The Roman Catholic Church does not need reforming. It needs a reckoning.
And it must start at the top.
The recent news that a Pennsylvania Grand Jury found a staggering amount of evidence of systematic abuse and coverup by the Catholic church was just the latest. The sheer amount of information was so staggering to many as to loose the full horror that had been uncovered: 884 pages, 1,356 exhibits, six decades of abuse, 301 predator priests, six different dioceses, 1,000+ children with notes that they suspected thousands more, all found and corroborated through church records. Writing about it earlier this week, Sam Wilkinson expressed the anger and frustration of many:
If this seems at all familiar, that is because it should, both within the horror timeline of the Catholic Church itself – abuse allegations have repeatedly been substantiated throughout both the United States and around the world – and throughout broader society generally, including bedrock sporting organizations and established cultural institutions. And in each case, the response from the offenders has always been exactly the same: to sacrifice the wellbeing of children at the altar from protecting themselves from the consequences of their actions.
It is tempting to imagine the day that every single institution guilty of this sort of wanton criminal conspiracy is disassembled, brick by brick by brick, until the only thing left is the weeds that emerge from the earth left behind. Those institutions certainly deserve nothing better, kinder, or gentler. How many lives were inexorably changed, both by the abuse itself, and the subsequent refusal to believe reports of it? How many abusers inexplicably enjoyed a benefit of the doubt that their victims were never even offered? How many lives were sacrificed to protect the institutions that enabled such involuntary sacrifice?
And the really shocking part? Nothing will probably come of it, as detailed by NBC News:
And at least for now, all the state can do about it is to name and shame, because the grand jury had no authority to indict anyone and because state law provides only a narrow window of time for alleged abusers to be prosecuted.
“We wanted to charge as many of these predators as we could, but because of our weak laws in Pennsylvania, we could only charge two of the 301 predator priests that were identified,” Shapiro told NBC News. “And so it was critically important, as the grand jurors said, to ensure that the truth be told.”
Telling that in the same NBC piece, the grand jurors themselves noted how hollow the Catholic Church’s claims of not knowing ring, as they found a long pattern of settlements and non-disclosure agreements among the exhibits they reviewed:
The grand jury issued two other recommendations: that state laws that mandate reporting of abuse be strengthened and that non-disclosure agreements reached as part of internal church investigations be disregarded in criminal actions.
Referring to the hundreds of thousands of documents it reviewed, the grand jury complained that “the subpoenaed records contained quite a few confidentiality agreements, going back decades.” It described them as “payouts sealed by silence.”
The grand jury acknowledged that there might be a place for confidentiality agreements in civil litigation, but it said “there should be no room for debate on one point: no non-disclosure agreement can or should apply to criminal investigations.”
“All future agreements should have to say that in big bold letters,” it said.
While the grand jury was doing its work in the States, in Chile the mass resignation of bishops a few months ago was not enough to stave off the continuing investigation into abuse allegations in that country, which continues with prosecutors recently raiding 8 offices of senior church officials. Writing on the still developing scandal back in May, Philip Lawler saw the too-familiar pattern, which in hindsight becomes even more glaring:
Like so many other sex-abuse complaints, the scandal in Chile can be traced back for decades: to 1985, when bishops heard the first complaints about Fr. Fernando Karadima. Those complaints were suppressed until 2010, when reluctant bishops finally took action against the popular priest, and in 2011 Karadima was condemned by a Vatican tribunal. It was after that verdict—after Karadima had been sentenced to a life of prayer and repentance—that Pope Francis promoted one of Karadima’s close associates, Bishop Juan Barros, to a diocesan see. When that promotion drew protests in Chile, and Barros offered to step aside, the pope doubled down, saying that the complaints against the bishop were “unfounded allegations of leftists.” More recently, on his visit to Chile in January, the pontiff went still farther, characterizing the charges against Bishop Barros as “calumny” and claiming that he had never received solid evidence of wrongdoing. Soon it emerged that the pope had received a detailed complaint against Barros, hand-delivered to him by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Apparently he had not taken it seriously.
Without question, Pope Francis was given inaccurate information by the Chilean bishops; he had ample reason to be angry with them. In his unpublished letter to the bishops, he revealed that his investigators had found evidence of dishonesty, of covering up abuse, of transferring guilty priests from one diocese to another. But can the pontiff have been unprepared for this sort of episcopal dishonesty? Was this not the same pattern that had emerged fifteen years earlier, when the scandal erupted in the United States? Throughout his pontificate, Francis has regularly acted as if he had not been fully briefed on the sex-abuse problem.
In Australia, the former Archbishop of Adelaide finally resigned after his conviction for not reporting abuse by a priest under his charge in the 70s. He had resisted doing so until Prime Minister Turnbull, among others, demanded it.
Wilson resigned as archbishop of Adelaide in July, two months after being convicted. He wanted to hold on to the position until he completed his appeal but came under pressure from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, fellow clerics and abuse victims to quit.
Pope Francis named Bishop Greg O’Kelly to run the Archdiocese of Adelaide until a new archbishop has been appointed.
“Bishop O’Kelly said he was keeping Archbishop Wilson in his prayers as he formally commences this stage in his life, while also remembering the victims and survivors of abuse in the church,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
Wilson would be staying at a relative’s home, it said.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the country’s top Catholic body that Wilson once led, had no immediate comment.
“Commences this stage in his life” is an odd official statement on someone you are affiliated with being convicted of covering up the abuse of children. But at least he issued a statement, unlike many other cases where the only response is silence. No comment. No contrition. Move the next official up to replace the removed one and carry on. It’s been established; this is the Catholic Church’s pattern for decades. We have 2000 years of history that says the Catholic Church cannot be trusted to police itself, preferring to maintain its own power structure and public image. If the abuse of victims by the Catholic Church is hard to bring to light in countries with strong legal rights, established criminal justice systems, and free presses like the United States and Australia, what horrors lie uncovered in the diverse places where such freedoms do not exist but the Catholic Church does?
Any hierarchical organization with one person at the top would be expected to hold that leader accountable. So it must be here, and the peoples of the world, and especially the faithful of the Catholic Church, must demand accountability by the Pontiff himself. Reforms are not enough, nor are committee appointments, or internal investigations, or more lip service while the structures that these predators used to prey on the innocent remain in place. Radical, unflinching, immediate change must come.
Saying “I didn’t know” is not acceptable for the CEOs of corporations, leaders of universities, or any other large group in which institutional control is expected and demanded both by decency and the law. Pope Francis should take responsibility, decry publicly what has befallen the organization that he was charged with leading and his own lack of action to allow prosecution of those responsible, and demand accountability of everyone from the Pope to parishioners. He should clean house with the curia and anyone else that had even marginal knowledge and involvement.
Then he should lead by example. The Pope must resign.
Anything short of that is endorsing the status quo, and should be treated as condoning — and the Pontiff being complicit in — the abuse of children and others.