After the film “Spotlight” won the Oscar for Best Picture, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston issued a statement regarding the importance of the film for giving a voice to sexual abuse survivors. One sentence in his statement was particularly telling:
By providing in-depth reporting on the history of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the media led the Church to acknowledge the crimes and sins of its personnel and to begin to address its failings.
In other words, the Catholic Church wouldn’t have acknowledged these sexual crimes against children and adults without outside pressure from the media that uncovered them. Why?
The church has its own set of laws called canon law. More often than not, canon law ― not local, state or national laws ― is what clerical officials are most likely to follow. Secrecy, not transparency, is the church’s modus operandi. It’s built into its own laws. This omerta, this silence, has not only kept abusers hidden from public view but has imprisoned those who’ve been abused.
Each diocese has a chancellor charged with keeping all of its archival records, including priests’ records. The only people who supposedly have access to these records are the chancellor and the bishop. These records hold information regarding the everyday business of the diocese and also the names of abusers, those who they have abused, the treatments mandated and where those perpetrators were sent.
These records are an important archive not just of stories but of crimes, and in order to have these records reviewed by law enforcement, subpoenas must be issued. The work of the Pennsylvania grand jury, the Philadelphia grand jury and, most recently, the Allentown grand jury could not have happened unless the dioceses were compelled by district attorneys or grand juries to give up their records. The church doesn’t just give them up willingly.
“This is just the beginning of a new wave of reporting and lawsuits that may rival the Spotlight investigation in Boston, the Los Angeles Archdiocese scandal and even the Pennsylvania grand juries.”
Take the case of the Buffalo, New York, archdiocese, for example. In March 2018, Bishop Richard J. Malone said 42 priests were “removed from ministry, were retired or left ministry after allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.” A subsequent investigation by WKBW and its investigative team found the number in the diocese’ secret documents was actually more than 100 priests. Again, it was journalists’ research that revealed the truth.
This obfuscation is exactly why Pope Francis’ meeting with Archbishop DiNardo, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, simply isn’t sufficient. Nor is the meeting Pope Francis has called for February 2019 for all bishops of the church to discuss sexual abuse.
That’s because these meetings haven’t come out of the pope’s desire to address the issues head-on. They’re happening due to external pressures following these grand juries’ revelations and arrests, and additional accusations like Cardinal McCarrick’s preying upon young seminarians and Cardinal Wuerl’s past record of protecting priests accused of sexual abuse as a bishop in Pittsburgh (Wuerl is mentioned more than 200 times in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on abusive priests.)
For the Catholic Church, these stories and many others represent a public relations crisis of the highest magnitude.
The Catholic Church doesn’t respond like a major corporation would when faced with a scandal of this degree. The church is slow, antiquated and subject to canon law. It’s designed to protect the church’s reputation and inner workings. Discipline is meted out not immediately but through secret processes that neither laypersons nor parishioners understand. The only thing that does seem to work are legal demands for records, legal action and lawsuits.
With the Pennsylvania grand jury’s revelations, seven states so far have subpoenaed church records in recent weeks. More will be forthcoming. Outside of the U.S., Chilean police raided the Catholic Church’s Episcopal conference last month to investigate reports of sexual abuse by the Marist Brothers. In Australia, Cardinal Pell will go to trial for historic sexual abuses. This is just the beginning of a new wave of reporting and lawsuits that may rival the Spotlight investigation in Boston, the Los Angeles Archdiocese scandal and even the Pennsylvania grand juries.
“To date, there still hasn’t been a worldwide account of the scope of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church.”
The legal system, not the Vatican or local diocese, will ultimately reveal the scope and devastation of these abuses, and the legal action, the subpoenas and the lifting of statutes of limitations will all greatly affect the church. It has already changed the training of seminarians. It has already driven away churchgoers. Some dioceses have gone bankrupt.
But it’s not enough. To date, there still hasn’t been a worldwide account of the scope of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. We haven’t even uncovered many of the scandals in the U.S. We must gather those stories, chronicle the legacies of abuse and hold the church accountable.
The church has shown it will not do this on its own. The Vatican is incapable and unwilling, and the church’s hierarchical system makes it difficult when local bishops in charge of priests obfuscate the truth. It is made harder when records are hidden and when the pope himself evinces a lack of knowledge about sexual abuse in his own church. This year alone, Pope Francis dismissed credible accusations of abuse in Chile and had to apologize for his disbelief. He also claimed he didn’t know about the Magdalene laundry stories and the mothers whose children were taken away and sold to adoption agencies.
While it’s tempting to watch Catholics fight over whether the Vigano letter is true, or if homosexuality is the cause of pedophilia (spoiler alert: it is not), or ogle about the two priests caught in a car having sex in Miami (tacky), those are not the real issues here. Before these records are destroyed, the church must voluntarily release all of them to law enforcement.
There also must be a concerted effort to fight the statute of limitations that allows the church not to be responsible for the crimes committed decades ago by their clergy. Monsignors, bishops and cardinals must be held accountable for the role they played in harboring pedophiles and priests who sexually abused adults. Lay boards must be set up in each diocese and a system implemented for law enforcement to review these cases. Even then, that might not be enough. As was shown in the Pennsylvania grand jury document, some law enforcement officials’ relationship to the church helped hide the sexual abuses of local clergy.
Understanding this maze of hidden files and the omerta of the Catholic Church, enshrined in its rules and regulations, is key to understanding how this abuse has been allowed to continue. No number of meetings, nor prayer services, nor show of sorrow by the church will fix this. The church owes better than that to the faithful children and adults forever damaged by holy men and women who did unholy things.
Anthea Butler is associate professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.