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Catholic Church and Child Sex Abuse: Prayer over Penance?

The pope emphasizes prayer and forgiveness as a way to change and heal the church, but this won’t transform the way their internal laws require them to handle clergy child sex abuse cases nor hold perpetrators accountable.

Last Wednesday, on October 3, Pope Francis opened a gathering of Catholic bishops and others in the hierarchy, as well as several dozen lay people, for a month-long “synod” (meeting) on “youth.” Given the recent publicity about the clergy child sex abuse scandals in the church, the meeting is timely. Can it lead to change? Those optimistic about fundamental change might do well to remember that, as the future Pope Benedict XVI reminded American bishops in 1989, they are the “guardians of an authoritarian tradition.”

That tradition is embedded in the church’s structure, in which all authority flows from the Pope. Bishops are answerable only to the pope, not to each other or the Catholic faithful (laity). This structure, combined with political and judicial authorities who had long been deferential to the church, has created a strong view within the church of sovereign immunity, until media and public attention forced them not to be. This view is reinforced by the de jure sovereignty of Vatican City.

It has led to a situation in which bishops feel primarily responsible to the pope, and not to the society in which their dioceses or religious orders are embedded. “I serve at the pleasure of the Pope, and not the County Attorney,” stated the Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas O’Brien at a 2003 news conference during which he disputed the facts in the immunity from the prosecution agreement he had just signed.

Sin Instead of Crime

That insularity and the problems it has caused have been in full view in the child sex abuse cases. One issue is that the church’s theology of sin and forgiveness has led to a tendency not to see child sex abuse as a crime. This is reinforced by the church’s Code of Canon Law, which views child sex abuse through the lens of the priest violating his vow of celibacy, not through the lens of criminal conduct or harm to the victim.

One of the earliest cases that became public in the United States, was that of Father Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1983. In a deposition about the case, the former head pastor of the parish to which Gauthe had been assigned and where Gauthe sexually abused dozens of children was asked if he knew at the time that a sex act by an adult with a child was a crime. “I don’t think that would have come to my mind,” he responded. “I think in terms of morality.” He told the examining lawyer that “you probably think in terms of felonies and crimes, and I think in terms of sin, that it would have been seriously sinful to do something like that.”

Fast forward to 2006. Four years after the Boston Globe revealed that over a hundred priests had sexually abused hundreds of children, with archdiocesan officials fully aware, lawsuits leading to the bankruptcy of dioceses, and numerous other dioceses implicated in abuse, a bishop in Santa Rosa, California still delayed reporting a priest to police for four days. In those four days, the priest fled to Mexico. The diocesan spokeswoman explained the illegal delay: “I don’t think it crossed the bishop’s mind that this [priest] was a criminal and a flight risk. His first response was not to put him under lock and key.”

Forgiveness to Heal the Church?

Pope Francis may not yet realize the full import of his theology of forgiveness. In his letter to “the people of God” this August, the Pope acknowledged important secular efforts to hold the leadership and perpetrators accountable, but when it came to the church, he stressed the need for prayer and forgiveness. This would enable the church “to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion” as if conversion would hold him and bishops accountable and change the way their internal laws require them to handle clergy child sex abuse cases.

Yet the abuse crisis has the attention of some of the bishops and at least one Cardinal attending the synod. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, after seeing the extraordinary extent of child sex abuse within the German church, has called for “fundamental, systemic change.” Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut has stated that the abuse crisis now is about leadership “being accountable.” Cardinal Marx suggested on October 5 that the church needs to consider changes to its internal legal system to hold leadership accountable. And the church can no longer pass off the crisis as just one of wealthy western countries; Chile and Mexico have notably been affected.

The pope emphasizes prayer and forgiveness as a way to change the church and heal it. Catholics and the public have been forced by the insular church to find a different tool: first, that of reporting cases to the police and filing civil lawsuits rather than settling cases quietly, and second, of the media and civil authorities investigating and publicizing the extraordinary extent of clergy child sex abuse and how the church has handled cases. The church’s offer to help heal may have come too late for the many Catholics who have abandoned their faith and no longer listen to the pope’s calls to pray for the church.

DISCLAIMER! The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.

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