This time last year, the clerical sex abuse crisis was raging across central Europe. It has subsided now, but aftershocks are still being felt.
In Germany and Austria, where church members pay a tax unless they formally declare they have left, it is possible to track with some accuracy the numbers of those disaffected by the crisis. Tens of thousands of Germans formally leave the church every year; according to AP, in 2010 that number increased (depending on the diocese) anywhere from 20 to 60 per cent, with the highest numbers of departures in the Pope’s homeland diocese of Passau and Wuerzburg. Figures released by the Austrian Bishop's Conference, meanwhile, showed 87,000 Austrian Catholics left in 2010, a 64 per cent increase over the 53,000 who formally had their names struck from church registries in 2009.
Of course, another way of looking at those statistics is to say that out of approximately 2.6 m practising Catholics (in Germany), the faithful have lived up to their name.
Belgium continues to be, in many ways, the sorriest of the European cases. Last year an investigation revealed 500 cases of abuse by priests and church workers since the 1950s,and a bishop resigned after admitting abusing his nephew (which he later tried to justify). Although the Belgian bishops have recently offered a compensation package, last week lawyers and victims announced a class-action suit naming the Vatican and Belgian bishops. A lawyer representing 80 plaintiffs said that the Pope Benedict "neglected to intervene himself and to give instructions, which meant that abuse was liable to continue and the damage was able to increase".
Meanwhile the apostolic visitation of the Irish Church ordered last year in the Pope’s Lent letter to the Catholics to Ireland has concluded its first phase, with the reports now lodged with the relevant Vatican dicasteries, according to a statement yesterday. Because “the Visitators have been able to arrive at a sufficiently complete picture of the situation of the Irish Church with respect to the areas under investigation”, there will be no further inspections of dicoeses and seminaries, but visitations to Irish religious houses will still take place. Despite the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, calling for an early Vatican response to the reports, “an overall synthesis indicating the results and the future prospects highlighted by the Visitation” will not be ready until early 2012.
Part of the reason for the delay is to allow time for the dust to settle from a devastating new report into the diocese of Cloyne, which is expected to be released by the Government soon.
Last month the Vatican called on the bishops’ conferences from around the world to draw up abuse guidelines. The Asian bishops, for example, a holding a meeting in November. Because of the lead taken on the issue by the English-speaking world, last week’s conference in Rome of safeguarding officials is an important resource.
The Anglophone Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults, which has been meeting since 1996, began as a meeting for bishops, but now includes child protection officers, religious superiors and church leaders from around the world from 20 countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
It is a shame that the Conference takes place behind closed doors. It meant that it passed almost entirely unnoticed by the world's media.
But the new chair of the Safeguarding Commission of this year's hosts, the bishops' conference of England and Wales, gave an interesting interview to Vatican Radio. Baroness Patricia Scotland (pictured), who was Attorney-General under the last Labor Government, said that cultures of denial were still very strong in many parts of the world; much of the discussion at the conference, she said, had turned on how “to create an environment in which people feel safe to come forward and disclose” and to communicate to victims that they are not responsible for the abuse inflicted on them.
Her experience in Government tackling domestic violence led her to conclude that “we can reduce abuse; we can never eradicate it, but we can make sure that we can better protect against it, and deal with it earlier.” But this can only happen “if all of us work together”. She points to the US, where recent data show 73 claims of abuse by clergy and church workers compared to 900 in 1985. “Compared to where we were, we have made it harder for people to do this … It looks as if the majority of the cases are historical, and fewer and fewer are happening now, which means what we put in place has reduced the opportunities.”
“When someone abuses a child, it limits that child’s capacity to be fully themselves, and to be fully what God intended them to be, which is a thing of beauty and wonder. It often prevents that child from giving to the world what that child would be able to give to the world had they not been abused. It’s a fundamental part of my belief that we as a church, as the Body of Christ, must strain every muscle to make sure we’re there to love, protect and nurture and to enable children to grow to be the people that God wants them to be.”
Abuse “may make those who should love God feel less able to do that. That’s a huge deprivation. You’re not just abusing the person physically, you’re abusing their soul and their spirit in a way that may be lastingly damaging.”
As long as there are people willing to harm others, she said, abuse can never be eradicated. “It’s still an issue. We’ve just got better at dealing with it. “