On August 14th, 2018, the Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report detailing the cover-up of more than 300 predator priests involved in over 1,000 instances of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church of Pennsylvania, findings that were unfortunately far from unprecedented. Ever since the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigations uncovered a pathological trend of priests sexually abusing young boys within the Catholic Church, as well as its systematic cover up, people have demanded retribution for those who committed these heinous sins. In the aftermath of the 2002 findings, the Church quickly announced a “zero-tolerance” policy and promising to turn over names of all those accused. But since then, the Church has turned back on its word, striking a provision intended to remove priests convicted of abuse from the priesthood. With this history of complacency, the 2018 allegations should surprise few in a now almost-expected trend of abuse committed by those in the clergy.
Pope Francis, in response to the recent allegations, issued a formal apology on behalf of the Vatican in which he condemned these “crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims.” Many thought Pope Francis would provide a path forward for the Catholic Church in the new century, a face of compassion and liberal thinking. The Pope even approved the creation of a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or even failing to act upon sex abuse scandals, a previously unthinkable action in an organization that regards their bishops as princes, almost god-like in their own dioceses. Yet, as the new reports demonstrate, Pope Francis has largely given in to negligent policies and practices ingrained in the Church’s administrative culture. For the papacy to salvage its tarnished reputation and claim any semblance of morality, it needs to take forceful steps that eliminate the issue of abuse within the Church’s core.
Despite the tribunal, Pope Francis has so far remained complicit in the same horrors many hoped he would eliminate. For instance, he turned a blind eye to the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a once trusted advisor of the Catholic Church, who was disgraced by Pope Benedict XVI and sanctioned to a “life of penance and prayer” after allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused a young altar boy more than 47 years ago. In a scathing public rebuke of the Catholic Church, former Vatican diplomat Carlo Maria Viganò describes that, upon ascending to papacy, Pope Francis not only knew about McCarrick’s past when McCarrick came clean to him in 2013, but also that the Pope dismissed the issue.
After this disturbing news surfaced, McCarrick finally resigned upon his removal from public ministry this past June. However, the troubling fact remains that it was not until news of the former Cardinal’s abuse was made public by Viganò that McCarrick was finally let go by the Church. Until then, not only did the Pope remain mute as McCarrick continued to enjoy the fruits of his position, from gala dinners to decorative awards, but he also allowed for McCarrick to help choose new American bishops. Declining faith in this Pope was further exacerbated during his recent visit to Ireland, a nation particularly traumatized by sexual abuse in the Church. There, the Pope was met by public anger from those that felt he had not done enough to truly punish those that deserved retribution as well as criticism that the trip merely served to gain political points. Both events reveal the “remain silent until exposed” tactic employed by the church, in which it takes no responsibility for its actions until caught, and after which it swiftly settles (often for a gargantuan sum of money) and buries the story. The Church takes little action in prosecuting both offenders and the bishops and cardinals that supervise them for their negligence. The settlement of $27.5 million for four victims in the Brooklyn diocese on September 18th, 2018, is just another example of the Church’s tactics being exposed.
Many feel that the Pope has not and will not do enough to combat sex abuse in the Catholic Church. There are now whispers calling for the Pope to resign, but his resignation will not necessarily change anything as he alone is not the cause of decades of sexual abuse. Rather, he is a byproduct of the Church’s systematic, willful ignorance. Furthermore, a papal resignation may achieve the opposite of its intended effect, spurring the Church into thinking it’s the target of a witch hunt in which no one is safe, in turn resulting in even greater adherence to the organization’s strict dogma. There are already signs of this dissonance, such as in the recent rise of prominent Catholic leaders condemning homosexuality in the Church as the source of all its problems. Hence, it would likely be best for the Church to continue with Pope Francis at the forefront, confronting the problem head on and serving as the face of what people thought would be a reformed Catholic Church.
To begin with, the Pope must lead the Church in ensuring transparency in how it deals with accusations of sexual abuse. Although the Church has admittedly taken some steps to work more closely with authorities, as in the recent cases in Australia and Chile, the Church still has not come forth mandating the reporting of notified sexual abuse allegations within the clergy.
It is not only the inner ongoings of the Church that should be closely examined. There is an even more deeply rooted problem: The culture of clericalism, of which Pope Francis states that “priests and bishops are so elevated in the church, their word and authority dominate over the experience of the people they serve.” When those in the clergy commit these offences, victims justify their abuse as their abusers are supposed to be men of God, they believe must comply with their requests. Even the Royal Commission has stated that, “The theological notion that the priest undergoes an ‘ontological change’ at ordination, so that he is different to ordinary human beings and permanently a priest, is a dangerous component of the culture of clericalism.” The clergy are not divine beings, but mere mortals, flawed and imperfect just like the rest of us. It’s time for the Vatican to recognize that fact.
The greatest problem, though, lies not just in the very act of the abuse, but in the cover-up. To turn a blind eye to sin allows for that sin to fester, poison, and kill. The Church fears that its acknowledgement of its shortcomings would deface its moral authority, which is so sacred to its own existence. For this reason, the Church has never been truly able to reconcile its past, for to do so would be to smear the name of God. However, for the Church to base its moral threshold not on whether wrong was done, but on whether others know that wrong was done, betrays the very spirit of the God that they serve.Repentance should not be contingent; the Church must be absolute in its prayers for forgiveness.
The Catholic Church has committed many sins, for which it should be ashamed for many, many years. But that does not mean that it cannot do good going forward. As both the formal head of the Church and a popular symbol for change, Pope Francis has the clout necessary to fully address the issue of abuse within the Church. How the Pope will ultimately choose to act, no one knows. But what he chooses to do will determine the future of the Church as either an entity that rectifies its sins, or one that continues to drown out the lamentations of those they abandon.