Next Steps for Addressing Priestly Abuse

The horror of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests appeared once again in the headlines last week when representatives of the Holy See gave testimony before the United Nations Committee on the Convention of the Rights of Children in Geneva. Veteran Vatican diplomat Archbishop Silvano Tomasi headed the Holy See delegation. He was seconded by Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who formerly served as the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with responsibility for handling cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Bishop Scicluna made instant headlines when he said, in response to a committee member’s question, “The Holy See gets it. Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”

Politicians and celebrities use the hip expression “I get it” with some frequency. It means more than simply I understand something. It carries the contrite implication that I intend to take some action to undo some problem. It signals that I have had a “eureka” moment. Scicluna’s comment hit home because it candidly acknowledged that the Holy See knows it has not done enough.

“Certain things… need to be done differently.” All too true. Much has been done to deal more effectively with the plague of sexual abuse. Witness the Holy See’s report that in the years 2011 and 2012, 384 priests were removed from the priesthood either because they were found guilty of sexually abusing a minor, or because they voluntarily requested to leave the priesthood following an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.

More will undoubtedly be done to improve the way the Holy See handles this shameful stain upon the holiness of the Church. Pope Francis decided to form a commission for the protection of minors – a much needed initiative.

The ordinary faithful remain stunned by the extent of predatory sexual behavior among men ordained to proclaim the Gospel, even if the percentage of such malefactors in the priesthood is quite low. They are also stunned by the lack of accountability of the senior management level of the Church, the bishops.

Bishops who have failed in their duty to protect children from predatory priests can only be punished by the pope. Up to now very few bishops have been held accountable. That, too, needs to change.

        Archbishop Silvano Tomasi (left) and Bishop Charles Scicluna

Bishop Scicluna told the UN Committee, “I think there is a clear signal that omertà is not the way the Church should respond. I am convinced that the best thing for the institution is to own up to the truth whatever it is.”

Refreshing words, indeed. Silence and cover-up in the past emboldened criminal priests to continue their depredations – when they were quietly put back into circulation in a parish following so-called treatment. This must never happen again.

It is interesting to note that, in his remarks to the U.N. Committee, Archbishop Tomasi referred to both the John Jay College study, The Cause and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, and to the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. These documents are evidence of a vigorous response on the part of the U.S. Bishops in producing an accounting of what happened, and in formulating tough canonical procedures to punish sexual abusers among the clergy.

But these measures have clearly not been enough to resolve the crisis, as demonstrated by the revelation in February 2011 of a group of Philadelphia priests accused of sexual abuse of minors, yet not brought to justice by the Archdiocese.

The Holy See also needs to recognize that the revelations of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States and elsewhere came by way of the justice system and the media. The Holy See needs to be pro-active in getting to the truth. That means more vigilance and more investigations. 

I suggest sending Papal Visitators to work with the Nuncios in each country to examine every diocese’s history and response to this crisis. Some may object that this is an extremely time-consuming and burdensome process. I say, “So what?” Getting to the truth and preventing the sexual abuse of minors by priests is much more important than most other questions we face in the Church.

Archbishop Tomasi quoted from Pope Benedict’s address to the Bishops of Ireland in 2006: “In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.

Given the past – and not so past – history of various bishops shielding abuser priests from punishment, the Holy See has to take the lead in this regard if it wants to show a credible response. It will all be to the good, and will begin to convince believers and unbelievers alike that the Church is serious and contrite.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.