Pope Francis is widely admired as a down-to-earth man of the people and a church leader who has taken steps to reform the hierarchy within the Vatican. But I was very disappointed and dismayed by comments published today that showed a defensive side of the Pope when it comes to the clergy child sex abuse scandal.
It was particularly painful to read these words from the Pope today, on Ash Wednesday, a Christian day of repentance:
“The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No-one else has done more. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked…”
This statement is defensive, unapologetic, and demonstrably untrue. The Church hierarchy, all the way up to and including the Vatican, has been documented to have known about abuse for years, actively ignored crimes or covered them up; allowing predatory clergy to move around and keep abusing children, intimidating victims in an effort to keep them quiet. The Church put its own reputation and image above the safety of children. The image of priests as holy, set “above” regular people, put them in a position of power that was sometimes nearly impossible to challenge.
This has all been documented in sources including the recent United Nations report criticizing the Vatican’s handling of child sex abuse cases.
Last week’s Frontline episode “Secrets of the Vatican” provides a riveting report on the Catholic Church hierarchy, and a wealth ongoing coverage online. The Frontline documentary focuses on the leadership of Popes John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was in charge of overseeing Church disciplinary cases for years before he became Pope Benedict.
One of the troubling scandals covered in the Frontline documentary is the case of Father Marcial Maciel, a serial predator who abused many young people in his role as the head of the successful, well-funded Legions of Christ. Maciel led a double life and fathered several children, whom he also abused. Maciel was protected by Pope John Paul II for many years, and even though in 2006 he was eventually commanded to a life of prayer and penance for his crimes, he never went to jail and died an ordained priest. The ongoing cover-up allowed Maciel’s abuse to continue for decades. The Frontline report said that Maciel’s deputy Juan Vaca, who had been abused himself by Maciel as a young seminarian, reported Maciel’s abuse of himself and 20 other boys to the Vatican back in 1976. Vaca knew that the Vatican received his report, because it was delivered by diplomatic pouch, but he never received a reply. How many more dozens of children had to continue to suffer for all those years, when Maciel could have been stopped?
The documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God documented the abuse perpetrated in a Catholic school for the deaf, and the ensuing attempted cover-up.
The clergy sex abuse scandal is a problem of historic proportions. There is still a great deal of uncovering, healing, apologizing and reform that still needs to happen, to allow the Church to truly tone for the systematic abuse of power and failure to protect, that allowed the abuse of children to continue for far too long.
Some Church leaders have taken steps toward reform and forgiveness, such as the service of atonement asking forgiveness from abuse victims that was led by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston. While this service was seen as controversial by some survivors, others appreciated it as a genuine step in the direction of healing.
This once more reinforces my belief in the power of grassroots pressure, working up the ladder of change, to make reforms happen. There are many wonderful people in the Catholic Church. It is challenging to manage up a hierarchy, but for the Church to survive and flourish into the future, it needs to be held accountable to the 1.2 billion grassroots Catholics who can insist on change.
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