The scope of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church is slowly emerging, as individual dioceses begin to voluntarily release abuse data. In the US, 96 of 178 dioceses (54 percent) have made public the names of credibly accused clerics in lists totaling more than 2,600 individuals. While not revealing the identities of the accused, the US Council of Catholic Bishops has acknowledged that credible accusations have been lodged against 6,721 clerics since 1950. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has received 3,420 credible reports of abuse in just the past 10 years. These numbers likely contain significant overlaps, making an accurate tally impossible. Moreover, church leaders in many countries, including majority Catholic nations like France and Mexico, have yet to release any information to the public. Studies based on publicly available information have estimated that between 4 percent and 5 percent of clergy have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.
in Catholic Circles
Days before the bishops’ meeting on sexual abuse was set to begin in Rome, Pope Francis announced the first defrocking of a cardinal for sexual abuse of children. Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington DC, was found guilty of decades of sexual abuse in an expedited canonical trial conducted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Francis laicized McCarrick immediately after the guilty verdict was rendered, a move that some viewed as a revolutionary turning point in the church’s response to reports of abuse. Others are calling for criminal charges to be filed against the former cardinal. Following the CDF’s verdict, St. Bonaventure University, College of Mount Saint Vincent, St. John’s University, Providence College, Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Catholic University, Siena College, University of Portland and the College of New Rochelle rescinded the honorary degrees they had conferred on McCarrick. Several other colleges and universities have yet to follow suit. For several of these institutions, including Georgetown and Catholic University, it is the first time in their history that they have rescinded an honorary degree. For Notre Dame, it is the second, having rescinded Bill Cosby’s honorary degree last year after convictions on multiple sexual assault charges.
While McCarrick was found guilty by a church tribunal, Cardinal George Pell was convicted in Australia’s criminal courts. The Victoria County jury delivered guilty verdicts on five counts of child sexual abuse that occurred in 1996 when Pell was archbishop of Melbourne, only four months after Pell had established the Melbourne Response protocol to respond to abuse allegations and provide compensation to victims. Testimony pertaining to details of the abuse remain under seal, as does the identity of the victim. Before being charged, Pell appeared several times before the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to testify to his handling of abuse allegations against 55 priests when he was archbishop of Sydney. Investigations into his own conduct began in 2013, and the first charges against him were filed in 2017. Most recently, Pell had served as prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, but was terminated in December 2018. Defense attorneys have announced their intention to file an appeal. This was Pell’s second trial, the first ending in a hung jury.
In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, stood trial for allegedly covering up reports of abuse by a priest. The court rendered its verdict on March 7; the cover-up verdict being delivered before the trial of the accused priest, Bernard Preynat, which is expected later this year.
Just as the bishops convened in Rome, Senator Jerry Hill introduced a bill in the California legislature that would classify members of the clergy as mandatory reporters. The bill (SB 360) would amend the state’s Health and Safety Code and Penal Code to remove exceptions for clergy who acquire information through “penitential communications,” thus requiring them to report all incidents or suspicions of abuse to law enforcement, regardless of how they came by the information. Failure to do so would result in misdemeanor charges against the clergy member.
In Pennsylvania, on the heels of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, State Representative Mark Rozzi introduced the “Real Deal” bill, which would eliminate statutes of limitation on child sexual abuse cases. A similar bill has been introduced by Delegate C.T. Wilson in the Maryland General Assembly.
The much anticipated summit on sexual abuse by clergy convened at the Vatican in February. Attendees watched prerecorded testimony by abuse victims from each continent, detailing sexual abuse, physical assaults, forced abortions and resulting lifelong psychological trauma. As the summit got underway, two prominent cardinals, Blase Cupich of Chicago and Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotà, cited clericalism as the root cause of sexual abuse in the church. Cupich described the “clerical mentality” as one in which priests “think because they’re in a position of power… they can get away with this kind of thing,” an attitude Gómez characterized as a “distortion of the meaning of ministry.” Cupich introduced a proposal that would authorize an accused cleric’s superior to launch investigations and to incorporate lay experts throughout the process. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, also expressed dissatisfaction with the “head-in-the-sand” status quo, suggesting a new Vatican dicastery be created to address the “global emergency” of abuse and cover-ups. Similar to the Cupich proposal, this new office would grant greater authority at the regional level to investigate allegations. Coleridge joined Cupich and Gómez in citing clericalism as a root of both the abuse and the conspiracy to conceal allegations and protect the accused.
Observers of the summit, however, came away with what they had expected: all talk, no action. Rather than a change in policy, the pope recommended “a change of heart.” In response to Francis’ 21 points for reflection, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued 21 points of action for preventing abuse and supporting survivors. The pontiff’s emphasis on spiritual formation over legislative action confirmed the fears of former members of the Vatican’s commission to study sexual abuse instituted by Pope Francis in 2014, who held that statements out of Rome during the summit “intimate that the original role and purpose of the [commission] has shifted from ‘policy change’ to ‘education.’” Former commissioners called on attendees of the papal summit to actively reevaluate the commission’s structure, purpose and efficacy. Marie Collins, who resigned from the commission in 2017, joined several other former members in calling for the commission to reinstitute itself as a body independent of the Vatican, lamenting that “at this point the pontifical commission seems to have completely lost its way.”
The press corps on the papal plane recently reported that Pope Francis described abuse of nuns by priests as “sexual slavery.” The pontiff’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had dissolved the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean after learning of the abuse that Francis characterized as “slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder.” The Vatican acted quickly to correct these comments, releasing a statement that relabeled “sexual slavery” as “manipulation.” However, the problem extends far beyond a single religious order, with reports of rape and forced abortion rampant in Africa, for example, where nuns are viewed by priests as “safe” because they are unlikely to be infected with HIV. Further reports of harassment, abuse and rape have come from South America, India, Europe and even the Vatican itself, where an officer of the doctrinal office resigned after a former nun lodged allegations against him. Francis seemed to convey doubt that a solution is imminent, speaking of revelations and investigations as “part of a process.” Survivors groups found the ope’s remarks unsatisfactory. Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org described the problem as an “epidemic” and joined the chorus of voices that chided the Vatican for speaking “as if they’re identifying a problem for the first time,” a posture that strikes Doyle as “disingenuous.” These reservations were bolstered when the New York Times revealed that the Vatican maintains a secret “internal” protocol for priests who father children.
The Colorado House passed the Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education Bill (HB 19 1032) in February. The proposed law would prohibit “abstinence-only” education and the use of religious doctrine as a basis for sex-ed, as well as “shame based or stigmatizing language or instructional tools” in teaching about birth control, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections or LGBT relationships. It would also require teachers to explicitly address the issue of consent. School districts may opt out of sex-ed altogether, but those wishing to incorporate it into their curriculum will be required to adhere to the standards set forth in the bill. The bill passed the Colorado House in mid-February.
Samuel Aquila, archbishop of Denver, Colorado, issued a letter, read at every Mass in the state on January 27, opposing the legislation. Hundreds of people, the majority of whom opposed the legislation, crowded the statehouse during a committee hearing after Aquila urged parishioners to contact their representatives to express opposition. The Colorado Catholic Conference (CCC), the political arm of the state’s bishops, also vigorously opposed the bill, despite the fact that the measure would apply only to public schools and would not impact private Catholic schools, which Aquila described as “a haven amidst our morally confused culture.”