Church strives to apply abuse lessons globally

Fifteen years after the clergy sexual abuse crisis shook the Catholic Church in the United States, survivors of sexual abuse and their advocates believe recent developments in Rome and elsewhere show that not all Church leaders have internalized the scandal’s gravity.

In addition to several ongoing investigations into alleged abuse, observers who are concerned with the Church’s direction on the issue point to the sudden resignation of Marie Collins from the Vatican commission Pope Francis created in 2014 to protect minors.

“Francis must act to boldly change the culture of secrecy the bishops maintain regarding the sexual abuse of minors,” said Patrick J. Wall, a former Benedictine monk who investigates clergy sex abuse for victims and their lawyers.

“Without bold actions now,” Wall told Our Sunday Visitor, “the weight of the culture of secrecy will counteract all positive momentum created by Francis, returning the Roman Curia to its centuries-old practices.”

A survivor’s voice

Collins, who was sexually abused by a priest in Ireland as a teen, wrote March 1 in the National Catholic Reporter that she had to resign from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to maintain her integrity.

“I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope. As a survivor I have watched events unfold with dismay,” wrote Collins, who bemoaned a reluctance among some members of the Curia to implement the commission’s recommendations, even those that had been approved by the pope.

The lack of action in Rome, Collins wrote, is a “reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the Church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”

Collins’ words resonate with leaders of sex abuse survivor groups in the United States. Donna B. Doucette, executive director of the Voice of the Faithful, told OSV that the Church has reached a “fulcrum moment” on clergy sex abuse.

“What is Pope Francis going to do? Is he going to listen to the prophetic voices like Marie Collins?” asked Doucette. “Is he going to respond in a way that ensures that going forward children are protected or that those who are abused are supported within the Church and the priests, the clerics who have done the abusing, are removed?”

“I think Pope Francis is being pressured by a Vatican Curia that is just obstructionist,” said Robert Hoatson, a former priest, survivor of clergy sexual abuse and co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based survivors organization.

Global response

The news of Collins’ resignation comes at a time when the Church is dealing with several abuse cases around the world. In Guam, the Vatican is investigating allegations lodged against Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron, who is accused of sexually abusing altar boys in the 1970s.

In Mexico, Father Gerardo Silvestre Hernandez, a priest in the Archdiocese of Antequea Oaxaca, was sentenced earlier this year to prison for sexually abusing minors in a remote indigenous village.

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops in Australia have recently issued statements expressing sorrow for their past failures and promising to do more to protect children. The bishops released their statements as Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reported that between 1950 and 2015, 7 percent of Australian priests were accused of abusing children. The commission also reported that 4,444 victims said they were sexually abused between 1980 and 2015. “Unfortunately, this is a problem everywhere,” said Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive that tracks the abuse crisis and bishops’ responses.

Frustrating path

McKiernan told OSV that it appears clericalism, politics and bureaucratic inertia have been converging to frustrate reformers like Collins. “It’s discouraging and unwise for the Church, because eventually they are going to have to face this and do something about it,” McKiernan said.

In her article, Collins highlighted several stumbling blocks, such as a lack of resources and cultural resistance in the Vatican. Collins even wrote of a dicastery that refused to comply with Pope Francis’ instruction last year that all Vatican departments respond to correspondence from victims.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is tasked with the Vatican’s response to all abuse cases, defended the dicastery’s work in a March 5 interview with an Italian newspaper. Cardinal Müller said it is good that contact with victims “be done by pastors in their area.”

U.S. Church Response to Abuse
◗ Safe-environment training is taking place in all dioceses/eparchies of the country. Adults have been trained to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it. Children are being equipped with the skills to help them protect themselves from abuse.

In addition, abuse advocates have voiced frustrations that the commission’s recommendation for a new tribunal to adjudicate cases of negligent bishops was never implemented, reportedly for legal technicalities.

Last year, the pope followed up with a new accountability initiative to also hold negligent religious superiors, as well as bishops, accountable. The initiative was to take effect last September, but Collins wrote it was impossible to find out if its work had actually started.

Also, in late February, the Associated Press reported that Pope Francis had amended the sanctions against a handful of abuser-priests from laicization to removal from public ministry and a life of prayer and penance. One of these priests was subsequently convicted by an Italian criminal court for sex crimes against children. Collins herself noted that no children seem to have been put in harm’s way by the pope’s decisions, though she disagrees with them.

These details feed into criticisms that the Church has not learned the lessons of abuse.

“If the Catholic Church really wanted to change, help victims heal and change its approach, it certainly would, but it’s quite obvious, with this victim quitting the commission, the lack of transparency, that the Catholic Church is just waiting for this entire matter to blow over,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented scores of victims.

However Dave Pierre, the author of three books on the clergy abuse crisis, told OSV that “no organization on the planet has done more to try to rectify for its past and root out wrongdoing from many decades ago” than the Catholic Church.

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“In a just world, the media would hold up the Catholic Church as the standard bearer as to how address these cases from so long ago. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and it seems it never will be,” said Pierre, who operates TheMediaReport.com, a website that monitors media coverage of the clergy abuse story.

Pierre said the Church has paid out more than $3 billion in settlements just in the United States alone and instituted “unprecedented protection efforts” since the U.S. bishops in 2002 approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Church volunteers, including lectors, are all required to undergo safe environment training. But among abuse advocates, Pierre said there is “a constant theme” that the Church has not done enough.

Either way, McKiernan believes the Vatican will have a difficult time attracting sex abuse survivors to join its commission until Church leaders show that they are serious.

“It’s heartbreaking, because this isn’t just about Vatican politics. The bureaucratic infighting, the laziness and clericalism that went into Marie Collins’ decision not only does it hurt children, it also hurts the Church.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.