Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest ranking Catholic and third-highest ranking member in the Catholic Church, has been charged with historical sex offences.
The sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic Church is an open secret. For decades, priests and nuns have been sexually abusing minors – some as young as three years old.
Over time, after victims came out to accuse the perpetrators in public and thanks to the investigative reporting of various newspapers around the world, it became clear that child abuse in the Church was not only widespread, it was also organised and well-known to senior members of the clergy.
The problem with these cases was not just the abuse; it was also the covering-up of these cases by senior members of the Church. The problem was also the Church’s unwillingness to take action against those convicted. In some places, the abusers were promoted to more esteemed positions in the Church.
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The revelations shattered the Christian world and precipitated protests and disillusionment. What began as local investigations by journalists in the United States and Ireland, resulted in similar investigations in other countries. And what was revealed was a pattern of child abuse that crossed borders and churches.
Structure of the Catholic Church
When studying the history of abuse in the Catholic Church, it is important to understand the structure and hierarchy of the Church.
In simple terms, in the Western Church, the hierarchy is thus:
- The Pope – the Bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church.
- Cardinals – members of the College which elects the Pope.
- Archbishops – they are senior Bishops, responsible for archdioceses.
- Bishops – they are the administrative heads of dioceses; dioceses are the territorial units of Church administration spread across the world.
- Priests – Lower ranks in the clergy, can be responsible for parishes, which are regional divisions within a diocese.
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Abuse by Church officials is not a new phenomenon; it can be traced back decades before the media implosion in the late 20th century. The issue entered the mainstream debate and evoked legal responses only after publicity of cases in the 1980s.
The Doyle Report (1985) by Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest, was the first major evidence of abuse in the Church. Doyle was one of the most important whistleblowers in the years leading to the scandal; his findings would later help victims sue the church.
In the first major case, a Louisiana priest was convicted of charges relating to child porn and sexual abuse. Gilbert Gauthe, and he was sentenced to twenty years hard labour. Gauthe served only half of his sentence, but the case attracted much public outcry.
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Thanks to investigations by The Boston Globe and The Dallas Morning News – and further stories by the international media – stories of abuse by Catholic priests and the complacency of the same by their seniors in the clergy made headlines around the world.
Subsequent investigations revealed that rape and physical abuse were “endemic” in many Church-run schools and orphanages. Investigations in the United States inspired similar actions by the press in Europe and around the world. Soon, major abuse rackets were exposed in Philippines, India, Norway, Poland, Australia, and many other countries.
What began as a local controversy in Louisiana, and then Boston, had soon rapidly evolved into a story of international concern involving one of the most high-profile crimes and cover-ups in recent times.
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Extent of abuse
“Academics and church officials familiar with the church in the Third World say the problem of clergy sexual abuse is not talked about there, so it is difficult to determine whether it exists to the same extent as in the United States. The academics said that priests in developing countries generally have a higher status than in the United States, and may, therefore, be psychologically healthier; that the church is more hierarchical outside the United States, and therefore more difficult to challenge; and that neither the news media, the legal system, nor the public culture are accustomed to robust discussions of sexual abuse.”
- The Boston Globe, “World doesn’t share US view of scandal”, April 2002.
In 2002, The Dallas Morning News found that as many as two-thirds of American bishops have covered up sexual abuse. In subsequent months following investigations by The Boston Globe and The Dallas Morning News, thousands of victims came forward with stories of abuse.
Despite repeated press coverage, it was only in 2010 that the global scope of the scandal was realised. Students in Germany, altar boys in Brazil, cover-ups in Ireland: the numbers grew exponentially, the Church failed to give a befitting reaction, and the world was numbed by the sheer extent of abuse in the Catholic Church.
- Over 60% of the allegations of abuse made against a priest were made by a male.
- More than 80% of victims were between the ages of 8 and 10.
- In the United States alone, 16,787 people have come forward to say that they were abused by priests as children between 1950 and 2012.
- In the United States, as many as 6,528 clerics were “credibly” accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2015.
- In the Philippines, hundreds of priests have committed “sexual misconduct” – including child abuse, homosexuality and affairs – over the past two decades alone.
- In Australia, as many as 7% of the nation’s Catholic priests are alleged to be involved in the sex racket.
- Statistics are difficult to analyse in developing countries due to insufficient media coverage, the prominent status of local priests, and limited reporting of these crimes.
“In some cases, children tried to report their abuse to their parents … but were not believed … the grand jury aches at hearing the hopelessness these victims felt when being offended on by a pastor they were taught to respect and honour.”
The scandal in India
“In India, you’d have gossip and rumours, but it never reaches the level of formal charges or controversies.”
There are over 20 million Catholics in India, 168 dioceses, and, as of 2011, 168 bishops and nearly 10,000 priests. There is ample evidence that the child abuse scandal also involves Indian priests and bishops. However, the scandal is relatively undocumented in India and, disturbingly, does not invite press or public outrage.
In 1992, the Central Bureau of Investigation had arrested two priests for the sexual abuse and murder of a nun. The most publicised case involved Joseph Jeyapaul, who pleaded guilty on 22 May 2015, to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. After serving a short prison term, Jeyapaul was re-inducted by the Catholic Church.
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Reaction of the Church
The Church initially claimed that the abuse incidents were due to “local mismanagement”. However, research and new information over the years have revealed that the Church not only knew of paedophilia among priests but also tried to shield such criminals from the law.
In a leaked 1997 letter by the then Vatican ambassador to Ireland, Luciano Storero, the involvement of higher ranks of the clergy is indicated. Storero, in his confidential letter (which can be read here), voices his opposition to any policy which mandates the reporting to the police of priests suspected of child abuse. He wrote that this would lead to “hierarchical recourse” against senior members of the clergy.
The Vatican has been accused of not doing enough to curb the prevalent abuse and, in place, even ignoring sexual abuse by elevating convicted priests and negligent bishops to the higher rungs of the clergy.
In the 1990s, senior clergymen in the United States asked for the response to the allegations of sexual abuse to be met with a policy “not of zero tolerance, but of forgiveness”. The guidelines approved by US bishops for handling sex abuse cases in the 1990s were voluntary and not universally applied – they were a complete failure.
After The Boston Globe’s widely publicised stories, the Vatican responded by saying its response would be delayed due to the Pope’s “physical impairments”. The Vatican was also accused of sheltering and protecting abusers from punishment. This was mainly done by making possibly incriminating documents related to the bishop or priest a secret and unavailable to the press and public.
The previous Pope, Benedict XVI, who presided over the Church through most of the scandal, has been widely criticised for his response. His administration has been accused of not taking the scandal seriously. Activist groups have alleged that “He has read thousands of pages of reports of the abuse cases from across the world. He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the church yet he has done precious little to protect children.”
The case of Bernard Law
In places, the Church’s response has been blatantly criminal. One infamous example is the case of Bernard Law. Law was the Archbishop of Boston before he resigned after church documents had shown that he had extensive knowledge of sexual abuse committed by dozens of Catholic priests within his archdiocese. These abuse instances included priests who raped dozens of children over decades. Law knew of these criminal acts but he did nothing to halt the crimes, he did not go to the authorities. After newspapers had highlighted his complacency, he resigned.
Two years later, in a development which shocked and infuriated the world, Pope Benedict XVI promoted Bernard Law to the level of Archpriest, making him one of the most influential personalities in the Vatican.
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The current Pope, Francis, has called the scandal “the shame of the church”. After assuming office, he told bishops around the world to follow a policy of “zero tolerance” towards clergy convicted of sexually abusing children.
In a letter, he said: “I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst … [The church] recognises the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests. It is a sin that shames us … I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst. Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to ‘zero tolerance’.”
However, activists and victims have accused Pope Francis of not following up on his words. They criticise the Vatican for continuing to harbour paedophilia convicts and not taking action against bishops who protected the criminals.
“The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”
Since the beginning of the scandal, the Church has been criticised for its inaction. Millions were disillusioned by the stories of the victims and aghast at the unwillingness of the Vatican to take action.
In a scathing attack on the Church for its role in the abuse of minors and its disproportionate response to the same, the United Nations issued non-binding guidelines that the Church could follow to combat child abuse and rehabilitate the victims.
The impact of the decades of abuse can not be transcribed in a script. As journalist Catherine Deveney wrote, “Child abuse is rarely contained within childhood. The events bleed into every aspect of adult choices, relationships, employment and health. Victims suffer from alcoholism, mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is not uncommon for male victims to end up in prison.”
One can only imagine the turmoil and struggles the victims have to continue to go through – even as the perpetrators of the crime and the enablers continue to roam free, unpunished and promoted to greater power.
Meanwhile, child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church continues.
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