Pope Francis has summoned senior bishops from around the world for the first global collecting of Roman Catholic leaders to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia. The action is long overdue, and the outcome cannot be yet more apologies and pledges of better behavior. The unending revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups demand radical, public, convincing systemic change.
The latest fusillade of revelations and developments — including a gut-wrenching report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailing seven decades of sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children, and possibly thousands more, by more than 300 Catholic priests — has left no question that Pope Francis’ legacy will be decided by how he confronts this crisis. It is devouring the Roman church — erasing trust in its hierarchs, dismaying the faithful and blackening its image. To be meaningful, any further response must include openly addressing allegations that the pope was himself party to a cover-up.
The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, met with the pope on Thursday to demand a full investigation into how the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, rose to high rank despite a long and possibly well-known history of sexual predation. As if to underscore the importance of the meeting, it coincided with an announcement that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of a bishop in West Virginia, Michael Bransfield, and ordered an investigation into allegations that he had sexually harassed adults.
The current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was also en route to the Vatican to discuss his own probable resignation over a former posting in Pittsburgh.
The crisis has been further complicated by a scathing public letter from a former Vatican envoy to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accusing Francis of lifting sanctions against Cardinal McCarrick. The accusations are tainted by Archbishop Viganò’s open hostility to Pope Francis, and his bigoted view that homosexuality is at the root of the sexual abuse.
But the Viganò letter, the culture wars it reveals within the church, the McCarrick affair and even the Pennsylvania grand jury report must not deflect attention from the core of the crisis. They are only the latest in a string of scandals and revelations in the 16 years since The Boston Globe first shed light in 2002 on the systematic cover-up of pedophilia among Boston priests by the late Cardinal Bernard Law, forcing his resignation and unleashing a torrent of familiar accounts.
The Pennsylvania report on abuse of children ran to 1,400 pages, and it is sickening. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” the grand jury wrote.
That report has prompted attorneys general in New York and New Jersey to open their own investigations into whether institutions covered up sexual abuse, and prosecutors in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico have said they plan to do the same. In Germany, Spiegel Online wrote on Wednesday that it had seen a report commissioned by the German bishops’ conference detailing 3,677 cases of abuse by at least 1,670 clergymen from 1946 to 2014.
This is not some flaw to be healed through spiritual renewal. This is a pattern of widespread and gross violations of the power a man of God has over a child, and of cover-ups stretching from Pennsylvania and Boston to every corner of the United States and the world.
How have so many pedophiles been permitted into the priesthood? How could so many bishops have so consistently looked the other way or worse, paid off victims or foisted predatory priests on unsuspecting parishes elsewhere? Many explanations have been offered: the all-male priesthood and the celibacy imposed on Catholic priests; the elitism, careerism and clericalism of the church hierarchy; the lack of transparency or liability among bishops.
All that must be addressed by the pope and his bishops, but not only by them. Cardinal DiNardo and his delegation of American bishops intend to demand not only a full investigation into questions surrounding Cardinal McCarrick, but also better mechanisms for reporting abuse by bishops, and for resolving complaints. Critically, the bishops have listed“substantial leadership by laity” as one of their goals.
That is essential. Pope Francis has made strides in changing the culture of the papacy and in making the Catholic Church more inclusive, and he seems now to have grasped the gravity of the sickness afflicting the church. But for what is sure to be a defining struggle of his papacy, he will need to look beyond the cardinals, prelates and priests — indeed beyond himself — for answers and solutions.
Any credible effort at reforming the clerical culture of the church, restoring trust, instituting accountability and eradicating the cancer of sexual abuse will require the full participation of experts, prosecutors, victims and many others outside the clergy and the church — women as well as men. If that runs against tradition and practice, so be it.