Is it too late to save the Catholic Church’s soul?

To paraphrase the grim Pennsylvania report: can the shepherds stop preying on the flock?

Reading the Pennsylvanian grand jury report is an encounter with the dark side of humanity. We are all too familiar with the Murphy, Ryan (2009) and Cloyne (2010) reports of the rape, brutalisation and humiliation of children in our own country. It is yet again stomach-churning to read the Pennsylvanian report, published this week. Many of us, perhaps naively, believed that we had heard the worst of how the leaders of the Catholic Church hid "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism that dominated the culture of the Vatican" (the description by taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil in 2011). Regrettably, we are here again with this report.

The 887 pages give nauseating details of the perversions and evil activities perpetrated on more than 1,000 children in six dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania, concealed by strategies devised by the most senior officials in the Catholic Church. Pennsylvania's attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who launched the report, believes the actual number of abused children is much greater but the grand jury could only investigate what they found in the subpoenaed half a million internal diocesan documents and witness accounts. Documents with factual evidence cannot be brushed aside. Many original letters from bishops to their priests and to each other are included in the report.

The perpetrators of abuse numbered 300 priests. Monsignors, bishops, archbishops and cardinals colluded in the cover-up. It is not credible that Pennsylvania is unique and that the findings of this report would not be replicated throughout the United States and other parts of the Catholic world.

These monstrous crimes against children constitute a moral catastrophe. And then there is the cover-up.The only priority for perpetrators and their superiors was care for the abusers and protection of the institution. The wounding of children and the destruction of young lives did not feature in the mindset of the perpetrators or their superiors. Compassion and care for the young abused children is visibly missing from the church documents.

Never say ‘rape’

These practices included suggestions to use euphemisms – to never say “rape” but instead say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues”. Above all: don’t tell the police. If priests were moved to other dioceses, congregations were to be told that it was because they were on sick leave or suffering from exhaustion. Don’t conduct genuine investigations, don’t use properly trained personnel for such investigations, just transfer the perpetrator to another location.

These reports include accounts of the oral, vaginal and anal rape of children. Children as young as seven forced to masturbate their abusers.

One abuser demonstrated the utter disregard for the humanity of children and is the most striking insight of why abusers thought such acts could be tolerated. “I thought that sex with a girl was sinful and that sex with a child was not violating them – it was doing something to them externally.”

Dehumanise little people first so that their humanity does not get in the way of exploiting them – how could anyone reach such a conclusion?

A priest raped a girl who became pregnant. He then arranged an abortion. The bishop in question wrote to the priest saying: “This is a difficult time in your life, and I realise how upset you are. I too share your grief.” The girl received no such letter.

A priest who confessed to an anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, one aged seven, met his bishop, who commended him for “his candour and sincerity”.

The Vatican has known for years the identities of those perpetrators named in the report. Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, is cited more than 200 times in the report. He knew about predatory priests and moved them around different dioceses, as was normal practice. And yet he was scheduled to come to the World Meeting of Families and speak in a session titled "The Welfare of the Family is Decisive for the Future of the World".

Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley has also withdrawn from what was to be the first live broadcast of a session, “Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults”. He is considered Pope Francis’s most trusted adviser on clerical sex abuse. He says there are problems in his seminary, St John’s in Boston.

Gold necklaces

Children were sexually abused in their homes, in the homes of priests and in hospitals. Priests gave gold cross necklaces to abused children, gifts with a sinister motive: other abusers would be able to recognise them for further abuse. Reports were made of one family where five girls had been abused. An endless stream of reports was never acted upon. A search warrant was issued for one priest’s house, where they found his collection of intimate items connected to girls.

Many will wonder where does the institution go now? Is reform possible?

There are only two choices; a middle path no longer exists. We can bury our heads in the sand, continue to deny what has happened and blame the media. Or we can demand of church leaders that they believe the Gospel imperative that “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) and initiate meaningful reforms that would have long since been the practice in any other organisation. The easily stated apologies impress neither survivors nor many Catholics who hold on to their faith in spite of, not because of, the institution.

In the real world, if an organisation discovered something rotten has happened, it would immediately drill down to the core to discover how and why this had happened. If there is no comprehension as to why so many in the priesthood committed crimes against the humanity they undertook to serve at ordination, the rot will be perpetuated. If the why is never excavated, if there is no significant analysis from outside experts, the future of the institution is grim.

Mandatory reporting

The report concludes that reporting of suspected clerical abuse should no longer be optional but mandatory, that the protection of abusers by the statute of limitations (in Pennsylvania) should be removed so that further investigations can be prosecuted, and that confidentiality agreements forced on survivors should be torn up.

The church itself should establish as a matter of urgency a strong body with real power. This body should have a lay (non-clerical) majority, include experts in human psychology and other relevant areas, be adequately funded by the Vatican, have the power to consult other experts, report directly to the pope, have the power to investigate reported or suspected clerical child sexual abuse, be able to subpoena documents from dioceses and religious orders, to compel witness testimony from clerics, to seek compulsory resignations of bishops, to carry out visitations, to liaise with civil authorities in all countries and to publish annual reports.

The commission established in 2014, and from which Marie Collins resigned, was powerless. Collins has since said the pope will be judged by his actions not his intentions. It would also demonstrate genuine remorse if priests, bishops, and cardinals who know their guilt stepped down before they were forced to resigned. Such action would be a real indication of honest renewal.

When the Gospel is not lived by those who preach to others, the consequences we are witnessing are the inevitable outcome. The grand jury report makes this point in a powerful phrase:

“We think it is reasonable to expect one of the world’s great religions, dedicated to the spiritual wellbeing of over a billion people, to find ways to organise itself so that the shepherds stop preying upon the flock.”