March 23, 2012


Clerical sex-abuse scandal

Nothing tore the Catholic Church apart more during the past decade than the clergy sex-abuse scandal. It seems safe to say that no one ever imagined the seriousness of the scandal when it first broke or that it would reach the international proportions that it did.

We know that many Catholics even stopped practicing their faith because of the scandal. We believe that that was an unfortunate reaction, essentially hurting themselves by no longer taking advantage of the spiritual aids that the Church offers because some human members of the Church acted sinfully.

Nevertheless, a decade after the headlines broke, other members of the Church are still determined to make sure that nothing like that scandal happens again.

The largest international symposium on the topic took place on Feb. 6-9 in Rome. It was organized by the Jesuit’s Pontifical Gregorian University with the backing of the Vatican. The purpose of the symposium was to inspire and educate bishops’ conferences around the world as they seek to comply with the Vatican’s mandate to establish anti-abuse guidelines by May.

The United States, Canada, Australia and Germany already have binding guidelines they are working under, and dioceses that might not have had effective procedures now have them. Of course, that includes the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which had them in place for many years.

The message at the symposium was clear—victims, truth and justice must come first. There is to be no more silence on the part of bishops out of a mistaken idea that they are protecting the Church.

No one spoke more plainly about that silence than Msgr. Charles Scicluna, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s handling of

sex-abuse cases. He said, “The deadly culture of silence, or omerta, is in itself wrong and unjust.” Omerta is usually associated with the Mafia.

Bishops have a duty to cooperate fully with civil authorities when civil laws are broken, Msgr. Scicluna said.

His superior, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave the opening address at the assembly. He said that more than 4,000 reports of sexual abuse of minors were received by his office during the past 10 years.

They showed, he said, that an exclusively canonical response to the crisis has been inadequate, and that a multifaceted and more proactive approach by all bishops and religious orders is needed.

Emphasis at the symposium was given to the need to listen to victims. The cardinals, bishops and others present practiced what was preached by listening to Marie Collins, an Irish woman who had been abused as a child.

At the beginning of the symposium, she told those assembled that having her abuser’s superiors shift the blame onto her and fail to stop the perpetrator caused her more pain and shock than the abuse itself.

Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, was listening to Collins. Later, he and 10 other bishops led a solemn penitential service in which they asked forgiveness for failing to protect children and serving instead as an “instrument of evil against them.”

Under Cardinal Levada’s leadership, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is determined to bring this problem under control. Last May, it released a circular letter listing what should be the Church’s five emphases in addressing clerical sex abuse:

  • Listening to the victims and their families with a commitment to their spiritual and psychological assistance as a shepherd of souls should do.
  • Taking concrete steps to ensure a safe environment for children in churches and schools.
  • Paying greater attention to the formation of candidates for the priesthood and religious life with regard to a true understanding of celibacy, chastity and spiritual fatherhood.
  • Focusing on continuing formation of the clergy and awareness of sexual abuse issues.
  • Cooperating with the civil authorities in cases of alleged crime by anyone working for the Church.

We believe that this scandal is finally under control. There might be a bishop or superior of a religious order who hasn’t gotten the message yet, but they should be few and far between.

If there had ever been any doubt about the pope’s and the Vatican’s position, those days are over.

—John F. Fink

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