The Catholic Church’s leading expert on sex crimes says the French bishops deserve our gratitude for their willingness to face the disclosure of decades of abuse and coverup.
“I think we have to thank the French bishops,” said Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta in a short English-language comment he gave to the official Vatican News media outlet, “for [having] the courage to confront themselves with reality.”
The line didn’t quite make it into the Vatican News writeup of the more expansive interview, which was conducted in Italian, but it leads the 58-second audio clip at the bottom of the piece.
“It’s so sad to read what the report states, and the information it gives,” Archbishop Scicluna went on to say in English, “but it is also an important step in the right direction.”
“We need to listen to victims,” he continued, “we need to empower them.”
“Reality,” in this case, is detailed in the CIASE report on clerical abuse and coverup in France from 1950-2020. The report is an appalling précis of incompetence, malfeasance, and deadly nonchalance on the part of bishops over seven decades.
Over 2500 pages, the report documents abuse in various contexts – parochial, scholastic, institutional, familiar – and workaday coverup, estimating some three thousand clerical perpetrators supposed to have abused some 216 thousand victims. When victims of lay perpetrators in the service of the Church are included in the tally, the number swells to 330 thousand persons abused in various ways. The number of victims is truly astounding.
The CIASE report’s methodology deserves – and shall no doubt receive – careful scrutiny and rigorous interrogation. The estimated numbers of victims are in the middle of the range given by the reporters, which runs from 165 thousand and 270 thousand victims of clerics, between 265 thousand and 396 thousand total victims, 1950-2020. Even if the numbers of victims should prove greatly inflated, the scope of the devastation will remain ghastly.
“Until the early 2000s, said the man who led the investigation, Jean-Marc Sauvé, “the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims.”
Archbishop Scicluna said the Church now has “very good laws” including Pope Francis’s signature reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, with which to address the crisis of abuse and coverup. He also said we have “excellent magisterium” from Pope Francis. “We need to go from these very high and important principles enshrined in documents,” he said, “to an empowerment of our communities, and to a convinced and determined response on the ground.”
The trouble is: That’s what Vos estis lux mundi was supposed to be. “[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019, for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened,” Archbishop Scicluna told the Catholic Herald when the Vatican announced the new law in May, 2019.
“This [promulgation of Vos estis] offers a strong signal that even the leadership [of the Church] is subject not just to divine law but to canon law,” Archbishop Scicluna told reporters at the briefing in which he presented Vos estis. “No one is above the law,” he said. “[T]he procedure states this clearly.”
Asked by Vatican News in the wake of the CIASE report on abuse in the French Church, “[W]hat more can be done in the ecclesial sphere?” Archbishop Scicluna responded: “Enough with documents, enough with sermons, we have to move to action.”
Then, Archbishop Scicluna went on to talk about the laws we have, especially Vos estis and its precursor, Come una madre amorevole – “As a Loving Mother” – both promulgated amid great fanfare and touted as decisive moments in the Church’s battle against evildoers in her own ranks.
“It seems clear to me, therefore, that the laws are there and they are good, only that the reception of these norms is lacking,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “We need to assimilate these values and put them into practice.”
Archbishop Scicluna is right about that. A law that isn’t put into practice doesn’t do much good. In fact, half-measures and mere paper reforms tend rather to exacerbate crises than to ameliorate them. Why aren’t Pope Francis’s showpiece laws being enforced, widely and consistently?
That is the proverbial $64,000 question, and the time for Churchmen to give an explanation is – by Archbishop Scicluna’s own reckoning – long since passed. “Cover-up isn’t acceptable,” he said when the Vatican presented Vos estis lux mundi in May of 2019. “[I]t never was acceptable.”
Willingness to face scrutiny
In the October 2021 interview with Vatican News after the release of the French report, Archbishop Scicluna expressed some satisfaction with the Church’s willingness to face scrutiny.
“Evidently we are the only ones – and in my opinion, we do well – who give this information and do these studies,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “I would like to see other studies, other reports, involving the reality of the educational environment, of the cultural environment.”
While other institutions may not yet have come in for precisely the kind of scrutiny that informed CIASE report, the phenomenon is neither unrecognized nor unstudied. “The Catholic Church,” says Mr. Sauvé in his summary of the findings, “is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.”
“Faced with this scourge,” Mr. Sauvé also says, “for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse.”
While Mr. Sauvé acknowledges that “the Church has taken important steps to prevent sexual violence and to deal with cases effectively,” since the year 2000, he also says “these measures have often been very late coming and unequally applied once in place.”
“Imposed in reaction to events,” Mr. Sauvé continues, “they appear to the Commission to be generally insufficient.”
In other public comments regarding his report, Mr. Sauvé called for fairer Church trials, and for victims to be informed not only regarding the outcome of proceedings, but also of the progress of the trials themselves.
What more can be done?
Responding to those calls, Archbishop Scicluna said that he has suggested such changes himself. He cited an article he published in the Periodica de Re Canonica – an academic journal published by the Pontifical Gregorian University – and an invitation he received, to participate in an upcoming seminar organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
“Dedicated precisely to the rights of victims in canonical processes,” Archbishop Scicluna explained, the seminar – a closed session for experts scheduled to take place in December, Scicluna told me when I wrote to ask him, because I hadn’t seen the event on the PCPM calendar – is to be “a comparative study in order to understand exactly how they act in other civil jurisdictions and to be able to suggest useful practices in canon law.”
Canonical tribunals do not publish charges, and trials at canon law are not open to the public. They are mostly conducted on paper, and verdicts are reported – if they are reported at all – in vague terms. The opacity of canonical process undermines public confidence in the Church’s ability to deliver justice to both victims and the accused. It can also embolden wrongdoers.
Archbishop Scicluna is not the only experienced sex crimes expert to express the desire to see greater transparency in Church proceedings.
“[Secrecy] has long undermined that confidence,” Fr. Hans Zollner – the head of the Church’s flagship academic research center for child protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University – told the Catholic Herald in April of 2020, “but, when Pope Francis abolished the application of the Pontifical Secret to cases of abuse, many people realized that serious steps are being taken towards necessary transparency.”
The abolition of pontifical secrecy in abuse cases, however, has not brought greater willingness to share information regarding canonical proceedings. It certainly hasn’t changed the culture of reservation, but Fr. Zollner also told the Herald that other measures were then under consideration, which would favor greater transparency.
“[The measures under consideration] more clearly define the rights of all parties involved, first and foremost the rights of the victims.” Fr. Zollner also told the Herald in April, 2020. He did not delve into any specifics, however. If there were raised expectations, many of them came crashing down in June of this year, when the Vatican published the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, on penal procedure and sanctions in the Church.
No other remedy?
At the press conference presenting the new chapter of the Church’s legal code, Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief, Ines San Martin, asked: “How can scandal be repaired if proceedings and outcomes are kept secret?”
“The repair of scandal should be foreseen in the sentence [of the court], itself,” replied the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, from the dais. “It is the judge,” Iannone went on to say, “who … also decides the modalities by which the condemnation might be rendered public[.]”
“This is one of those things that must be evaluated case-by-case,” added the Council’s secretary, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta. “There is no other remedy,” said Arrieta. “There is no other way.”
In his remarks to Vatican News this week, Archbishop Scicluna mentioned how Vos estis lux mundi already provides for abuse and coverup victims to be informed of the conclusion of investigations and trial outcomes. “So,” he said, “already we have a small sign of an opening towards a more institutional, let’s say more structural, dialogue with victims.”
It is reasonable to wonder, at this point, how many small signs of an opening to structural reform Churchmen can give against squandered chances to effect real change, before candid observers may fairly determine that their hearts just aren’t in it.
From Buffalo in New York and Cincinnati in Ohio, to Nashville and Knoxville in Tennessee and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, to Lyon in France – where Pope Francis rejected the cardinal-archbishop’s resignation even after he admitted to disastrous failures of oversight – Pope Francis’s laws have been inconsistently applied, or not applied at all, to say nothing of the scandals in Germany and Poland.
Short time to act
There is something else alarming in the French report, to hear Mr. Sauvé tell it: “While, in absolute and relative terms, these acts of violence were in decline up until the early 1990s, they have since stopped decreasing.”
In 2018, however, Pope Francis accused three courageous survivor-advocates of calumniating a bishop – Juan Barros – who had been a chief lieutenant to the man who was then their country’s most notorious abuser-priest. Then-Fr. Fernando Karadima was, in essence, Chile’s Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. A canonical criminal tribunal had convicted Karadima of horrendous abuse, largely on the strength of testimony given by the three survivor-advocates Pope Francis had accused of slandering Karadima’s darling Bishop Barros with accusations he had turned a blind eye – and worse – to his mentor’s predations.
Then, Pope Francis doubled down on his accusation when journalists offered him the chance to revise and extend his remarks. When Francis had a face-to-face with Chilean reality, he thought better of his attitude toward the business. “I was part of the problem,” he reportedly said in 2018.
That’s when Pope Francis bought the crisis, lock, stock, and barrel.
In his remarks to the faithful gathered for the weekly General Audience on Wednesday, October 6th, Pope Francis noted the “considerable number” of aggressions the French report had disclosed just the day before. “To the victims,” he said, “I wish to express my sadness and my pain for the traumas they have endured and my shame, our shame, my shame that for so long the Church has been incapable of putting this at the center of its concerns, assuring them of my prayers.”
On the one hand, the spiritual closeness of the Roman Pontiff is nothing to shake a stick at. Papal prayers are powerfully effective.
On the other, there is a reason “thoughts and prayers” is an internet meme.
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