The Failing of the Catholic Church on the Sexual Abuse Crisis

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Numerous accounts of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have circulated in the news over the last year. This isn’t a new issue; sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has spanned more than 30 years and the devastation it causes for survivors is virtually endless. Here, I’ll discuss three failings of the Catholic Church: the scale in which children weren’t protected, the failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse accountable and the Church’s lack of transparency.

Recently, Cardinal George Pell was convicted for assaulting two 13-year-old boys. Pell was the third-most powerful church official and the highest ranking in Australia, but the sexual abuse crisis has spanned countries, decades, and affected tens of thousands of children. In the 1980s, the media covered sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, with attention continuing into the 1990s and increasing in the early 2000s. The Spotlight Investigation, from The Boston Globe, demonstrated the extent of the abuse and the cover-ups. In 2004, a report found there were more than 10,000 cases of sexual abuse against children and more than 4,000 priests had faced sexual abuse allegations over 50 years in the US. In 2009, a report found sexual abuse in Ireland in Catholic schools and orphanages occurred for most of the 20th century.

Despite this extensive coverage, almost two decades after the initial revelations, names of perpetrators and of cases of abuse are still being made public and for every new revelation, more survivors come forward. In 2017, an inquiry found tens of thousands of children were abused in Catholic institutions in Australia. In mid-August 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a grand jury report: the document named 300 priests who perpetrated abuse, with more than 1,000 victims. This is just one state. Across other US investigations prosecutors estimated a similar number of victims. In Germany, the number of victims is estimated as at least 3,677, with more than half having been younger than 13. In Ireland, tens of thousands. Chile has opened investigations into 100 priests; courts have ordered the Catholic Church to pay compensation to the victims, while stories of abuse are also emerging in Argentina. In 2013, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic was charged with abusing young boys – he died before a criminal trial. In 2018, Monsignor Carlo Capella was convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

The Vatican itself has also seen cases of sexual abuse. In February 2019, the Vatican sexual abuse summit saw five survivors who pre-recorded statements of their abuse, including harrowing details of what happened and how the Church responded. Survivors were called liars, were physically and sexually abused and one victim was forced to have three abortions. The survivors spoke about the long-lasting effects: the trauma, flashbacks and the effect on their families and communities.

Many people hoped a zero-tolerance attitude would start following increasing public pressure. Yet, despite Pope Francis’ repeated apologies, last year there was no mandatory safeguarding policy to protect young people. Additionally, the closing to Pope Francis’ speech at the summit was defensive, with half of his speech consisting of highlighting sexual abuse in communities and families. Whilst this is absolutely an issue, the summit was specifically dealing with the harm thousands of priests have caused.

Previously, a case of abuse in Argentina saw Jiulio Grassi convicted with a 15 year sentence for abusing children at his foundation. At the time, Pope Francis commissioned a study which concluded the priest was innocent, that the victims were lying and there should never have been a trial. Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta was brought to the Vatican by Francis. In 2017, Zanchetta resigned and was under investigation for sexual misconduct. Whilst the Vatican claims there were no allegations before 2017, local churches argue they raised alarm about Zanchetta’s behaviour in 2015. In January 2018, Pope Francis called the allegations against priests in Chile, slander. He may have apologised since, but Chilean criminal prosecutors have had to raid church archives to seize documents.

The scale of the abuse is made possible by the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up from clergy and church leaders. Reports of sexual abuse weren’t passed on to the police or law enforcement. Those accused would be moved into other positions, where they would still likely have contact and access to children. The Catholic Church deliberately hid the extent of sexual abuse, destroying documents and failing to compile records to assist the prosecution of perpetrators. The Vatican has files but refuses to share them with civil authorities. It declined to assist with inquiries in Ireland, it declined to name senior church leaders who covered-up the abuse. For researchers, such as for the report in Germany, they didn’t receive original files, and some files were destroyed or manipulated.

Catholics report a massive loss of confidence in religious leaders and they have expressed raw anger. People have left the Church or attended others, and at the heart of the issue, thousands of children and adults will live with the trauma of sexual abuse. The Pope and the churches’ apologies are not enough. For actual change, the Church needs to address the problem and give all reports of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. Clarity is needed on how perpetrators will be held responsible and how people who cover up the crimes will be punished. Real change is needed, so that the victims are at the centre of the concern. Pope Francis promised this in his new legalislation at the end of March.

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