In a meeting that should have been held decades ago, Pope Francis last week convened Roman Catholic leaders at the Vatican and called for “concrete and effective measures” to curb the “scourge” of sexual abuse by priests.
Strong words from the Holy Father. So it’s finally time to get tough, is it?
The summit is being hailed as “historic” only because the disgraceful history of the church was to suppress the claims of young parishioners, while shielding the clerics who raped them.
No victims were invited to speak at the opening Vatican assembly, but recordings from five unnamed persons were played. One recounted what happened when he complained to church leaders about being forced to have sex:
“The first thing they did was to treat me as a liar, turn their backs and tell me that I, and others, were enemies of the church.”
Another spoke of being impregnated three times by the same priest, who forced her to get abortions. “Every time I refused to have sex with him,” she said, “he would beat me.”
If only such accounts were freakish aberrations, and not part of a sordid institutional pattern. For generations, sex abuse by priests has been widespread and well-known to the Catholic hierarchy, which operated more like what prosecutors might call a continuing criminal enterprise.
The scandal broke open after a Boston Globe series 17 years ago, and since then numerous predator priests have been prosecuted. Their crimes typically were no secret to their superiors, who routinely moved serial offenders from one diocese to another, without warning parishioners.
God forbid that an archbishop might actually grab a phone and call the cops, which is what most decent humans would do if they knew a child was being sexually molested.
A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, commissioned by Catholic bishops, reported that complaints about sexual abuse of minors were made against 4,392 Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002 in the United States alone.
Most cases weren’t investigated because the cleric was already dead; 1,021 individuals were reported to the police, 384 were charged, 252 convicted and only 100 received jail or prison time.
That’s one hundred priests out of thousands — and most abuse cases go unreported because victims are ashamed and intimidated. Past popes have acknowledged the crisis, expressed sympathy and promised that the church will be more diligent.
Francis has been catching well-deserved flak since a trip to Chile last year, when he basically scolded victims of alleged abuse for slandering bishops. Another reason for him to worry: At long last, authorities are prosecuting high-ranking church officials for their roles in covering up sex crimes by priests, or even participating.
An Australian archbishop was convicted of covering up abuse cases, and a cardinal in France went on trial in January for similar charges. More problematic for Francis is the fate of Cardinal George Pell, one of his close aides, who was recently convicted in Australia of molesting two choir boys during the late 1990s.
Pell has insisted he’s innocent, and the Catholic News Agency has published articles questioning the testimony of his surviving accuser.
The pope needs this nightmare to go away because it is pulverizing not only public faith in the church but also its finances. A report by National Public Radio estimated that at least $3 billion has been paid out to sex-abuse victims and their families.
Nineteen U.S. dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy to protect themselves from litigation accusing priests of rape or sexual misconduct. Lawyers seeking to represent victims now advertise online.
So, Francis, it’s time to wake up and do something. I say this as a nephew of a good priest who died with his honor and conscience intact.
The pope must realize that more horrific news is inevitable, like last summer’s report from a Pennsylvania grand jury saying that 301 priests in a half-dozen dioceses had molested more than 1,000 children over a span of 70 years.
Strong words from the grand jurors:
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”
Among many outrageous stories in the report was one about a priest who admitted abusing young boys and finally resigned because there were so many complaints. His church gave him a positive letter of reference for his next job.
At Walt Disney World.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.