For decades, the Catholic Church has been hammered with sexual abuse allegations in countless dioceses across the globe — and just last week, six Pennsylvania dioceses joined that list in dramatic fashion.
In a report that seems tragically familiar, Pennsylvania’s grand jury detailed the sexual abuse of 1,000 children over 70 years, perpetrated by more than 300 members of the Catholic clergy.
But even more egregious than the crimes themselves is the Church’s complicity in concealing them. The Catholic hierarchy — from priests to bishops to the pope — knowingly maintained a pact of silence, cover-up and outright lies that protected sex offenders and endangered innocent children.
Church officials downplayed the abuse by replacing words like “rape” with “inappropriate contact” in their reports, and often told churchgoers that their accused priest was on “sick leave” instead of the real reasons behind his removal.
The Church should stand for community values, love and solidarity — as Jesus called for in the Bible. But one look at this scandal destroys any delusion that the Catholic Church is meeting even the most rudimentary standards of decency. Even a cursory glance should dismay anyone who claims to live by Christian values.
Instead of decrying this widespread abuse and calling out their fellow clergymen, bishops like Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh reject the notion that the Church has concealed criminal activity at all.
“There was no cover-up going on,” Zubik said in a conference last Tuesday. “We have, over the course of the last 30 years, been transparent about everything that has in fact been transpiring.”
According to the grand jury, this is the kind of rhetoric that mimics the Church’s “playbook for concealing the truth” — a philosophy that deems it’s better to ignore the pleas of assaulted children and accomodate the pitiful excuses of their abusers than to inflict inconvenience upon the infallible dictator that is the Church.
And these deflection efforts don’t stop at bishops — they carry right up to the pope. On Good Friday in 2010, Pope Benedict’s personal preacher called the accusations of sexual abuse persecution against the Catholic Church, and even compared the allegations to “collective violence” Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust.
Pope Francis made a positive step toward validating the victims last week when he released a letter condemning the abuse as “morally reprehensible.” But his words haven’t translated to action. Pope Francis — like all other popes before him — has never punished priests for abusing minors, nor has he suspended bishops for intentionally hiding these “incidents” from authorities.
With a pattern of such rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, it seems these “incidents” are not coincidental but linked with Catholic ideology itself. Being celibate, as the Catholic Church demands of priests, requires a tremendous amount of sexual repression. And since church officials seem determined to cover up these common violations, the system is immaculately designed as a safe haven for sexual predators.
Protestants, who allow their religious officials to marry, face fewer sexual abuse allegations — so the Catholic Church should relax its celibacy standards if it doesn’t want to be mired in scandal.
But until that happens, bishops, the pope and police officers need to work together to bring assailants to justice — according to Frances Samber, whose brother committed suicide in 2010 after being abused by a priest in Pittsburgh.
“It’s good that the public sees this, but where is the justice? What do you do about it? Why aren’t these people in prison?” Samber said.
While the Church is responsible for covering up cases of sexual abuse, it’s not completely responsible for the lack of convictions. Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations puts most of the crimes in the grand jury report out of reach for criminal prosecution — some victims were afraid to come forward, others saw their stories buried by bishops.
Shaun Dougherty, who testified for the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury, was abused by a priest at age 10 — he’s now 48.
“If this doesn’t start a serious debate on the elimination of the statute of limitation, there’s something seriously wrong with my fellow Pennsylvanians,” Dougherty said.
Because sexual abuse at the hands of priests is so widespread and has taken place for decades, relaxing the statute of limitations may be the only way to bring a large chunk of past offenders to justice.
But if we want to eradicate this systematic abuse for good, the Church itself needs to take preventative measures and institute a greater network of accountability. If the Church doesn’t change its attitude toward sexual abuse we’ll just see more abusive priests, more cover-ups and more empty prayers for victims.
So in the words of Juliann Bortz, one of the many victims in this scandal: “Stop the prayer … and start paying attention to victims.”
Write to Neena at firstname.lastname@example.org