Is the Church doing enough?
This week Pope Francis met privately with victims of priestly sex abuse from Ireland, Britain and Germany. They attended Mass with the pontiff at the chapel at St. Martha’s Guesthouse, shared a meal and then met privately to tell their stories. Their meeting took place after the second gathering of a special commission the pope has established to address the problem of sex abuse by priests.
The sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests has been a horrible crime against young people, and Pope Francis is right to liken it to a “sacrilegious cult.” As Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI did, Pope Francis shared their struggles and asked forgiveness. Expressing the feelings of most Catholics, Pope Francis said, "Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness."
Predictably, the critics of the Catholic Church are unsatisfied, Barbara Blaine, the president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) dismissed the importance of Francis’ meeting. The Pope’s apology was not enough. Blaine demanded, "Francis must take decisive action right now" to address the scandal more directly. She dismissed the Pope’s call for reparations and said “stopping abuse and protecting children comes first…no child on earth is safer today because of this meeting.
With or without church officials, abuse victims can heal themselves. But only with church officials’ help can children protect themselves from child molesting clerics. That’s where the Pope must focus. And that’s where he’s refusing to act.”
If Blaine is an expert in this problem as she claims to be, then she is deliberately lying. She must know of the extensive child protection plans the Church has put in place. In addition to setting up an international commission to deal with this problem, Francis has responded with clarity and force. In the face of continued attacks on this issue from the United Nations and others, Pope Francis defended the Church’s actions in a March interview with the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera: “the Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility.”
The Catholic Herald‘s William Oddie highlights what the Catholic Church has done to address the problem and puts the crisis in a societal context — showing that the Catholic Church is far from being the only institution with a problem. Quoting Francis and pointing out what is being done, Oddie observes the high level of child sex abuse in American public schools and this week’s news from England lifts the curtain on historic child sex abuse of shocking proportions running through the English political and entertainment world.
Around the world Catholic bishops have put extensive protection programs in place. So, for example, in the United States safe environment training takes place in 194 dioceses. Over 2 million adults have been trained to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it and over 5 million children have been taught the skills to help them protect themselves from abuse. In addition to safe environment training, background checks are conducted on all personnel who have contact with children.
All dioceses have Codes of Conduct spelling out what is acceptable behavior, employ Victim Assistance Coordinators, assuring victims and in 2012, $8,015,842 was spent on therapy for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, all dioceses have Safe Environment Coordinators who assure the ongoing compliance to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. There is a Zero Tolerance policy on abusers since 2002. When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with Canon Law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ministry.
None of this work is acknowledged by SNAP or by the press. Instead the Catholic Church, as Pope Francis has pointed out, continues to be scapegoated, and Barbara Blaine and SNAP continue to pretend that nothing is being done. Attendees at the annual SNAP convention testify to the atmosphere of extreme hatred toward the Catholic Church. Could there be another motivation for the continued attacks on the Catholic Church? The links between church-suing lawyer Jeff Anderson and the funding of SNAP are well established.
What else can the Catholic Church do to address the sex abuse crisis? The Pope’s commission must make sure the zero tolerance principle is maintained across the church’s structures, but most of all, Catholic officials must be more proactive in getting the message across about what is being done every day at the local level to prevent child abuse. Those of us who work in parishes and school in the United States can testify to the extensive training courses, certification, background checks and child protection policies that are in place. At a moment’s notice, given any form of credible accusation, a priest or church worker will be yanked out and thrown under the bus. Catholics need to make it known that the zero tolerance policy is in place.
We must also insist on facts and call out anti-Catholic gossip and anti-Catholic bigotry when it occurs. Catholic priests are not the only abusers, and the studies reveal that the problem is much worse in other sectors of society. We must admit our own failings, make reparation and do better, but we must also continue to publicize the real story of priestly sex abuse. Objective and factual studies like Philip Jenkins’s Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis and the John Jay Report provide the real facts about sex abuse among Catholic priests. These studies lay out the truth and put it into context and we need to be more proactive in proclaiming the truth.
In the name of the whole church, it is right for Pope Francis to meet victims and apologize. It is right that we face the horrible truth about a few sick men who served as priests. It is right that we fact the truth about the bishops who covered up for them.
But it is also right that we proclaim the real truth about child sex abuse and insist on justice not only for the victims, but for all involved in the sordid and sorry mess.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.