After 12 years, is there any end in sight?

Continuing flare-ups in the clergy sexual abuse saga repeatedly fan the flames of suspicion and heighten the dismay of Catholics.

In a weekday homily earlier this year, Pope Francis called the abuse scandal the “shame of the Church” and quoted Psalm 44: “Thou hast made us ... a laughingstock among the peoples.”

In March, after establishing a new Vatican commission for the protection of minors last December, Pope Francis appointed eight experts to the initiative, including Marie Collins, an Irish abuse victim. Meeting with the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in January, the pope suggested the new body might function as part of it.

Not long after, though, the Vatican itself took it on the chin when a United Nations committee on children issued a scathing report accusing it of “systematically” encouraging the protection of guilty priests.

The Vatican responded angrily to what it called an “ideological” attack. Critics of the U.N. document noted that it appeared to be ignorant of how the Church is organized and governed, ignored the many steps taken to deal with this problem for a decade or more, and ventured far afield by challenging Church teaching on contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

But the harm was done. The media had a new chapter in the abuse story to feast on, and the Church once more had egg on its face. Catholics found themselves saying — again — “How long, O Lord?”

An ongoing issue

The Vatican is hardly alone. In recent months, the Archdiocese of Chicago was embarrassed by the court-ordered release — as part of a settlement agreement with abuse victims — of thousands of pages of files showing a practice of protecting abusers going back many years, coupled with what the Chicago Tribune called “painfully slow progress toward reform.”

In late January, after agreeing to settlements with abuse victims, the Diocese of Helena, Mont., announced it would seek bankruptcy protection, becoming the 11th in the United States to do so. A court will supervise distribution of $15 million in diocesan funds to the victims.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People released in late March, U.S. dioceses and religious orders increased their expenditures on child protection by more than 50 percent — or by more than $15 million over the previous year.

That puts the total cost of the abuse scandal to American dioceses, eparchies and religious communities between 2004 and 2013 at more than $2.74 billion.

The crisis emerges

Clergy sex abuse first came to light in the United States in the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until 2002 that, thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe and other newspapers, the facts of widespread cover-up by bishops started coming to light. The national bishops’ conference had wrestled with the clergy sex abuse issue for years before then, but its guidelines were voluntary and were ignored by some bishops — with, as now is all too clear, disastrous results.

The conference responded to the 2002 disclosures with tough new policies that have been in effect in this country ever since. They include prompt reporting to law enforcement authorities and Church penalties up to and including expulsion from the priesthood.

Under the new system, annual audits have been conducted of American dioceses, with the results published. The report issued in March, which covers 2013, showed “the fewest allegations and victims (of sex abuse of minors) reported since the data collection ... began in 2004.”

The new report states that the 370 credible allegations against priests or deacons this year (most were from the mid-1970s) is down by 7 percent from last year. The number of alleged offenders also decreased by 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

All very well. Yet the drumbeat of negative publicity goes on, as old facts come to light and the fallout from abuse in the past continues. Not least, this lends credibility to the suspicion that, contrary to the known facts, sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States is a common occurrence even now.

The Church’s next steps

One obvious question this raises is what, if anything, can be done to restore the Church’s image and bolster Catholics’ morale. Is American Catholicism condemned to continue suffering fresh episodes of embarrassment and hurt into the indefinite future whenever another disclosure of past dereliction hits the evening news?

It is a familiar axiom of professional public relations that a group faced with managing a bad news story does well to put all the bad stuff out on the table right at the start, thereby avoiding ongoing agony.

That obviously can be painful, but it’s the best way of keeping the bad news from trickling out in a seemingly endless stream and continuing to erode the group’s image.

If anything is obvious about the sex abuse scandal, it’s that the Church has violated this rule from the start and goes on violating it today. To be sure, ecclesiastical authorities face a more ticklish situation than most, since the bad news that’s been bottled up often concerns the good names of individual persons who don’t deserve to be hurt.

Granted that, though, the best PR advice for the Church now would be: If there’s anything left in the files that hasn’t come out yet but could be made public without unfairly harming someone, get it on the record as soon as you can. Otherwise you may find yourself having to do that under court order one of these days.

Meanwhile, it’s worth taking to heart something else Pope Francis said in that Jan. 16 homily, which observers called his most forthright comment on the sex abuse scandal yet.

At bottom, the pope said, the problem was that “in those men, in those women, the word of God was rare. They did not have a bond with God. They had a position ... of power and comfort (but not) the word of God.”

That, he added, suggests matter for an examination of conscience: “Is the word of God alive in our hearts?”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.