It is more than 30 years since the scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church began to emerge across the English-speaking world.
At first a few isolated survivors told their stories, soon followed by an avalanche of revelations. Regardless of the location, the same patterns appear: disclosures followed by cover-ups, priests relocated to abuse again. The church’s response has been abysmal, and it is only through investigations by the civil authorities that we now know the full truth. In Ireland, the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports each revealed the same dismal pattern: children were recklessly endangered to protect the status of the church.
While bishops’ conferences in some countries have put in place good child safeguarding procedures, both they and the Vatican have struggled to develop an adequate response to the bishops and cardinals who were part of the cover-up. The recent long-delayed defrocking of American cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the conviction of Australian cardinal George Pell for sexual offences show that sexual predators exist in the highest echelons of the church, but there has been little effort to hold accountable those leaders who concealed sexual crimes by priests under their authority.
When Pope Francis was elected, many survivors hoped for a fresh and vigorous approach to child protection. From putting in place a Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to calling a Vatican Summit on Child Protection last week, hopes were high that an era of zero tolerance had begun.
Sadly, the reality has been different, from failing to implement the recommendations of his own commission to calling Chilean survivors liars. The Pope has refused to create a Vatican tribunal to try bishops who ignore or cover up abuse. In November the Pope forbade the American bishops’ conference from holding a vote on the introduction of penalties for senior churchmen.
It is still not mandatory for dioceses across the world to have a child safeguarding policy in place.
The Pope has made several important statements over the years abhorring the sexual abuse of children, including during his visit to Ireland in August 2018. He has apologised to survivors again and again. But he has never proposed any tangible changes in Vatican law or policy that would tackle sex offenders and their protectors in a meaningful way.
This culminated in the Pope’s astonishingly defensive closing address to the Vatican summit on Sunday. Almost half the speech focused on the prevalence of child sexual abuse in families and communities, as if to minimise the incidence of clerical abuse. He is correct: fewer than five per cent of abused children are assaulted by clerics. And the high prevalence of sexual abuse within families is a major and largely hidden tragedy that we have so far utterly failed to tackle. But this is hardly the point at a summit specifically dealing with clerical sexual abuse; when we know that literally thousands of Catholic priests and religious across the world have sexually harmed children.
Dealing with priests who sexually abuse is one thing. They can be brought before the courts and offered treatment to reduce their level of risk.
Dealing with those who protect them is quite another matter. The Vatican has thousands of files in its archives which it consistently refuses to release to civil authorities across the world. It has declined to fully co-operate with State inquiries, including the Murphy inquiry which investigated Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese. It has refused to name the senior churchmen who suppressed evidence against abusers. McCarrick was elevated to cardinal despite years of allegations piling up against him. Will we ever know who protected him and to what purpose?
Perhaps the most reprehensible section of the Pope’s speech on Sunday was when he castigated those who are demanding that bishops be held accountable as “exploiting, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones”. With all due respects, Your Holiness, our only interest is to keep children safe.
Civil authorities across the globe were historically complicit in colluding with the Catholic Church to conceal crimes of child abuse, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged during the Pope’s visit. But that climate is changing. Pell, occupying the third most powerful position in the Vatican, is spending his first days in prison in Melbourne. French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is currently on trial for covering up sexual abuse in the diocese of Lyon. Following the Pennsylvania grand jury report last year, several US states are planning similar investigations. They will all reveal the same familiar truths.
Despite real progress in the Irish church and elsewhere, it is time that we acknowledge that the Vatican is incapable of true accountability.
After decades of Vatican procrastination, we must accept that it is only when the civil authorities intervene through inquiries or criminal justice proceedings that the Catholic Church will be held to account. The summit on child protection was regrettably another missed opportunity to keep children safe from sexual harm.
Maeve Lewis is executive director of One in Four.