Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: The Beginning of the End?

At long last there has been a positive step by Pope Francis and the Vatican to address the continuing sexual misconduct scandal that has crippled the Catholic Church for the past several decades. It is identified as Vos estis lux mundi. Pope Francis has imposed a uniform and mandatory reporting requirement on sexual abuse within the Church. The important elements are as follows:

  •  It is imposed upon the entire religious community of the Church – from priest to pope, and includes the nuns, lay ministers and others that are a part of the religious.
  •  It obligates the disclosure of both the sexual abuse and any attempts to cover it up.
  •  It protects those who do report either the abuse or the cover up.
  •  It requires each diocese to establish methods for a formal investigation and findings for each such report.
  •  It allows for participation by lay expertise in those investigations.
  •  It requires a centralized reporting system within the Vatican that is supposed to insure that the famed bureaucracy of the Vatican does not bury investigations.

It is a good first step but that is all that it is. As with every pronouncement by an organization – religious or lay – the true intent lies in the implementation. The online version of The Atlantic noted:

“The pope’s moto proprio, which will take effect in June and remain in place as an experiment for three years, is a definitive and concrete step forward for the Church, demonstrating that Pope Francis is taking sexual abuse seriously. The new law is not a panacea, however: It does not detail specific punishments for Church leaders who violate these norms, and it does not mandate the involvement of authorities outside the Church. After years of paralysis on this issue, the Church must grapple with the crisis of confidence among the faithful, along with skeptics who believe the Catholic Church is not capable of policing itself against abuses of power.”

The Church has done little to dispel the skeptics’ view despite the fact it is overwhelmingly populated with men and women of good will. A survey by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the behest of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops estimated that approximately four percent of clergy engaged in sexual abuse of minors. A BBC report in July of 2014 noted that there is about five percent of the general male population that has engaged in pedophilia. The accuracy of both numbers is virtually impossible to verify given the secretive nature of the crime. What the numbers suggest however is that the prevalence of these predators in the Church is about the same as their presence in the general male population.

These sexual predators tend to gravitate toward positions of authority where children gather – coaches, camp counselors, trainers, boys and girls clubs, clergy, teachers, etc. It is unsurprising that the Catholic Church has attracted its share of these predators. What is surprising and disappointing is the failure of the Church to deal with the problem despite the knowledge of its existence. Even more so is the Church’s apparent insistence that it was capable of dealing with the problem internally when it was clearly not.

Pedophilia is not about sex; it is about power and control – thus the “grooming” process designed to make the child a “cooperative” victim. It is not about homosexuality. According to an article in the Washington Post ninety-five percent of pedophiles are heterosexually oriented. It is considered a mental disorder. Pedophilia has a high recidivism rate and, therefore, recurrence is likely unless dealt with on an ongoing basis with a combination of treatment and incarceration.

But it is about the devastating impact that such attacks have on the victims throughout their lives. It cannot be dealt with by ignoring the problem, relocating the perpetrators or praying harder. The victims will require their own psychological care and a large part of that will be to know that the perpetrator will not acquire more victims.

Child molestation is a criminal matter. Neither the Church nor its clergy are immune from criminal matters with the exception of information obtained during confession – pennant to priest. The criminal process is more than capable of dealing with the problem regardless of the perpetrators or the institutions from which they come. The Church would be far ahead in dealing with its current problem, and even more so for future problems, if it would provide an open and transparent referral of these matters to the justice system after a preliminary investigation to determine whether there is sufficient cause to proceed.

In this regard Pope Francis’ orders fall short. At best the new mandates do not impede criminal investigations and even suggest that dioceses are free to explore a more collaborative process with civil authorities. That also suggests that legislative bodies have the opportunity to establish norms for reporting so long as they are equally applicable to all – including the Church.

Vincent Van Gogh is quoted as saying; “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

It now appears that Pope Francis has taken that first small step. The success of his intentions will be found in the subsequent steps and his willingness to continue them.