On Sunday, Pope Francis concluded an unprecedented global summit addressing the widespread issue of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The Church has been at the center of a massive scandal involving sexual misconduct, implicating members of the Church from local priests to the highest-ranking cardinals. It has also become clear that clerical sex abuse was something of an open secret among members of the clergy, creating a culture of cover-ups and protection of offending priests. Though Pope Francis delivered strong words against perpetrators of abuse in his closing remarks, declaring an “all-out battle”against sexual predators, many were left unsatisfied by what seemed to be a speech devoid of tangible solutions.
As an editorial board, we express our solidarity with victims of clerical abuse and urge serious ramifications and judicial impositions on members of the Catholic Church on both local and national levels, so as to encourage true change within the institution.
Pope Francis will soon issue a document motu proprio — a rescript initiated and issued by the pope of his own accord and apart from the advice of others, as defined by Merriam Webster — which shows his commitment to offering some concrete proposals. But how realistic is it to believe that the same institution that sponsored this abuse will now root it out? Defrocking priests who engage in sexual abuse should have been a consistent policy of the Catholic Church. Instead, we know that the opposite occurred.
In the United States, the 2002 Boston Globe investigation of clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston revealed a vast network of cover-ups and institutionalized sexual abuse. The face of public relations for the Catholic Church following that scandal, Theodore McCarrick, was recently defrocked from his position as a U.S. Cardinal after he was found to have solicited sex during confession and sexually abused both minors and adults. About one-third of living U.S. bishops have been accused of ignoring cases of sexual misconduct in their dioceses, while at least 15 bishops are themselves accused of committing sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse by the Catholic Church is a public safety threat to U.S. citizens, and since the Church has proved unable to police itself, it is now the turn of legislators to step in and protect the American people. American Catholics represent over one-fifth of the population, and our governing bodies need to do a better job of defending the rights of victims as well as taking a stronger role in prosecuting those involved.
Instead of providing a clear and actionable response plan to abuse within the church, Pope Francis has only offered “reflection points” to drive the conversation surrounding the issue. Since the Catholic Church has shown an inability to police itself, we at The Daily believe that tangible policy changes, as well as some cooperation between the Catholic Church and state governments, are the only path forward to help protect Americans from what should be described as a serious danger to Catholic Americans.
The issue of clerical sex abuse is a deeply ingrained problem within the Church and has no simple solution. It is difficult to overcome the immense wrongs of the Catholic Church without taking its vast power and institutional influence into consideration, while still acknowledging its role in religious and cultural practice. As an Editorial Board, we recognize these factors and again emphasize the importance of changes in policy and judicial relations between the state and Church in order to protect Catholic Americans. Through this acknowledgement, we propose several amendments that can be utilized to make the Church a safer institution.
Almost as deplorable as the abuse itself is the web of cover-ups among church officials, and encouraging reporting to outside entities is a way for victims to have an objective, legal voice. Allotting social workers or representatives to serve as a resource for members of the Church can ensure that victims are being heard and represented to the full extent of the law, while simultaneously holding abusers accountable for their crimes. Furthermore, in the hopes of increasing reporting, we urge the U.S. government to get involved legislatively by extending the statutes of limitations for these crimes. Reporting crimes — especially sex abuse — is a trying process, and allowing victims more time to process their trauma and choose a course of action will give more victims the ability to report, while re-emphasizing the fact that abusers of any era need to face severe ramifications. We also implore Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to increase judicial action in regards to clerical abuse. This is already a part of her platform, and we encourage it to be taken seriously and extended across the country.
The Catholic Church’s lack of willingness to self-regulate in the aftermath of these crimes is indicative of a threat to the safety of Catholic Americans across the nation, and symbolic condemnations are not enough to overcome this long-standing problem. The absence of tangible policy change is inexcusable and underscores the Church’s position as an institution that cares little about the victims it has left in its path. The number of allegations and scandals has reached a point where we can no longer expect them to hold their own leaders accountable, and we therefore must urge our own policymakers and attorney generals to enforce greater action to protect the public from clerical sex abuse.