Sex Abuse: Facing our Failures

Facing our failures

Russell Pollitt SJ

The sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic Church worldwide has been one of the most disillusioning things I have had to face as a priest. It is a source of shame, anger and frustration for many Catholics who love the church. Since the crisis erupted in the USA in 2001 the church has, for many, failed to respond adequately. Protocols were put in place in an attempt to prevent such scandalous behaviour recurring. While these have been widely welcomed, many people feel that the church has not taken responsibility for what happened. Some church leaders have been accused of covering up abuse cases and others, after allegations were made, did not deal with offenders but moved them into other positions and so the cycle of abuse was perpetuated.

This week Pope Francis took an unprecedented leap forward. He not only apologised and expressed his own “deep pain and suffering” at what happened but admitted that for too long abuse has been “hidden, camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained…” He calls this scourge a “crime and grave sin” and says that these “despicable actions” are like a “sacrilegious cult.” He pledged a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of minors by clerics and lay people in the church. These are the strongest words that have ever been used by a pope to address the devastation caused by sex abuse in the church. There was mixed reaction to the pope’s hard words. Some abuse victims labelled this a “publicity stunt” and others feel that it still does not go far enough for justice to be done.

I understand the hesitancy with which some victims of abuse have reacted; abuse is evil and has destroyed lives and families. On the other hand I was encouraged by what Pope Francis said and did this week. This was his first direct meeting with victims of abuse but he setup a Commission for the Protection of Minors in December. He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, to head the commission. Boston was at the epicentre of the crisis in the USA and O’Malley was made archbishop and led the diocese during a very difficult time. He is one of few bishops who faced the crisis head on. By appointing O’Malley, Pope Francis gives a clear message: He wants someone who experienced and knows the destruction caused by abuse to work on this for the Universal Church. O’Malley is also a bishop in a diocese and not a curia cardinal, so he sees things from the ground.

Another reason for hope is the direct and strong language the pope used. A fellow priest remarked that this is the first time a pope has not just admitted abuse took place and apologised. Pope Francis admitted that there were cover-ups (a long standing complaint of many victims, some even labelling the cover-ups a “second” abuse).

For a long time the Catholic Church will have to live with this scourge and its aftermath which has lead to inconceivable pain for victims and their families. It has also cost the church huge financial payouts, damaged the image of the priesthood and eroded our moral authority. I hope the events in Rome this week are a strong signal to us all: Strive for transparency and take responsibility – even when it’s painful.

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