August 8, 2014


Clergy sex-abuse scandal

The clergy sex-abuse scandal that came to light early in the 21st century has arguably done more damage to the Catholic Church than anything else since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The hierarchy was slow to realize the extent of the problem and, in some cases, were themselves part of the scandal when they moved priests who abused from one parish to another.

All Catholics hope that those days are long gone, and the facts seem to bear that out. Once the U.S. bishops established a system for handling abuse, the number of new cases has just about disappeared. Part of the system is an annual audit of each diocese, and those audits have shown only a handful of new cases, a contrast to what was discovered decades ago.

In the July 18 issue of The Criterion, we carried a front-page article about what Pope Francis has been doing regarding this issue. He devoted about 3½ hours on the morning of July 7 to one-on-one meetings with six men and women who had been abused as children. Moreover, he actually spent several days with them, celebrating a Mass with them and eating several meals with them.

During the homily at that Mass, Pope Francis said emphatically, “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”

And he added, “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”

One of the bishops he held accountable was Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic, who was accused of sex abuse. The pope recalled him to Rome, where he was tried by the Congregation for the Vatican’s Doctrine of the Faith in June, found guilty and laicized.

The meetings of Pope Francis with the sex-abuse survivors on July 7 were his first such meetings. His predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, met with survivors on six occasions, and it has been reported that the meetings were emotional for him as well as for the survivors.

Pope Emeritus Benedict first became aware of the sex-abuse scandal while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At the time, his congregation had no authority over sex-abuse cases, so he asked Pope John Paul II to place those cases in his congregation. Pope John Paul, who appeared to be unaware of the extent of the scandal, did so.

When he became pope, Benedict XVI quickly moved to punish Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, for extensive sexual abuse that had been covered up. The Legionaries of Christ now have new leadership.

When Francis became pope, he established the Commission for the Protection of Minors and appointed to it people who are serious about dealing with the issue, including Marie Collins, an Irish woman who was abused as a girl, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, who replaced Cardinal Bernard Law.

Marie Collins accompanied one of the two survivors from Ireland who met with Pope Francis. “It was wonderful to see the pope listening so intently,” she said, “for the survivor to feel heard and have the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say.”

Our article in the July 18 issue also reported that the annual meeting of the Anglophone Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults met in Rome the same week the pope met with the survivors. Since 1996, this conference has brought together experts and Church delegates from around the globe, to develop norms for the prevention and handling of the scandal of sexual abuse.

All of these things show how determined Pope Francis is to prevent clergy sexual abuse. “We need to do everything in our power,” he said, “to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church.” That includes vigilance in priestly formation and the training of Church personnel.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has extensive training for any personnel who might come in contact with children.

—John F. Fink

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