After two decades, the abuse crisis has humiliated the Catholic Church
ROME — From the crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church erupted in 2002 until his death more than three years later, Saint John Paul II never met a victim of clerical sexual abuse.
In contrast, Pope Francis has met repeatedly with victims of abuse and their advocates since his election in 2013. He plans to meet next year with representatives of Indigenous peoples in Canada who are protesting against historic child abuse in the cities. boarding schools run by the church.
These meetings are a sign of how the Catholic hierarchy transformed its response to abuse scandals, which left the church poorer and less influential in the countries where they emerged.
“Church leaders have come to recognize that the church must take responsibility for what happened,” said Francesco Cesareo, president of the University of the Assumption and former chairman of the National Review Board, which advises the American bishops on the prevention of abuse. . There is now “a recognition that the church must not only recognize but also atone,” he said.
In 2002, after the Boston Globe newspaper began publishing reports of local clergy abuse and cover-up, prominent Vatican officials and cardinals from several countries made very defensive public statements. They downplayed the number of predatory priests and blamed the scandals on the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the hostile media.
In contrast, when an independent commission in France reported this year that priests, church workers and volunteers had sexually assaulted around 330,000 minors in the country since 1950, there were nothing but abject apologies from the government. Pope Francis and the bishops of France.
Pope Francis embodies this change. In early 2018, he said a Chilean bishop had been slandered on charges of covering up abuses. But later that year he met the accusers, summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome, and denounced the “abuse of power” in their ranks. The 34 bishops all tendered their resignations, of which the Pope ultimately accepted eight. The episode highlighted the spread of the abuse crisis, until then concentrated in Western countries, to Latin America.
“I don’t know what their inner dialogue is and if they are truly humiliated, but certainly there has been a drastic shift in their PR strategy, from denial or minimization to very convincing expressions of self. -accusation, ”said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world.
Ms Barrett Doyle said the church had made substantial changes in its response to scandals, but not enough. It is only in the United States that ecclesiastical law imposes “zero tolerance”: the automatic dismissal from the ministry of a clergyman who has been convicted of an act of mistreating a minor.
The Pope instituted in 2019 a global process to investigate bishops who abuse or cover up the abuses committed by others. But activists criticized him for rejecting a model of secular control that the American bishops had proposed, leaving the church hierarchy to control itself.
American bishops have implemented child protection measures that the Vatican has encouraged around the world, and most of the accusations in America are now historic. Yet the crisis continues to weigh on the church’s position in the United States and beyond.
“The tragedy of abuse results in a poorer, more humble church,” Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany said last month. “We have lost credibility. People have lost confidence in the Church, in priests, in bishops.
According to church statistics, 9.1% of Catholics in Germany attended Sunday Mass regularly in 2019, up from 12.6% in 2010, when the German church was hit by a series of abuse scandals. .
In the United States, the percentage of Catholics belonging to a parish rose from 76% to 58%, or double the rate of decline among Protestants, between 1998 and 2020, according to a Gallup poll.
A decline in organized religion was already underway in many Western countries, but scandals made the problem worse. “We’ve lost people because of it,” said Suzanne Healy, a family therapist who currently chairs the US Bishops’ National Review Board.
In 2019, 27% of American Catholics surveyed said they had reduced their attendance at Mass in response to the abuse crisis, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a 2021 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 31% of adult American Catholics said the abuse crisis made them embarrassed to identify as Catholics.
Bishops’ statements now command less respect from the public, said Philip Lawler, author of “The Faithful Departed,” a book on Boston’s abuse crisis. “It’s just too easy for cynics to say, ‘Oh, you’re too busy defending rapists.’ And there is not really a good return on this. “
The crisis has had a heavy impact on the finances of the church. From 2004 to 2020, Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the United States spent $ 4.3 billion in costs related to allegations of abuse, mostly in payments to victims and attorney fees, according to the Bishops’ Conference Catholics of the United States.
Thirty-one dioceses and religious orders in the United States have requested Chapter 11 protection, according to Pennsylvania State University. In addition, 26% of American Catholics have reduced the amount of money they give to their parish in response to abuse scandals, according to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center.
Some donors have shifted their contributions to independent Catholic nonprofits that do humanitarian work, says Kerry Alys Robinson, founding executive director of the Leadership Roundtable, a group founded to encourage more transparency and accountability in the administration of the church.
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The crisis has exacerbated the cultural wars already underway within the church. Some conservatives blamed the crisis on moral laxity and homosexuality among priests, as a large majority of reported victims were teenagers.
Rather, progressives have emphasized the need for an overhaul in church teaching and practice. In Germany, in ongoing meetings inspired by a study of historic clergy abuse, bishops and laity discussed whether the church should bless same-sex couples, remove the obligation of priestly celibacy, give more power to the laity and ordaining women to the clergy.
The crisis has led people to “question the fundamental truths of the church and whether or not those truths are really immutable,” Cesareo said. “It will be a few generations before we can come out of this in a way that will allow the church to reaffirm its voice and place in society.”
Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected]
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