Fall From Grace: Perspectives on the UN Investigation Into Sexual Abuse In the Catholic Church
By Andrew Morsilli Like any institution that has been around for hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has been subject to well-deserved criticisms on a variety of topics. The most recent and shocking controversy to plague the Church is the deplorable trend of sexual abuse that has occurred in the last few decades. With 1.1 billion Catholic Church members world-wide , and a de jure status as a political entity with real international pull, the Holy See wields considerable power, influence, and resources. Perhaps this is why the UN has begun an open investigation into the rampant sexual abuse problem currently racking the Church. The issue of unreported and under-investigated instances of sexual assault by clergymen throughout the Church is especially disconcerting for Catholics who see a disconnect between the moral dictates of the Church and the hypocrisy of those in the hierarchy of the Church itself. This has caused an attitude of suspicion and disgust amongst many faithful in the Church and, indeed, even those outside the Church. These disgraceful revelations have caused many to abandon the Church altogether, hurting the ancient institution's image considerably.
The UN’s investigation of both the Church and its high-ranking clergy come at a time when the institution is at its weakest. The UN investigation also comes at a time when a large percentage of those complicit in older sex abuse scandals have either died or are no longer active in the Church hierarchy. This suggests that the investigation is more a theatrical display, an attempt to buffalo the Church, and a reminder that the UN is still a major player in world affairs and not to be trifled with.
These scandals first emerged during the 1980's and 1990's, though many span several decades and were only brought forward years after the abuse occurred. However, these heinous crimes received worldwide attention in 2002 when the Boston Globe began publishing a series of articles concerning five parish priests: John Geoghan, John Hanlon, Paul Shanley, Robert V. Gale and James Talbot, all of whom were later convicted and sentenced to time in prison. With nationwide media attention focused on the issue, other former victims began to come forward with their own harrowing stories of abuse. Sexually abusing children is a vile offense, and covering it up only served to stoke the outrage of the international community. The slow pace of uncovering the extent to which these abuses were committed and the culpability of others at the administrative level have fostered a culture of
suspicion and outright distrust of the Church. With mass attendance already at an all-time low, the Catholic Church cannot ignore the association between some of their ministers and sexual abuse of minors while simultaneously claim to be as pure as snow.
Though the cases emanating from North America drew the most media attention, this is not a phenomenon localized only to the western hemisphere. Indeed, cases have been reported all across the globe; from the Philippines to Ireland and everywhere in between, virtually any country with a sizable percentage of Catholics has been tainted by allegations of sexual abuse. In the U.S. alone, about 4392 priests have been accused of charges ranging from child molestation to rape, and only about a quarter of those have been investigated, with even fewer leading to charges. Furthermore, only the United States and Ireland have undergone a systematic enquiry to uncover the extent of the sexual abuse problem. Bishops and others of high-standing in the Church have used their clout to further confound investigations by simply shuffling accused clergymen to different parishes or different countries entirely to avoid convictions. A number of out-of-court settlements have kept many cases of egregious abuse out of the limelight, a tactic that has backfired on the Church immensely and has also created further image problems. Furthermore, there is no telling how many cases may have actually occurred over the decades due to statute of limitation laws.
More disturbing still is the complicity of many bishops and other clergy in covering up the crimes and protecting these criminals from prosecution through the use of their influence. Whether it is a misguided attempt at trying to save the reputation of the Catholic religion or simply a ploy to distance said priest from the local bishop, the result is that these practices make it nigh impossible to determine the exact number of sexually abusive priests. Furthermore, many of these relocated priests continue to indulge their obscene appetites in new environments. In countries with laws that permit religious bodies to deal with cases like these “in house,” it is incredibly difficult to secure a conviction without the cooperation of ecclesiastical authorities. For example, in the Philippines a priest was accused of abusing a 17 year-old girl, but has been sheltered by his bishop who refuses to surrender him to civil authorities for prosecution. Cases like these undoubtedly scandalize the Church. To cause scandal in the Church is considered heresy by canon law and said law prescribes excommunication as a proper punishment for such crimes.
Many critics are quick to state that the Church has done little to curb the problem and that it hardly maintains the illusion of transparency when dealing with inquiries from governmental and investigative bodies. However, the Church has not just been sitting on its hands as the sensationalist media would have one believe. The Church has been enacting new programs, safeguards, checks, and policies to both prevent future sexual abuse and rehabilitate past victims. For example, the VIRTUS program is incredibly proactive in the United States, providing resources and counseling services in addition to acting as a watchdog organization by escalating allegations of sexual abuse to the highest national authority.
While a noble gesture, the recent UN investigation into the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is likely motivated by politics. The investigation was opened very shortly after Pope Francis took the position of pontiff, a vulnerable time for any leader. Furthermore, shrinking Catholic congregations around the world have put the Church in a position of reduced power. Not everyone was so confident in the staying power of Pope Francis. Being the first non-European and first Jesuit Pope in the history of the Church put him in a precarious position; he had to prove himself to the whole world. The UN has been well informed about the sex abuse scandals since their emergence on the world stage a little over a decade ago. Instead of investigating during the term of Benedict or John Paul, both of whom were well supported and enjoyed a solid power base in the curia and abroad, the U.N. chose to prey upon Francis in an attempt to force the Church to capitulate to the international body. While the timing of the UN report throws doubt on the sincerity of the investigation, the Church's response has been equally disingenuous. The Holy See has consistently claimed “diplomatic immunity” and refused to hand over documents to civil authorities, instead stating that all cases of clerical sexual abuse have been referred to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While the Church seeks to handle these investigations in-house, it appears to others to be stymieing the progress of justice. This resistance is damaging the Church’s attempt to save face on the international stage. Instead, both groups should be working together to protect the interests of children and to bring perpetrators to swift justice.
The protection of children and the prosecution of perpetrators, is a goal that is sought by both the Church and the UN, but cooperation between the two leaves something to be desired. Both the UN and the Holy See have political motivations for their actions thus far in regards to this all too pervasive phenomenon. The Church has lost a lot of credibility in the eyes of the faithful. If the clergy cannot be trusted, how can the religious doctrine be any more true? Congregations around the globe are shrinking in size and even more are lapsing into spiritual apathy. These allegations of corrupt and inefficient investigations are a permanent stain that stands out on the satin vestments of the Church. However, the UN's investigation is also marred by politics and ulterior motives, namely the humbling of the world's most powerful sectarian body to an avowed secular group for the purpose of showing strength. While the UN Committee Against Torture, who have taken up the bulk of questioning, has noble intentions aimed at protecting children from the horrors of sexual abuse, it is important to also understand that this relatively obscure body's recent activity has an element of publicity to it. Taking the politically potent Catholic Church to task and making it bend to answer to it is a godsend for public exposure. Both groups have failed to see that it is the children who are suffering most. The guilt, shame, and doubt of a sexual assault is truly spirit crushing, and until both the UN and the Holy See can agree to put aside politics and agree on a comprehensive plan, children across the world will continue to suffer.
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