By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
Well, will miracles never cease? In a church known for compelling confession from its followers, a remarkable one from its chief advocate came across the wires on Friday. That’s right, after decades of lying, obfuscating, blocking, destroying evidence and covering up in the most un-Christian way, Pope Francis has done what many Catholics hoped his predecessors would have done years ago — apologize AND beg forgiveness. Oh, lots of Popes apologize but it’s always with a condition … a term … a little euphemism about one bad apple not spoiling the great work of the barrel, or that the church’s pedophile problem isn’t really any worse than anybody else’s. (Really, every church has a decades old issue of unmarried priests molesting little boys and girls on an institutional level?) Or that it’s just American culture fueling the problem. (Damn justice seekers reading those beatitudes so literally!)
And in an even more remarkable statement from the most protective of secret societies, the new Pope owned it. He owned it in every sense from the philandering priests to their bishop protectors who covered for them and then unleashed the wolves on another unwitting flock. “I feel compelled to personally … ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done…. I feel called to take responsibility for all the evil some priests — large in number, but not in proportion to the total — have committed and to ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done with the sexual abuse of children,” the Pontiff proclaimed loudly an in public. “We don’t want to take a step backward in dealing with this problem and with the sanctions that must be imposed,” the pope said. “On the contrary, I believe we must be very strong. You don’t play with children’s lives!”
To understand how remarkable this statement is you have to look back to the church’s position on the now world-wide scandal of priest pedophilia. The scandal blew up in 2002 when the Boston Globe published a series of articles exposing the problem and the church’s almost cavalier approach to dealing with pedophiles in its midst. The series created a stir in Europe too where the crimes were just coming to light. The public reaction from Rome was a curious and deafening silence. It was up to the bishops in the diocese to cleanup their own messes came the private word from Rome to the provinces. The US Conference of Bishops did what every bureaucracy does when accused of scandal — they studied it. And they issued a proclamation stating what we Catholics thought was policy all along, namely that the church owes its child members a”safe environment” in all church activities. Not exactly a mea culpa or even a “we’ve got a hell of problem here Brownie.” Just a statement of the obvious. Old men talked, procedures were adopted, the laity listened and the cover up and abuse continued.
As more and more victims came forward, the church felt the need to react again. And when over 3000 cases were filed seeking billions in damages for victims, the action needed to be higher than at a diocesan or even national level. The reaction from the seat of power was now denial, diminish, and defend. A study was published claiming that only 4% of priests over a 50 year span were suspected of abuse. Then a pious statement in 2003 from then Pope John Paul II: ” there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young”. But behind the scenes the Church had no intention of doing anything besides battening down the hatches. Cardinal George Pell described the mood in Rome:
…The attitude of some people at the Vatican was that if accusations were being made against priests, they were being made exclusively or at least predominantly by enemies of the church to make trouble and therefore they should be dealt with sceptically. I think there was more of an inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant rather than listen seriously to the complaints…
Publicly, the church was saying all the right things. Adopting procedures for kids to come forward, training laity and priests alike about what to look for when abuse was suspected, but in the litigation wars where the rubber met the road, the rule was scorched earth. A 2014 United Nations report issued scathing criticism of the Vatican’s historical efforts to block investigators and coverup crimes during those times. At the hearing, Sara Oviedo, the chief UN investigator pressed the Vatican delegation on the frequent ways abusive priests were transferred rather than turned in to police. Given the church’s “zero tolerance” policy, she asked, why were there “efforts to cover up and obscure these types of cases?” The church demurred with Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, politely telling the committee, “The Holy See gets it. Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.” Not all in scarlet vestments were so sanguine, however, with one Vatican emissary issuing this dodge: “Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, told the committee. “Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country.”
And some in the Curia (the Vatican’s governing bureaucracy) said all this fuss about abusive priests was an American culture problem and its perceived anti-Catholic prejudice and even its ambulance chasing lawyers. A reporter from the National Catholic Reporter put it this way:
No one [in the Vatican] thinks the sexual abuse of kids is unique to the States, but they do think that the reporting on it is uniquely American, fueled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church. And that thinking is tied to the larger perception about American culture, which is that there is a hysteria when it comes to anything sexual, and an incomprehension of the Catholic Church. What that means is that Vatican officials are slower to make the kinds of public statements that most American Catholics want, and when they do make them they are tentative and halfhearted [sic]. It’s not that they don’t feel bad for the victims, but they think the clamor for them to apologize is fed by other factors that they don’t want to capitulate to.
Nasty ol’ Americans with all this sentiment for justice and protecting kids! Who the Hell are they … these sexual deviates?
In ten years following the Boston Globe reports more than $2 billion has been paid out to victims either by way of verdict or settlement; cases of coddled abusers have been reported in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany and Australia; and several catholic diocese have faced the prospect of bankruptcy to protect assets from attachment. Justice seekers exact a high price it seems.
This is the second time Pope Francis has apologized, but the first time he’s condemned the church’s reaction to the scandal. He was not alone. In 2010, then Pope Benedict criticized the church for not being vigilant enough or quick enough in responding to the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. A representative of SNAP, a victim’s advocacy group, responded that the criticism was “disingenuous” because, in her opinion, the Church had in fact been “prompt and vigilant” in concealing the scandal.
Still this Pope Francis seems to actually “get it” and as every Catholic learns about the sacrament of penance “there is no forgiveness without contrition, and no contrition without confession.” Now, the church’s work of emotional and spiritual satisfaction to its victims can begin.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor