“The Vatican issued a letter Monday that gives Roman Catholic bishops worldwide a year to come up with national guidelines on how to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse by priests,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The letter, they say, “was the latest indication that Pope Benedict XVI has recognized sexual abuse as a global scourge, not an American aberration.” It’s about damn time.
Australia’s ABC News notes, “The Vatican has come under pressure in recent years over paedophilia, and the scandal of child-abuser priests peaked last year with a string of high-profile revelations in Belgium, Germany and Ireland.” Sexual abuse in the Church has devastated Ireland, and in Italy, victim’s rights groups are dismayed at the Church’s latest attempt to address the issue. Marco Lodi Rizzini, a spokesman for an Italian victim-support group, says, “This document is simply meaningless words – they have been forced to act but it is not enough. The Vatican has said it will co-operate with the authorities before, but only because it has been forced to,” the Montreal Gazette reports.
Cardinal William J. Levada, who issued the letter, gave priests worldwide until May 2012 to respond and comply with its demands. The LAT says the Vatican letter “grew out of a meeting Levada held with a group of cardinals last fall” and “reminds bishops that sexual abuse of minors is not only a violation of church law but also a crime prosecuted by civil law.” The letter continues to exempt bishops “from reporting information that emerges during confession.” In other words, if a priest admits that he abused a member of the congregation during the rite of confession, that information remains privileged.
And here’s an interesting caveat. The letter “devotes more space to what it terms the ‘support of priests’ than to ‘the protection of minors,’” according to the LA Times. David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says the letter’s vague tone and unclear procedural guidelines are disappointing because “the single step that clearly has not been taken is to severely punish church officials who ignore and conceal abuse.” He adds, “That’s not happening now, nor is it even being discussed.”
But Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh and former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ panel on child protection, thinks the letter is at the very least a step forward for the Church. He told the LAT, “I think they do understand the seriousness of the problem, and I think they’re dealing with it the best that they can. The Vatican is not going to move at light speed here. They tend to be very cautious at moving forward, even on issues as serious as sexual abuse of children.” Uh, yeah. We’re lucky the letter wasn’t written in Latin.
The Guardian‘s Luke de Pulford writes, “This letter makes clearer than ever that a bishop” who fails in his duty to report abuse to both Church and local authorities “will be held accountable for his actions,” adding, “These are not the actions of an abusive organisation, they are clear attempts to transform a crushingly inert bureaucratic structure into a global rapid response unit.”
That’s maybe a little too much sympathy for the Church for my taste based on what I know about the priests I grew up with, but de Pulford does make a convincing point when he says the media has been harsh in response to the Church’s lag time in dealing with the abuse problem head-on. He writes:
Catholics are in two minds about the media’s coverage of clerical sex abuse. Some think it has been a blessing, forcing the church worldwide to face up to the issue; others that the media have exaggerated and distorted their coverage, scapegoated the church, and played “gotcha” with an institution they are hard-wired to loathe.
Both, of course, are true. Without the media and the lawyers whose actions first gave rise to the stories, it is unlikely that the church would be acting as it is. But nor would priests be spat at because wearing the collar made them “paedophiles” in the minds of their aggressors (I’ve seen this three times).
In the wake of this letter, a report released today by John Jay College of Criminal Justice and commissioned by U.S. bishops has determined “that homosexuality, celibacy and an all-male priesthood” are not to blame for sexual abuse in the Church, nor is pedophilia. According to the AP:
The problem was largely the result of poor seminary training and insufficient emotional support for men ordained in the 1940s and 1950s, who were not able to withstand the social upheaval they confronted as pastors in the 1960s. Crime and other deviant behavior increased overall in the United States during this period, when the rate of abuse by priests was climbing…. The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in society generally.
So let me get this straight: priests who sexually abused children in the 60s and 70s did so because “everyone was doing it?” Right. That’s what happens when you listen to rock music, smoke pot and drop acid, priests! Next thing you know, you’re fondling a child. Oh, wait. Not everybody did that.
Which is why the AP stresses that “victims’ groups dismissed the report as an attempt to focus blame for the scandal on priests, instead of on bishops who allowed offenders to stay in ministry without warning parents or police.” They also note that according to the John Jay study, “the overwhelming majority of known victims were boys” and that “the offenders chose to victimize boys mainly because clergy had greater access to them,” but SNAP suggests that boys and girls have been victimized equally by priests.
The John Jay study asserts that there is “no single cause of child sex abuse by priests and no psychological characteristics or developmental histories that distinguished guilty priests from clergy who did not molest children.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as much what the root cause of the abuse is as it does that the Church do something about stomping out this scourge for good. Some think this letter from the Vatican is a first step, others aren’t so sure it’ll make any difference. What do you think?