Pope Francis has endeavored to tackle the most recent clergy sex abuse scandal with a letter addressed to the People of God. The Pope wrote it following the release of a 1,300-page plus report of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury. The Pope was straightforward, stressing the Church failed in tackling the abuse crisis, and identifying an excess of clericalism as part of the problem.
Pope Francis response and apology are powerful, and are consistent with the line this Pontificate has always followed: zero tolerance in sex abuse cases and care for the victims. Following this path, Pope Francis also announced that he was not going to grant any pardons nor even allow the priests to appeal when major accusations were substantiated. And, during the trip to Ireland, asked forgiveness for all the abuses committed from the Church.
Pope Francis himself credited Benedict XVI for the zero tolerance procedures. Even meeting with survivors was a Benedict XVI’s initiative, that Pope Francis continued with meetings inside the Vatican and the inclusion of survivors in the ranks of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
The Pope emeritus met with survivors during his Apostolic journeys to the US, UK, Australia and Germany. One of the most beautiful pages in Benedict XVI’s pontificate is the letter to the faithful of Ireland. Benedict XVI was concerned about the issue even before his election, and everybody remembers his reference to the “filth” within the Church in the 2005 Way of the Cross Meditation.
Not by chance, Pope Francis quoted the Way of the Cross meditation in his letter to the people of God. Not by chance, the first official response to the Report, handled by the Holy See Press Office, stressed that, beyond the pain, cases took place many years ago, and not in recent times, and this is a sign, the Press Office underscored, that reforms underway are working.
Yet, the more than 1,3000 pages of the Pennsylvania report reveal much more than data, even if the data itself is scary: the Report speaks about sex abuse committed in 6 out of the 8 dioceses of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnston were not included in the investigation, as they had been the object of other investigations in the past); the report lists some 301 predator priests and more than 1,000 minors abused in the last 70 years.
The Report reveals more than data because it comes out at the climax of the ex- Cardinal McCarrick scandal. McCarrick resigned as a Cardinal after the Pope asked him to retire and live in penance because accusations against him (for crimes no longer prosecutable because of the time that has elapsed) were credible. The report also comes in the midst of a new reckoning of the phenomenon by the American clergy, while in Chile consideration is being given to calling the Pope as a witness in abuse trials – the same discussion that took place in the United States in 2010.
The report tells more because the data, and the reaction it generated, reveals that the Church, in the end, does not really know how to tackle the abuse issue.
This conclusion might seem strong, and this is why I will try to explain the way I see the situation.
Pope Francis’ letter is the climax of a series of initiatives and responses of the Catholic Church to the crisis.
The beginning of the negative trend started back in 2015, when members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had lunch with Pope Francis, asking him about the appointment of Bishop Barros Madrid to Osorno, in the diocese where he had been part of the “magic circle” of the charismatic (and abuser) Fr. Fernando Karadima. Pope Francis’ trip to Chile in 2018 marked then what is going to be a new “annus horribilis” for the Catholic Church. During that trip, Pope Francis first defended Bishop Barros, and only after made the decision to see what clearly happened.
McCarrick’s case and the Grand Jury report - plus the allegations that the Pope was informed of McCarrick’s case long time ago - have not only contributed to mounting public opinion against the Church. They have also triggered reactions among the Church’s ranks. The US Conference of Bishops even asked Pope Francis to call for an Apostolic Visit; new and more severe norms have been discussed; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has proposed to set up a commission, comprised with lay people being a majority of its membership, to tackle the issue.
Cardinal Wuerl himself has ended up in the eye of the storm for things that happened when he was bishop of Pittsburgh, as well as for some old charges against him that have re-surfaced, and even for the way he had managed the McCarrick case. Cardinal Wuerl made in the end the decision not to go to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families.
Nor did Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, take part in the World Meeting of Families, to stay in Boston and handle a new case of abuse, in the seminary of Boston.
In the meantime, American bishops called for exemplary reactions, and even wanted to look at the issue from a more profound point of view. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who was a member of the Congregation of Bishops, denounced that procedures have existed for years, but not applied. The infiltration of a gay sub-culture within the Church ranks was denounced. Following many years when victims had not been heard, or their claims dismissed, now all the Bishops underscore that listening to the victims is a must.
These reactions prove to me that the Church has not understood how to handle the abuse crisis. All of these reactions appear to be reactions to public opinion, and do not seem to be pointing towards a clear and definitive solution of the problem.
It was a journalistic investigation that originally shed light on the abuse scandal, and that inspired and provided the narrative for the script of an Academy Award Winning movie. The power of the media has seemingly become so strong that there is no space to develop a lucid and concrete strategy that is not an outcome of volatile emotions. A strategy that is not merely a reaction, in the end.
It must be clear that even just one case of abuse is one case too many, and must not be justified in any way. Justice and healing must be the guiding principles in responding to the cases of abuse.
Taking this as a given, there is some food for thought, which must not be underestimated either.
First, the Grand Jury of Pennsylvania could produce a report of abuse because the cases were documented in the diocesan archive, and in many cases the diocese had paid settlements to the victims.
This is not just happening in the US now. The abuse in Belgium came out because Belgian bishops, shocked by the case of the pedophile Marc Dutroux, increased the level of awareness of the issue in the mid-1990s, and in 2000 they established a commission, led by the prosecutor Peter Adriaennsens. Even in the US, the awareness started in the middle of the 1990s, while the disgraced life of the founder of Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, was finally revealed when the former Legionary José Barba-Matìn got to the UN Committee on Children and Youth.
There was already a path to follow, for the Catholic Church. And this path goes beyond the popes’ apologies and summary trials, which can only slightly alleviate the pain of survivors. Beyond that, there is a need to set up a working system, not just on reactions based on justice, but on nurturing real priests.
Seminaries turn out to be the problem in the end. The gay sub-culture behind the phenomenon of the abuse was denounced. Somebody could say it is politically incorrect, and would object that pedophilia and homosexuality are two different situations. However, sex abuse by clergy are almost always about homosexual relations – abuse of men against other men – as can be noted in the 2011 John Jay Report data, although the report also specified that clinical data “do not support the hypothesis that priest with a homosexual identity or those who committed same sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior.”
A polish priest, Fr. Dariusz Oko, wrote a paper that speaks clearly about what he calls “homo-heresy,” and about how this “homo-heresy” has spread in the Church. The crucial point is that, in many cases, these homosexual improper relations are not just about abuse against minors. They are mostly acts of power. This mostly happens when the abused are seminarians or young priests. Sex is used as a tool of submission, not for personal pleasure. Just a few have explored this issue.
However, the issue was very well known. So much so that Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Instruction for the Access to Seminaries, forbade access to seminary to those who even merely back and could eventually support a gay culture. That is, even mere moral complicity can generate a cancer among the priestly vocations, at a time when vocations are decreasing.
Perhaps it is not by chance that Fr. Tony Antrella, a priest and French psychiatrist who was among the drafters of that text and is among the main experts in gender theory and homosexuality, was suspended from any therapeutic activity by Archbishop Michel Aupetit, of Paris. Fr. Anatrella had been charged of having abused some patients in therapy. In 2017, a canon law investigation was initiated at the Toulose tribunal, in order not to have improper pressures in the competent tribunal of Paris. This canon law investigation ended March 19, 2018, concluding that the charges were unsubstantiated. Even the civil trial reached the same conclusion. Why, then, was Anatrella asked not to carry on with therapeutic activity? What is the evidence against him? Or were there pressures to place this restriction against him?
The suspicion (only a suspicion) of pressures bring us back to the sex abuse by clergy. The public opinion wants a Church that apologizes, that takes strong measures, in order to contrast it to the image of a corrupt Church, that betrayed the trust of her faithful, and that now must kneel.
Must the Church really yield to the pressure of public opinion? Fr. John Zuhldorf made it clear: the sex abuse scandals represent a direct attack on priests, because with no priests there is no Eucharist, and with no Eucharist there is no Church. Following this rationale, it is no surprise that the latest “annus horribilis” of the Church for abuse fell during the Year of Priesthood.
It works this way: priests are accused, and their laicization for this behavior is always more strongly demanded, in many cases as if laicization was the only possible measure, the strongest one to tackle a horrible issue. But how many priests have been unjustly accused, and then, once things are clarified and they are cleaned of every charge, cannot get back to their priestly ministry? And how many vocations are lost for this reason? Pope Francis himself, in the in flight press conference from his trip to Ireland, mentioned the Romanones case of Granada: priests alleged of abuses and treated as guilty from public opinion were found in the end innocent.
In addition to that, there is one question: is it not possible that this climate will lead to new cover-ups? If a bishop or a priest are accused by the very Church any time public opinion demands it, will this bishop or priest be willing to report bad things when they happen? Will he not want to keep everything silent, knowing that if he does not, he will be among those under attack? The answer should be that the priest should act according to justice, without any concerns about consequences, and that too many times priests and bishops did not act this way, and acted instead in a criminal way. This is true. It is also forgotten, however, that priests are men, and they make mistakes. Conceiving the Church as an immaculate institution would be to deny the truth, or to idealize it to the point that it is rejected as unreal or attacked when the utopian does not live up to this ideal.
Beyond the recognition of her mistakes and the punishment of the criminals that flourish in her, the Church and the Churchmen are called to develop a path that goes really beyond the current discussion. The current discussion, in the end, is almost political, and bears a political lexicon: major involvement of lay people, acting according to justice, removal of guilty people, actions and measures to eradicate the criminals and so on.
These are all ideological discussions that are part, in the end, of the big debate that emerged during the Second Vatican Council. Outside of the Council’s halls, the political lexicon was food for the “Council of the media,” using the insightful term coined by Benedict XVI. This Council of the media was not the real Council, indeed.
However, priests and bishops themselves believed in the Council of the media, and this is evident from the way bishops and priests are tackling the sex abuse issue, and how they look at the Church.
Polarization is another issue that comes with it: on the one hand, there are those who underscore that the real issue is clericalism, as Pope Francis wrote in the letter, because it was clericalism that resisted the Council’s reforms, that were geared toward a Church freed from any secular interest and more spiritual. On the other hand, the crisis of the Church is considered to have its roots in the Liturgical reform, because the sense of the sacred was lost.
The real issue, in the end, are men. The political terminology brought about another way of addressing issues. The sense of sin was lost or transformed into the notion of accountability. The sense for liturgy and for the sacred were not lost because of the liturgical reform, but simply because the quasi political discussion became more important than caring for the things of God.
So much so that Fr. Thomas Rosica could proudly speak of a Church that is now recognized in a leader, and not in Scriptures, and this generates few reactions. But the Pope is not a leader, he is the temporary possessor of a ministry entrusted to him by the Holy Spirit. A Pope who lives and acts within a path marked by Jesus Christ. And he does so even making mistakes, as the Pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra – that is, in very few cases.
The real issue, in the end, is that the Church has lost her ability to understand herself. Enclosed by a social vocabulary, she lost sight of philosophy and theology. While it is sad to recognize it, abuse has always been there, and they are somehow common in closed and highly hierarchical environments. The issue is to know what is the final sense of the path, as one becomes priest with the final aim of the salvation of humanity. If this is not understood, or if there is an inability to explain it, then you are an easy victim of abuse, and you can easily become an accomplice for your silence.
For all of these reasons, I see a Church that is not ready to tackle the issue of abuse. Not because of her earthly structures (even if measures and procedures can always be improved) but because of her inability to perceive herself from a perspective of eternity. It is a secular Church, that lives secular sentiments like nostalgia, the need for progress and pushing for punishment and for resignations and accountability –but that lost the sense of joy, of forgiveness, of justice and of the search for the truth. The Pope shook this rationale with the request of forgiveness introduced in the Penitential rite of Mass he celebrated at the end of the World Meeting of Families. It was a good will gesture. But, still, the problem stays in the public discourse.
If the Church uses a secular language, it is easy for the secular world to attack her. In the end, nothing makes her different from reality. It is not surprising that, for the first time, the term LGBT was used in the working document of the next Synod on youth, a Holy See official document, thus bringing the Church to the club of States that categorize people not on the basis of their humanity, but of their sexual orientation.
And so, it is easy to attack the secret of confession, and there are good odds of success at the attempt. It is easy to raise pressures through international law, in order to eradicate, after the priesthood, even the sovereignty of the Holy See, and considering it just one of the many organizations that are fighting with the scourge of abuse within their ranks – even the United Nations was the object of similar accusations. Easy, in the end, to attack the means through which the Church promotes integral human development, in order to take out support to her end, which does not lie in structures, but deals with the redemption of man.
The abuse crisis will remain a crisis as long as the Church fails to go beyond mere reactions. Things will change only when the Church once again, and strongly, speak about eternity, sin, humanity, redemption, and forgiveness. Only then, the Church will rise again.