Why is the Vatican Still Stonewalling Pope Francis?

A commentary on the sexual abuse scandal in religious institutions

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Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped)CBC recently had a story that caught my attention. The story was called, Leading member of pope’s sex abuse panel quits, says Vatican is stonewalling. I haven’t heard much about the sexual abuse scandal in a long time, so I naturally assumed that the church had dealt with the issue. It seems I was wrong.

The news article reports that Marie Collins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, quit out of frustration because of the lack of co-operation from other Vatican offices, known as the Curia. Ms. Collins claims there is “cultural resistance” at the Vatican that include some officials refusing the pope’s instructions to reply to all correspondence from abuse survivors. Collins wondered if the continuing reluctance to address the problem is “driven by internal politics, fear of change, clericalism which instills a belief that ‘they know best’ or a closed mindset which sees abuse as an inconvenience?”

clapping-hands-transparent-b-g-mdNow I applaud Pope Francis as I sincerely believe  he is trying to correct a wrong. A CBC article, Pope condemns “evil” child abuse, reports that in 2014, Pope Francis made his first public plea for forgiveness for the “evil” committed by priests who molested children. He then stated, “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests… [committed]… to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children.” He went on to say, “The Church is aware of this … personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem…” It was then that Pope Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a commission whose job was to propose the best initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, so that everything possible was done to ensure that no more children are abused by predator priests.

Historically, there was a systematic cover up by bishops and other Catholic hierarchy in many dioceses around the world to cover up the crimes of pedophile priests who raped children and committed other sexual abuses. This was done by moving allegedly abusive priests to other parishes, where abuse often continued. Protection of the institutional church became of all-encompassing importance to the Catholic hierarchy. Here is a brief history of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, reports of clergy sexually abusing children first surfaced in the mid 1980s. In the mid-1990s a number of books were published on the topic. The topic became the focus of intense scrutiny and debate after the Boston Globe published a series of articles covering cases of sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese.

The National Catholic Reporter reports that in January of 2002, a Judge ordered Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to turn over 10,000 pages of records. The Boston Globe used this evidence to initiate an extensive series on clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese. It was the Globe and Mail that revealed that John Geoghan, a former Boston priest, who was accused of abusing more than 130 children during his 30 years as a priest and as a result was convicted of molesting a child in 1991 and sentenced to 9-10 years in prison where he was killed by a inmate.

According to a study being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, about 4% of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002. However, it should be noted that the graphs and statistics sited in the report end before the Boston scandal.

The sexual abuse of children under the age of consent by priests has been reported in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany and Australia as well as other nations throughout the world. Many of the cases spanned several decades and were brought forward years after the abuse occurred.

This abuse is not unique to the Catholic church. Wikipedia has a list of abuse allegations that occurred in Jewish communities, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Anglican Church, as well as other religious institutions.

It isn’t just prevalent in religious communities. In Portland, Ore, a jury reached a $1.4 million verdict against the Boy Scouts of America in a trial that showed that since the 1920s, Scouts officials kept “perversion files” on suspected abusers but kept them secret.

The Huffington Post reports that in June 17, 2012 then Pope Benedict XVI told Irish Catholics that it is a “mystery” to him why priests and other church officials have been abusing children entrusted to their care for at least the past several decades.

Much of the abuse in the Catholic church was directed towards altar boys. I was an altar boy in the 1960s so I could have easily been one of those victims. Thankfully, I wasn’t. I can easily see how the abuse occurred. In the 1960s it was taught that the “holy fathers” (priests in other words) were directly consecrated by God.  These men believed they were Christ’s representatives on earth and were acting on Christ’s behalf.  These men were often put in charge of large numbers of children who have been taught that priests are God’s representatives and must be obeyed in all matters. You can see how easily abusing young children would have been. Talk about a “betrayal of trust.” I personally knew some of the priests who were accused of sexual abusing children.

I also personally know people who have experienced sexual abuse, none of which were by priests however. Nonetheless, I’ve seen firsthand what this abuse has did to them. People who were abused as children become damaged adults. Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan (SASS) is a provincial membership organization that supports agencies who offer services to survivors of sexual assault and abuse. This organization says survivors experience many of these responses after sexual assault or abuse:

  • Diminished self-esteem with frequent feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, anger, and powerlessness
  • Negative self/body image and feelings of ugliness associated with shame and embarrassment of body
  • Physical symptoms of stress – such as headaches, stomach upsets, eating and sleeping problems, lethargy
  • Increased anxieties or tendency towards depression or depressive behaviour
  • Feelings of anger, fear, rage, couple with numbness and disconnection from shock
  • Increased isolation from others, withdrawn or difficulty trusting others
  • Erratic mood swings from hyper-alert to inconsolable grief to aggressive
  • Increased usage of alcohol or drugs to numb or cope with feelings and memories
  • Self-harm such as cutting, burning or scratching as way to numb or cope with feelings
  • Difficulty in returning to usual behaviours with inter-personal relationships
  • No or little desire for sexual intimacy
  • Increase in risky sexual behaviours
  • Flashbacks of the incident(s) and fear of being alone
  • Nightmares or other sleep disturbances
  • Loss of employment or school time due to inability to concentrate

This is why, in my view, sexual abuse by clergy is so difficult to comprehend. These men were supposed to be holy folks; people who carry out God’s work, yet they carried out heinous acts. This is why, in my view, crimes by the priesthood or a minister are so much graver and need to be taken seriously. Furthermore, those at the top of the hierarchy who knew of these scandalous acts, and yet still protected the abusers, should be even more shamefaced. I applaud Pope Francis for trying to prevent these atrocious crimes from happening again, but it seems there is still resistance within the church to deal with the issue seriously.

weeping-jesusThe Guardian quotes Father Thomas Doyle, a former canonical lawyer at the Vatican’s Washington embassy, as saying, “One of the massive holes in the Roman Catholic church’s approach to this issue, still today, is a failure to completely comprehend the depth of the spiritual damage that is done to the victims, to their families, especially their parents, to their friends and to the community itself.”  It is not difficult to understand why the faithful are confused when they were taught that sexual acts outside of marriage were intrinsically evil, always a mortal sin (an action that leads to a separation from God’s saving grace), and never moral, regardless of intention or circumstance. To preach one thing and act in opposition to what was taught would confuse anyone. I’m sure Jesus must be weeping.

Pope Francis: A Breath of Fresh Air

Pope_Francis_Korea_Haemi_Castle_19_(cropped)This month, Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Catholics, was breaking new ground when he made the statement, “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way. They always belong to the church.” (see Pope calls for compassion). Even more, Pope Francis goes on to say, “How can we recommend to parents to do everything they can to educate their children in Christian life, giving them an example of a convinced and practiced faith if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated?”

In essence, Pope Francis is saying remarried Catholics are not automatically removed from church membership, although the church’s rules say such couples are not allowed to receive communion. The Catholic Church permits remarriage only after a church tribunal rules that the couple’s original marriage is annulled. The pontiff understands  that children of these remarried couples are watching how the church treats divorced families.  What this means is Francis accepts divorced couples as members of the church and says they need to be treated as such.

This is not the first time Pope Francis has shown compassion towards those looked upon less favourably in the Catholic Church.  Back in June of 2013 the pontiff made a bold statement during an interview saying, he doesn’t have any problem with the inclination to homosexuality itself.  He is quoted as saying, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”  (See Pope Francis reaches out to gays).  It  would seem that the pope accepts gays and lesbians as well.

It is so wonderful to have this “breath of fresh air” in the Catholic Church.  Finally, the Catholic Church has a leader who is pastoral, who is welcoming, and most importantly, who is more inclusive than his predecessors have been.  It seems to me, that when a church claims to follow the teachings and example of Jesus, then their actions need to reflect that.  I honestly believe that His Holiness, Pope Francis is doing just that.  He especially demonstrated this when in November of 2013, when the pontiff paused  to pray and lay his hands on a man with a disfiguring disease.  (See Francis embrace of a Disabled man) If that action doesn’t say, loving acceptance I don’t know what does.

Why is it so important for the leader of a Christian Institution to be so all-inclusive? Very simply, because Christians purport to  be the embodiment of Jesus on earth, therefore the institution must act and teach as Jesus did.  According to biblical stories Jesus was all-inclusive!  Let us look at some examples.

Take the story of the Woman at the Well as told in John 4:7 – 26, for example. To summarize the biblical story, Jesus  and his disciples were traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee.  They took the quickest route which was through Samaria. Tired and thirsty, Jesus sat by Jacob’s Well, while his disciples went to a village to buy food. During his wait, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman who came to the well to draw water.  When Jesus met this woman at the well, he did something atypical, scandalous really, in that he spoke to a Samaritan; a group the Jews traditionally loathed. Even more scandalous, Jesus asked  the Samaritan woman to get him a drink of water, which would have made him ceremonially unclean, according to the Jewish faith, because he used the same cup or jar as the Samaritan woman.

To help understand how powerful this story is and just how all-inclusive Jesus was, we must understand that the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was intense and long-standing.  Jews, who considered themselves pure, detested the mixed marriages and worship of the Samaritans. Thus, a faithful Jew would never go near a Samaritan let alone talk to one.

Mark 2:15-17 tells the story of Jesus sitting down to a meal in Levi’s house, the home of a tax collector.  Tax collectors were for the most part Jewish people, and therefore they were hated by their own people. When they collected taxes they would collect the required amount of money for Rome, plus some additional money for themselves. They were considered to be extortioners of large sums of money. Plus, there was the fact that tax collectors worked for Rome, who were Gentiles (non Jewish) in the eyes of the Jews, and so they were treated similar to the worst kinds of sinners and prostitutes.  So for Jesus to sit down and have a meal with one of these tax collectors would have been scandalous to say the least.  Yet, it says that Jesus accepts even those most loathed by his community.

Jesus touching and healing a leper as told in In Mark 1:40-45 is another example . What makes this story so incredible is the fact that lepers were cursed, not only with a terrible disease, but also with exclusion from society. People wanted to keep far away from those with this contagious illness. Lepers lived in the outskirts of civilization and, if they came close to people, had to warn them by yelling, “Unclean! Unclean!”  Yet, Jesus was willing touch and heal such a person.  Was this not an incredible act of acceptance?

Thumbs upSo as you can clearly see, the biblical Jesus accepted and included even those most marginalized by society. So to restate my point.  If the Catholic church claims to enbody Jesus on earth, then it must be all-inclusive just as Jesus was all-inclusive.  That is why Pope Francis is such a “breath of fresh air.”  He accepts all those that have been traditionally marginalized by the church. So “Thumbs up” for Pope Francis!