August 13, 2018 Editor

Why the Vatican continues to struggle with sex abuse scandals

August 12 at 6:53 PM

photo above: Members of Chile’s bishops conference, Luis Fernando Ramos Perez and Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, give a news conference at the Vatican in May. (LUCA PRIZIA/AFP/Getty Images)

WN: Pope Francis by all accounts is faltering on this, rather than robustly pursuing justice in all cases reported worldwide. Is it as straightforward as choosing love over fear? In this case, fear would be of the truth! Perfect love drives out fear (I John 4), we are told.

One can only hope and pray that the Pope will respond wisely, lovingly, and decisively — for all concerned. “God’s preferential option for the poor”, widely affirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, invariably has victims at the forefront.

A superb 2015 movie dealing with the sex abuse scandal in Massachusetts is appropriately titled Spotlight.

One of my dear Catholic friends, with a very deep spirituality, in response to all this expressed to me his sense of great sadness — and anger. Jesuit writer and editor at large of America magazine, the Rev. James Martin, urges in “The Virtues of Catholic Anger” an appropriate use of anger to bring about change. He cites Jesus as prime example of this.

Former Catholic Rod Dreher, who left the Catholic Church due to sex abuse scandals, now Orthodox and senior editor of The American Conservative, in “What Must Survive a Corrupt Catholic Church” sums up for all Christians how to respond hopefully to this crisis:

Still, as you act, never forget that a faith that endures is not forged on a protest line, or in institutional reformation. It is as it always has been: in the prayerful, sacrificial habits of daily life. I left the Catholic Church, but I still had to figure out a way to keep myself and my children Christian.

By making monasteries, of a sort, of our homes and hearts, we may develop the spiritual disciplines necessary to endure this seemingly endless trial and to keep the light of faith burning brightly amid this new Dark Age.

The Vatican’s response, after two days of silence, is hopeful. Time will only tell. Meanwhile, this article is very hopeful too: “Theologians, lay leaders call for mass resignations of US bishops“. We read:

The statement notes that the issue is not liberal or conservative. “It does not emerge from a particular faction or ideology but rather from the heart of a wounded Church,” it said. “It is an expression of fidelity to the victims, to Jesus Christ, to the Church in whose service we have devoted our lives.”


On August 17, 2018, the National Catholic Reporter’s Editorial staff published: “Editorial: The body of Christ must reclaim our church“. I can only add: Amen! They wrote in part:

The revelations of the last two months make undeniably clear that it is time for the laity to reclaim our ownership of this church. We are the body of Christ, we are the church. It is time that we demand that bishops claim their true vocations as servants to the people of God. And they must live that way. At this time, it seems laity can do very little to effect the changes needed to bring about the solutions to the large issues that plague the church now — careerism, abuse of power, lack of transparency, no accountability. The fact is laypeople in our church today have little power. That said, as any community organizer would tell you, we have the power of the collective. Now more than ever, we — the laity — need to speak with a united voice. We must turn our anger into resolve. It is shocking that after decades of revelations of sexual abuse of children, there is still no clear accountability for bishops. We must demand change. …

What plagues the church today — as the Pennsylvania grand jury demonstrates — resulted from the lack of accountability of bishops and religious superiors. Any Catholic has the right to petition their bishop, a major superior, the apostolic nuncio, the appropriate dicasteries in Rome, even the pope. But from the local level all the way to Rome, there is no accountable, transparent process to ensure that grievances are received, let alone acted upon.

We know, for example, that staff at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith refused to send acknowledgements that they had received letters from victims of clergy sex abuse. Such an attitude perpetuates a culture of impunity that must change.

The next time you go to Mass and as you kneel in that silence that envelops the church just before liturgy begins, utter a prayer for this battered and wounded body we call the church. Pray for a renewal and inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and pray for a reform of our broken system. Then glance to your left and your right. Kneeling beside you are likely the strongest allies you have in rebuilding a church so badly in need of reform.

This affects all of us — the people of God. It’s more than past time that we the laity demand more of our church leaders.

The pope has just spoken (August 20, 2018) through a 2000-word letter to the more than billion Catholic faithful: “Pope Francis: ‘No effort must be spared’ to prevent Catholic Church abuses“. We read:

Francis also criticized the culture of clericalism1 — which some outsiders say creates a chasm of power between clerics and laity. Francis wrote that clericalism “helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.” Kathleen Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said Francis’s critique of clericalism gives her hope for reforms to come. “He spoke about clericalism far more forcefully and explicitly in this letter,” she said. More important, though, she said, is that church leaders welcome further investigations like the grand-jury report in Pennsylvania.

We read further in “Francis says Catholic Church ‘abandoned’ children, letting them be abused“:

The pope’s letter, which the Vatican says was written in Spanish, Francis’ native language, begins with a quote from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”

“These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons,” the pontiff states.”Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient,” he continues.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

An outstanding interview by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is: “Sister Simone Campbell: Catholic Sex Abuse Stems from “Monarchy” & Exclusion of Women from Power“. In it, we read2:

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Yes, I would, Amy [agree that the sex abuse scandal in Ireland paved the way for legalized abortion]. And I think here what’s really at the heart of this is: Is the complex Roman bureaucracy really committed to this letter, or is it only one office who’s engaging this? Because the Vatican is a very complex system, and what the last speaker just pointed out is that this should be at the heart of all of our work. And that, I think, is the challenge here. And the other piece is that it’s not just the perpetrator and the abused that are suffering in this system. The whole church, all of the people are suffering, and the priests who have been faithful and have not abused. I have so many friends, priest friends, who are afraid to touch anyone nowadays, because they’ve been told by lawyers, “You could get in trouble.” And that whole element of fear, sorrow, division? This is what needs to be addressed systemically by the whole Vatican, not just one office. So I hope, when the pope goes to Ireland, that that gets integrated into the reality that he’s witnessing. Now, it’s going to be an international meeting that he’s going to, but having just issued this letter, an international letter, it’s a perfect opportunity to continue that conversation and to really engage in change, finally.

In “To stop abusive clergy, the Church’s factions must make nice” by Megan McArdle, we read this wise conclusion — and can only hope and pray for warring factions indeed to “make nice”:

Unfortunately, it’s hard to pursue that inquiry [into clergy sexual abuse, including (former Vatican ambassador to the United States) Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s charges] when the wider war monopolizes our attention. The church can attack the problem of corruption in the hierarchy without settling its in­trac­table disputes over sexual liberalism. But to do that, it will need to form at least temporary alliances across the old battle lines and act as one church. And for such an alliance to work, everyone will need to decide that their common interest in vanquishing abusive clergy outweighs their common fears about losing the wider war.

The article “Pope Francis faces worst crisis of his five-year papacy” ends with this:

The pope has said little apart from appealing to people to make their own judgment. According to his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, his mood is “serene” in the face of raging controversy.

On Monday, Francis delivered a homily focusing on Jesus’s dignity when confronted by those “who wanted to throw him out” of Nazareth. Jesus’s silence triumphed over his attackers, he told the congregation; “truth is humble, truth is silent.”

He concluded: “May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we should speak and when we should stay silent. This applies to every part of life: to work, at home, in society … Thus we will be closer imitators of Jesus.”

Yet another massive report is highlighted in “German report documents more than 3,600 abuse cases within the Catholic Church“. We read a comment by Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the site ­, which tracks sexual abuse cases:

Whatever the church reports is a fraction of the actual number — a small fraction.

The sheer scale of worldwide wrongdoing is staggering for a Church whose ethics supposedly are centred on love of God/love of neighbour… As a world Christian, I feel profoundly ashamed… What went wrong so horribly, so massively?!

Finally, though, a corrective to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report August 2018 may be found highlighted here, entitled: “Former New York Times reporter slams grand jury report on clerical abuse”. It’s not all simply dark, thank God!


With revelation after revelation, a new wave of sexual abuse scandals is rocking the Roman Catholic Church and presenting Pope Francis with the greatest crisis of his papacy3.

In Chile, prosecutors have raided church offices, seized documents and accused leaders of a coverup. In Australia, top church figures are facing detention and trials. And in the United States, after the resignation of a cardinal, questions are swirling about a hierarchy that looked the other way and protected him for years.

The church has had more than three decades — since notable abuse cases first became public — to safeguard victims, and itself, against such system failures. And, in the past five years, many Catholics have looked to Francis as a figure who could modernize the church and help it regain its credibility.

But Francis’s track record in handling abuse is mixed, something some outsiders attribute to his learning curve or shortcomings and others chalk up to resistance from a notoriously change-averse institution.

Analysts who have studied the church’s response to sexual abuse, and several people who have advised the pope, say the Vatican has been unable to take the dramatic steps that can help an organization get out from under scandals — and avoid their repetition.

“Each new report of clerical abuse at any level creates doubt in the minds of many that we are effectively addressing this catastrophe in the Church,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, warned last month. Failure to take action, O’Malley said, “will threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church.”

Whereas transparency is typically advised, the church remains quiet about its investigations and disciplinary procedures. It does not release any data on the inquiries it has carried out. A proposed tribunal for judging bishops accused of negligence or coverup was quashed by the Vatican department that was supposed to help implement it. And, rather than being fired and publicly admonished, offending church leaders are typically allowed to resign without explanation.

“The church doesn’t like removing bishops,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at the Religion News Service. “Bishops are vicars of Christ in their diocese. They’re not just McDonald’s franchise owners or local managers that can be fired by the CEO. And the church has always been reluctant to give in to political pressure to remove them.”

Francis has called on churches to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy and warned about the “sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power.” But the Vatican declined to distribute to bishops conferences suggested guidelines, drawn up by the commission advising Francis on sexual abuse, on how to respond to abuse complaints and cooperate with civil authorities.

Even when the Vatican does take action, resolution comes “at a very glacial pace,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, who was among the Chilean abuse victims who met for several days with Francis this past spring.

Cruz said he tried to tell the pope bluntly that a deeper shake-up was still needed. He specifically mentioned Francisco Javier ­Errázuriz, a member of the pope’s powerful nine-member advisory Council of Cardinals, who victims have long said ignored their abuse accusations and tried to discredit them. Errázuriz has denied wrongdoing.

“[The pope] asked us to give him time to act,” Cruz recalled. “He said, ‘I have to pray about this and let the Holy Spirit guide me on what I have to do.’ ”

Meanwhile, in the wider world, the cultural ground is shifting, and other forces are taking the lead on accountability.

“I think we have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer,” said Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. “We bishops want to rise to this challenge, which may well be our last opportunity considering all that has happened.”

A similar conversation, about how to strengthen the response to abuse, has played out for several years in the Vatican — particularly within the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Francis created a year after he became pope. But little has come of the commission’s ideas.

In 2015, Francis approved its proposal of a tribunal, placed within the Vatican’s powerful doctrine office, that would assess cases of bishops accused of concealing or neglecting abuse. The tribunal, though, was never created. Four former members of the commission, as well as outside analysts, say the idea was thwarted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Some outside analysts say the objection could have been on legal or logistical grounds.

In an interview published last year with the Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then the head of the doctrine office, said the Vatican already had the “tools and legal means” to handle cases. Vatican watcher Marco Politi said congregation members and others in the Vatican hierarchy were also concerned about opening a “Pandora’s box.”

“This would mean hundreds of cases that would then bounce back to Rome with a huge media impact,” said Politi, author “Pope Francis Among the Wolves,” a papal biography. “It would signify the beginning of hunting season on culprits.”

In turn, Francis used another method to bolster accountability of the church hierarchy, issuing an apostolic letter that made it clear that bishops could be removed from office for negligently handling sexual abuse. But under the current system, any of five different Vatican congregations can be involved in investigating bishops, depending on the accused person’s role and affiliation within the church, and also on whether he has been accused of coverup or abuse. Coverup cases are handled by the same congregations that help to appoint bishops.

“It’s a potential conflict of interest,” said Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “That’s absolutely an issue.”

The stalled effort to launch the tribunal prompted the resignation from the commission of Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor. Current and former members of the commission said that they are not given data and information on abuse-related cases being handled by the Vatican. Krysten Winter-Green, a former commission member who was a longtime counselor for abuse victims, said they were up against a “domain of secrecy.”

“The crime in the Catholic Church remains causing scandal, not covering up,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the site, which tracks sexual abuse cases. “Bishops all over the world are not being forthcoming.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

Please click on: Vatican Sex Abuse Scandals

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  1. An outstanding reflection on the evils of clericalism is Thomas Rosica’s “We can only move forward when we name the evil of clericalism“.[]
  2. Sister Simone is head of the Catholic social justice advocacy group “Network”, and is leading a month-long bus trip for justice, beginning October 8, 2018, with final stop Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.[]
  3. WN: A Grand Jury Report was released in Philadelphia August 14, 2018. It is terribly damning in sheer numbers and will to cover up. Read about it here and here. You may also read about ongoing claims and investigations here. Even if some claims prove inaccurate/unfounded, overall the findings of sexual abuse on such a vast scale are chillingly troubling. Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese of Religion News Services writes:

    Awful, disgusting, horrifying, sickening — one runs out of adjectives in describing the actions of abusive priests chronicled in the just-released Pennsylvania grand jury report.

    The report lists more than 300 priests accused of abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses. If accused priests from the other two dioceses, dealt with by earlier grand juries, are added, it amounts to about 8 percent of the 5,000 priests who served in Pennsylvania during the 70-year period covered by the report.

    The abuse of even one child is terrible, but that more than 1,000 children were abused in that timespan is appalling. Undoubtedly, there are more who have not yet come forward, and hopefully this report will encourage them to do so.

    Just as disconcerting is the failure of many bishops in the early days of the crisis to respond appropriately to the abuse. The best you can say about them is that they should have known better.

    Why did they not do better?

    In any case, the grand jury report is a wake-up call for bishops who thought that the past could be forgotten as long as they did the right thing in the future. It also becomes a precedent for other state attorneys general and grand juries. The bishops would do well to issue their own reports before the other states do. People will not be satisfied until a complete accounting has been given in every diocese.

    The church tells people that confession is good for the soul. It needs to practice what it preaches. If it wants forgiveness, it must confess its sins, have deep sorrow for these sins, do penance and amend its ways. (Emphasis added)

    We also read in “Former Priest and Survivor Speak Out on Pennsylvania Catholic Sex Abuse“:

    Robert Hoatson (former priest and co-founder/President of Road to Recovery): Right, yeah, this is systemic. When Governor Frank Keating resigned as the chair of the first National Review Board, that was set up after the Dallas Charter was passed in 2002, he resigned and said, “This is exactly what the Mafia is like. It’s dealing with the Mafia.” And that’s what we’re dealing with. And we have to make sure that Catholics now take back their church and insist that these people are eliminated, fired. And that’s what the pope has to do. He has to have mass firings of bishops, and the leadership has to change. And that, of course, leads then to the structural changes that need to be made, things like mandatory celibacy, which is absurd. And in 2018, the fact that we still have some of these traditions in place —

    AMY GOODMAN: And what about nuns as priests?

    ROBERT HOATSON: Of course. Women have to have full participation in the church. If women were in leadership positions, this never would have happened…


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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.