Anger lingers in European clerical abuse cases

Although it has provoked fewer screaming headlines than last year, the clerical sex abuse crisis in Europe is far from over. Yet the story is no longer dominated by revelations of the abuse itself — “the tremendous cloud of filth” memorably described by Pope Benedict XVI in his book interview, “Light of the World” — and has moved to a second stage: learning from past mistakes and offering pastoral care to victims. 

The one exception has been Belgium, a mostly Catholic country of 10 million, where last year a bishop resigned after confessing to having abused his nephew. Fresh revelations in the new year have kept the story close to the front pages. A report handed by the Church to a parliamentary inquiry in late December and released in January details nearly 500 cases of alleged abuse by 134 priests and Church workers (90 are still alive) since the 1950s. Thirteen of the victims committed suicide. 

Reluctance to act 

The sad statistics reveal aby now familiar picture from a past era: silence and inaction, when victims stayed quiet or were unheard. Complaints were received in 70 percent of the cases, yet fewer than one abuser in six was suspended from active ministry or laicized, the punishment available in canon law. But the inaction and indifference were not the Church’s alone — a point lost in last year’s reporting. The same statistics also show the judiciary’s reluctance to act: In Belgium, only 16 percent of the accused received sentences. 

They also show a wildly inconsistent application of the law. In Hasselt diocese, where the Church reported 90 percent of alleged cases to prosecutors, there was no judicial action taken at all; whereas in Ghent, 73 percent of alleged cases were prosecuted and sentenced. The statistics seem to point to neither the Church nor wider society consistently grasping the horror of sexual abuse of minors. As retired Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels told Belgian parliamentarians in December: “There was no drive to consciously cover up the sexual abuse — or deny it.” 

Indeed, “sexual abuse only came explicitly on the agenda of the bishops in the 1990s,” Holland’s most senior Catholic prelate, retired Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, told a court hearing in his Diocese of Rotterdam. The case, which a victim is hoping will establish how much Church authorities knew about his alleged abuse, marks the first time a senior Catholic cleric has appeared in a Dutch courtroom over clerical sexual misconduct. Cardinal Simonis said bishops in the 4-million-strong Dutch Church only began to investigate after reports of widespread abuse began emerging from the United States in the 1990s. Before then, the cardinal said, “for us it did not exist.” 

Catholic defections up 

An independent commission under a former government minister, Wim Deetman, is currently investigating 2,000 cases of clerical sexual abuse in Holland. The commission was established last year after failings were revealed in the Dutch Church’s own body, set up in 1995. 

In Austria, where 5.5 million Catholics make up two-thirds of the population, it was revealed in January that record numbers of Catholics had opted not to pay the state-run Church tax because of the crisis. Some 87,400 people officially left the Church in 2010, up 64 percent over 2009, and a record since 1945, according to the Catholic news agency Kathpress. More than 1,000 people contacted Austrian help lines set up by the Church last year after bishops encouraged abuse victims to step forward after decades of silence. Around 100 cases have been passed to prosecutors and compensation awarded. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said that abuse revelations had “certainly” played a role in the decisions to leave the Church, but also pointed out the general decrease in Austrians’ ties to institutions. 

Meanwhile, the apostolic visitation to Ireland, announced by Pope Benedict XVI in his dramatic Lenten letter last year, has begun with a series of meetings in January across both the Republic and Northern Ireland. The task of the papal delegates — led in Armagh by the retired Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor — is to listen to the experience of victims and to learn the lessons of what went so badly wrong in the Church’s past handling of abuse. 

The visitation, following damning reports in 2008-2009 exposing a culture of systematic cover-up of abuse, especially in the Dublin archdioese, will report to Rome in the summer. 

Although the meetings have been closed to the press, victims have described being listened to carefully and openly by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and Baroness Sheila Hollins, professor of the U.K. Board of Psychiatry. 

Pope promising action 

Victims in Drogheda told them that behind the crisis was “arrogance, power and feelings of superiority” of priests, the “architecture of hierarchy” in Irish society and “the disenfranchisement of women.” 

“We went in a bit doubtful, but we do know that we had his ear,” said Margaret McGuckin, who was abused at the Nazareth Sisters orphanage in Belfast when she was 3. “We told him that we really needed someone that we could trust, someone that was really going to deliver for us.” 

The cardinal has told them that while he himself can do nothing, he will act as a faithful recorder to the pope, who has promised action. 

Yet while the trend in the European clergy abuse crisis is now toward pastoral care and healing of the victims, victims are continuing to seek redress through the courts. 

Minnesota lawyer Jeff Anderson, who has won tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. Church in more than 1,500 lawsuits, has set up a new office in London, hoping to encourage new litigants. 

But the prospect of U.K. dioceses filing for bankruptcy after being forced to make eye-watering payouts is a distant one: Compensation for sexual abuse in Britain is around $30,000-$50,000, a long way from the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to victims in the United States. And Anderson’s initiative feels a little late in the day: Claims have reduced to a trickle — even if the anger will take longer to go away. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

Course correction (sidebar)

The revelation last month of a January 1997 letter from the then-papal nuncio to Ireland showed that some at the Vatican were still ambivalent about bishops being required to report abuse to civil authorities. But it also showed, as in the Belgian cases, that the civil authorities were themselves ambivalent in responding to allegations. The Irish Church adopted a policy of mandatory reporting of all cases of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities in 1996, despite the fact that it was not required by law in the Irish Republic. 

Archbishop Luciano Storero’s letter communicated the Pontifical Congregation for the Clergy’s “moral and canonical” concerns over mandatory reporting. The congregation was at the time under the direction of Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, whose opposition to bishops reporting their priests to the civil authorities is well documented. In 2001, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was given responsibility for clerical abuse cases, that policy was reversed.