome'' comes out, detailing the financial sleight of hand in chanceries. Ah, money.

The contrast between word and deed elicits a degree of cynicism that overwhelms more dispassionate writing.


The latest from america

Israel’s upcoming election, which takes place on April 9, is casting uncertainty over House of Grace’s future.
Eloise BlondiauMarch 26, 2019
The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.
Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of "Women Church World" a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, poses in her house in Rome. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
"We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization," founder Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in the open letter to Pope Francis.