How Will Pope Francis Respond to the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis?

by John McKiggan

Newly ordained Pope Francis has certainly started his papacy by making the headlines. He turned down the luxurious Papal housing in the Apostolic Palace in favour of a simple hotel room, he travelled to a juvenile detention centre to wash the feet of the inmates, and he has issued what is seen as a strong statement against sex abusers in the clergy.

Pope Francis, the head of 1.2 billion followers of the Roman Catholic faith, called on the Church to act against clergy sex abuse. He demanded that the Bishops’ conferences around the world need to step up to disciplining the priests and assisting the victims. USA Today reports, :

“This could be an indication that he will move from a strongly centralized government of the church of 1.2 billion people to one that places increased authority locally.”

Right direction?

A strong statement by the Pope, yes, but is it a sign that the Church is moving in the right direction?

I think it might actually be problematic.

In my view, decentralization of authority is one of the factors that allowed the abuse crisis to happen in the first place. Bishops were moving abusive priests around like checkers on a checkerboard and no one was holding the Bishops responsible for their actions.

One of the main players involved in the scandal is the ex-Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law. Cardinal Law, who now lives in Rome, covered up hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse within his Archdiocese in Boston.

Law has indicated that his practice was to refer the priests to psychiatrists and therapists before re-assessment as to whether to return them to practice. It is exactly this kind of decentralized mismanagement that allowed the thousands of abuse cases around the world to take place!

As a sign of how attuned Francis is to the problem the Church faces regarding sexual abuse, one of the first Cardinals the new Pope met with following his election was Cardinal Law. Abuse victims described the Pope’s actions as “rubbing salt into still festering wounds”.

Cardinals Council

Last week the Vatican announce Pope Francis has named a council of 8 cardinals to provide him with advice on reform of the Church. The National Catholic Reporter called it a “signal that major reform may be on the horizon”

I’m not so sure; at least not when it comes to responding to the demands of catholic priest sexual abuse victims around the world.

It took me less than 15 minutes to find statements attributed to 4 of the 8 Cardinals relevant to sexual abuse by priests.

Two of the Cardinals don’t appear to understand the magnitude of the problem.

Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras

In a May 2002 interview, when he was Cardinal of Honduras, Maradiaga claimed Jews influenced the media to exploit the Catholic priest sexual abuse crisis in order to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia

Australian media have noted Pell’s “controversial” views on the catholic sexual abuse crisis. Quoting Pell as saying:

“…priest paedophilia and sex abuse scandals are not the greatest issue facing his church.”

On the other hand, two of the candidates have made some hopeful statements and have taken steps to address allegations of priest abuse.

Francisco Javier Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa of Chile

In July 2010 Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, then Archbishop of Santigao asked the Vatican to rule on allegations of sexual abuse against a prominent Chilean priest accused of sexually abusing several teenagers.

Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston

According to Wikipedia O’Malley has settled more than 100 sexual abuse claims against priests and has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse. The National Catholic Reporter quoted him as saying:

“Quite often, the victims who want to see the bishop are the ones looking for a path to reconnect with God [and] with their faith. Not all of them, but a lot of them are looking for closure. In many cases, when a victim asks to see the bishop, it’s because they’re looking for a path home.”

So what should be done?

The Pope should have issued specific instructions to Bishops to report all abuse allegations to police and to disclose records of all priests disciplined for sexual abuse to child protection authorities.

A problem with the Catholic Church’s approach to the sexual abuse scandal is that they continue to protect the priests and deal with the issue internally. Once an allegation comes to light the Church should immediately involve the relevant authorities.

It appears that at least 2 of the 8 Cardinals tapped to provide advice to Pope Francis have a more enlightened view of the proper response to allegations of priest sexual abuse. It remains to be seen what views the other members of the commission take and whether Francis follows the commissions advice.

What do you think? How should Pope Francis handle the clerical sexual abuse crisis?

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