How has the Catholic church reckoned with sexual-abuse claims?

6th December, 2021.      //   Crime, General Interest  // 

The Vatican’s response has been erratic. The previous pope, Benedict xvi, initiated reforms but failed to act against bishops who covered up evidence of abuse by priests. When Pope Francis was elected in 2013 he promised “decisive action” on the issue. In 2018 he wrote to all Catholics, condemning sexual abuse and acknowledging the church’s role in hiding these crimes. In June this year the Vatican updated canon law, the church’s legal system (which can be used to defrock a priest), to explicitly criminalise the sexual abuse of adults as well as children—a change that took more than a decade to plan. But Pope Francis has made missteps too. In 2018 he dismissed as “slander” accusations that a Chilean bishop, Juan Barros, was complicit in covering up abuse, a stance he later acknowledged was a “grave error”. And last month the pope rejected the resignation of several German bishops who were found by the church to have made serious mistakes in managing sexual-abuse cases.

National churches have the authority to investigate accusations of abuse, as the French church has done, and some governments have also acted. An Australian government commission on child sexual abuse, including that in religious orders, reported in 2017 that between 1950 and 2010 7% of the country’s Catholic priests were alleged perpetrators. The commission urged the church to lobby the Vatican to end mandatory celibacy for priests. In America too, several states have investigated the Catholic church, most notably Pennsylvania, where a grand-jury report found hundreds of priests had molested at least 1,000 children over seven decades. American victims have also sought compensation through civil courts, where the Catholic church has paid out billions of dollars. Last month the diocese of Dromore, in Northern Ireland, became the first on the island of Ireland to offer compensation to victims. The French report recommended payments too.

The most controversial response to the crisis, at least among conservatives in the church, has been in Germany. In 2019 the German Catholic church began a series of assemblies for bishops and lay members to debate the future of the institution, including its response to sexual abuse. The assemblies have discussed changes—such as ordaining women—that go against the Vatican’s teachings. But the pope has supported the process and in October he began a similar consultation, which will seek the views of Catholics globally on the future of the church.

Alongside investigations into sexual abuse there have been notable silences. In many poor countries it is hard to estimate the number of victims, in part because the power of the church has discouraged concerted action. No country in Latin America, which has the world’s largest Catholic population, has carried out an independent public inquiry into institutional child abuse. And several countries in Europe—including Italy and Spain—have also done little to investigate.

Italy’s relationship with the Vatican makes the issue particularly thorny. In 2009 scores of former pupils at a deaf-mute school in Verona reported sexual abuse by priests who taught them. Several former staff were convicted by a court in Argentina for abuse at a sister school there, but the allegations regarding Verona have not so far led to a trial in Italy. Responding to the damning report in France, a close adviser of the Vatican said Italy and other countries should hold similar investigations. The pope himself described the publication of the report as a “moment of shame” but stopped short of calling for further investigations, saying only that bishops should act to prevent “similar tragedies” in the future.

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