This past spring, as the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church was historically passed from Pope Benedict XVI to his successor, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Vatican analysts and the international media could not help but delve into a trouble that had persisted for two decades — the sex abuse scandal which first erupted in America in 2002 and had haunted the Church in the States and elsewhere ever since.
During this period of papal transition, despite what other hopes and hazards came under scrutiny by those examining Church affairs, the handling — or mishandling — of this millstone occupied a central place in the conversation. Observers wondered what role the scandal played in Benedict’s departure and what new dawn was promised by the selection of a new pontiff.
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One of those mentioned as a successor, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, was quoted in the days prior to the papal conclave: “We have learned over the last decades how much harm and despair such abuse has caused to thousands of victims. We learned, too, that the response of some Church authorities to these crimes was often inadequate and inefficient in stopping the crimes, in spite of clear indications in the Code of Canon Law.”
Such an acknowledgement was a welcome note, and there is surely evidence that the Church has been getting its house in better order, despite outbreaks of discouraging conduct in various dioceses.
In June 2002, in fact, in response to the abuse and cover-up that rocked Boston and other dioceses, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter, revised in 2005 and 2011, now clearly outlines written policies for dealing with sexual abuse. It also provides for diocesan review boards and designated staff to respond to individual cases, as well as processes for investigations, including contacting civil law enforcement. All church personnel now undergo more rigorous screening and children receive thorough awareness training.
The charter also stipulates: “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 ecclesiastical ministry.”
“Since 2002,” the 2011 charter’s preamble states, “the Church in the United States has experienced a crisis without precedent in our times. The sexual abuse of children and young people by some deacons, priests, and bishops, and the ways in which these crimes and sins were addressed, have caused enormous pain, anger, and confusion. As bishops, we have acknowledged our mistakes and our roles in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility again for too often failing victims and the Catholic people in the past. From the depths of our hearts, we bishops express great sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have endured.”
The charter reaffirms a “deep commitment to creating a safe environment within the Church for children and youth” and “a commitment to reaching out to the victims of sexual abuse and their families,” noting, “The damage caused by sexual abuse of minors is devastating and long-lasting. We apologize to them for the grave harm that has been inflicted on them, and we offer our help for the future.”
Even though any incident of abuse is unpardonable, studies indicate that it was 4 percent of all active priests between 1950 and 2002 who were accused of abuse (statistics indicate this is a smaller percentage than is found in the population generally) and that most of the abusive episodes were more than a decade old. While Catholics understood that the sexual abuse of minors was not solely “a Catholic problem,” much of the criticism directed at the Church was a result of the shielding and reassigning of known perpetrators. This severely damaged the Church’s credibility and has deeply pained the faithful — those who certainly have felt conflicted by those priests who misused their power and the good, honorable and even holy men whose character may have been questioned by association.
It’s been a terribly disheartening time for the Church and a tragic deviation most want to move past. But that will require further work, not merely putting the past away. Many are optimistic that the election of Pope Francis will mark a new turn in the Church’s journey and are buoyed by the early signs of his pontificate.
Within weeks of his installation Pope Francis met with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a subsequent communique posted by that office called for “decisive action regarding cases of sexual abuse, primarily by promoting measures for child protection; help for the many who in the past have suffered such violence; due process against those who are guilty; the commitment of Bishops’ Conferences in the formulation and implementation of the necessary directives in this area which is of great importance to the witness of the Church and its credibility.”
There is little doubt that the Church and its people have been greatly wounded by this demoralizing scandal. But for many there is hope that the proper measures are firmly in place for healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and perhaps even redemption.