By: Ryan Tierney ‘20
Since the crisis of clerical sex abuse was brought to light in the 1980’s, the Roman Catholic Church has failed to properly address this problem. Plaguing its credibility, weakening its community, and largely contributing to the decline of its membership. Nearly every Catholic community around the world, big and small, has been affected by clerical sex abuse in some way. In the United States alone, an estimated 15,000 children were abused by Catholic priests between 1950 and 2017. Even at Regis Jesuit High School, eight alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse served as Jesuits on our faculty, as recent as the 1980’s, two of whom were accused by members of the Regis Jesuit community.
The sexual abuse, combined with the controversy and alleged cover-ups by the Church, has contributed to massive turnover in the Catholic Church. According to The Pew Research Center, for every Catholic convert, an estimated six leave the denomination. This trend has translated to a 12.75% decline in Catholic membership in the United States since 2007.
Upon his election in 2013, Pope Francis called for “decisive action” in handling sex abuse. Since then, the Pope has made a few strides with regard to sexual abuse in the Church, removing former Archbishop and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood, calling for greater transparency in the Church, and denouncing sexual abuse. However, the Pope has made some major mistakes as well. After allegations of sex abuse cover-ups in Chile were made public in 2015, Francis backed Chile’s Bishop Barros and accused critics of the Church of being politically manipulated by “leftists,” a decision which brought significant criticism. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston even rebuked Pope Francis for his handling of the crisis in Chile, saying that the Pope had caused “great pain” for the victims of sexual abuse. In short, Pope Francis has not had widespread success in handling clerical sexual abuse at this point in his tenure.
On February 21st, however, Pope Francis and the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the Catholic Church have the opportunity to change this narrative when they meet in the Vatican to discuss the “epidemic” of clerical sex abuse in the Church. This unprecedented meeting, which was announced by Pope Francis last year, is arguably one of the biggest steps the Vatican has taken to address this global issue. While this meeting has the potential to be a turning point in the Catholic Church’s approach to child sex abuse, the damage that has been done over the past 35 years is grave, and even the Pope himself has warned that expectations must be “deflated.” Decades of cover-ups, settlements, and scandals beg to ask: how can this problem be solved? How can the Church regain its dignity? What are the Pope’s words worth, without the necessary actions to back them up? In my opinion, for the conference to be a success, and for the Church to rebuild its credibility, it needs to produce universal standards for accountability and transparency with regard to clerical sex abuse.
Perhaps Phil Saviano, a high-profile clerical sex abuse survivor (whose story was told in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight), best described the Catholic Church’s problem with accountability for sexual abuse when he said that “the Church is still treating abuse as a sin, not as a crime.” There is a lot of truth to what he said. Most predator priests when found guilty of abuse, through the Church’s internal investigations, are given “penance” for their sins. This penance often consists of prayer, personal reflection, and confessions. This would be fine (as sexually abusing anyone is, without a doubt, a sin) if authorities were fully notified of the abuse, and the abuser was investigated by the legal system. But, across the globe, that rarely happens as there is no universal protocol that requires dioceses to turn over perpetrators of abuse to civil authorities. In the United States, between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests were accused of child molestation. Of these priests, just 252 were convicted of a crime.
Why were so few priests found guilty? Because U.S. dioceses paid out billions of dollars in settlements to buy secrecy and transferred the priests to new parishes. Incidents of abuse were rarely reported to authorities. This not only created a culture of “plausible deniability” within the Church, but also allowed for more youth to be the victims of abuse. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized this major problem, and in 2002, established the Dallas Charter. This charter created a “zero-tolerance” policy for alleged abusers and requires all allegations of child sex abuse by clergy to be turned over to law enforcement. It also set up lines of communication for sex abuse allegations, between dioceses and the public, increasing overall transparency. However, this charter has not completely prevented incidents of clerical sex abuse in the United States, nor has it fully increased transparency in the U.S. Catholic Church. Many individual dioceses have bypassed it, continuing to settle privately with victims. However, it has dramatically reduced the number of abuses and dealt justice to perpetrators of abuse, and, if enforced, would be an excellent model for preventing and addressing clerical sex abuse moving forward.
Other dioceses have independently addressed the issue of sexual abuse within their jurisdiction, like the Archdiocese of Denver, which recently announced an independent investigation of sexual abuse allegations dating back to 1950. In addition, the Archdiocese of Denver announced that it would be establishing a fund for the victims of abuse and their families. As Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said in a press release on February 19th, this approach will allow the “bright light of transparency… to shine on the Church’s history related to the sexual abuse of minors.” It has rightfully garnered praise and mirrors a successful strategy that other dioceses have employed in recent years.
Overall, these policies are good solutions for this problem which plagues the Catholic Church, and are desperately needed in Catholic dioceses in places like South America, Australia, and Ireland, which have been rocked by sexual abuse scandals.
If the Vatican were to establish and enforce a protocol similar to the Dallas Charter to handle future instances of sexual abuse, and a system like the one the Archdiocese of Denver just adopted to handle past instances of sexual abuse, the Catholic Church would be facing this problem head-on. Incidents of abuse, especially outside of the United States, would decrease significantly, and the Church might be able to repair its reputation as a refuge for the oppressed, not an enabler for the oppressor.