Editorial: A call for vigilance in clergy sex abuse

Clergy sexual abuse is back in the headlines again. First, there was the vigorous questioning of Vatican officials by the U.N. human rights committee in mid-January on clergy sex abuse. Then came the documents released in Chicago Jan. 21 that made public that archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse allegations going back decades, including the movement of priests from parish to parish despite complaints by the parents of victims. And The Associated Press reported on little-noticed statistics published by the Vatican showing that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, during 2011-12, “defrocked” 384 priests. This was double the number of priests (171) who had been removed from ministry in 2008-09.

The documents from Chicago are yet more evidence of the roots of the abuse crisis, with 95 percent of the cases occurring before 1988 and none occurring after 1996. The archdiocese has paid more than $100 million to the victims of sexual abuse during the last 25 years.

While Catholics continue to be shamed and horrified by these stories — and by the inadequate and even inappropriate responses at the time by so many Church leaders — it also is important to remember that the Church also has taken significant steps in recent years to protect children and address abuse allegations immediately.

It is in this context that one is to understand the action taken by the Vatican under Pope Benedict to address the abuse crisis and deal with allegations more consistently and systematically. As the AP acknowledged, the “spike” in reported abuse cases “started a year after the Vatican decided to double the statute of limitations on the crime, enabling victims who were in their late 30s to report abuse committed against them when they were children.” The report said that there had been “a remarkable evolution in the Holy See’s in-house procedures to discipline pedophiles since 2001.”

While it’s distressing that the cases exist in the first place, such metrics are further evidence that the Church is committed to addressing the issue in ways that are increasingly transparent. In the United States, a review of the number of incidents by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice helped establish the scale of the problem. In 2002, the U.S. bishops instituted “Essential Norms” to give a legal framework for new policies outlined in the Dallas Charter. In 2010, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith revised its own norms. The “zero tolerance” rule first initiated in 2002 is still in force, and priests are being removed from ministry when any complaint is found to be “credible.” When the statute of limitations is not an issue, police are being informed of the allegations as well.

Most recently, Pope Francis announced the formation of a panel of experts that would advise him on how to continue to protect children from clergy abuse. On the same day as the U.N. hearings, Pope Francis also denounced clergy sexual abuse scandals as “the shame of the Church.” In a statement accompanying the release of the Chicago documents, the archdiocese said of the revelations of past behavior: “It is not the Church we know or the Church we want to be.”

No doubt there will be more “Chicagos” as more documents of past failings are released over time. The actions of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops are evidence of the Church’s repentance for past sins and commitment to become “the Church we want to be.”

All Catholics — bishops, priests and laity — must remain vigilant that the mistakes of the past are never allowed to recur, and must hold each other accountable to restore a sacred trust that has been so badly wounded.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor