The Catholic Church is no stranger to accusations of child sexual abuse in its clergy. However, the latest wave of allegations, findings, inquiries, and testimonies have caused unprecedented backlash, beginning with the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on child sexual abuse on August 14. The report highlights the accusations of sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by more than 300 priests in six of the eight dioceses in Pennsylvania over 70 years. The other dioceses not investigated in this report had previously been investigated with similarly strong findings.
A common thread in the report, beyond the detailed and grotesque tales of abuse, was the systemic covering up of abuse accusations within the Church, from the individual dioceses all the way to the Vatican, according to Philadelphia Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Appearing on NBC’s show “Today,” Shapiro admitted, “We have evidence that the Vatican had knowledge of the cover-up.”
Soon after this, Pope Francis spoke publicly about the scandal, condemning the actions of the perpetrators of the violence and those who strived to prevent the abuse coming to light in a letter addressed to folks of the Catholic faith internationally. While saying, “we have failed them,” the Pope also attributed some blame to laypeople, claiming they must also be responsible for uncovering abuse and attempts to hide it within the Church. This statement resulted in backlash from many survivors who felt condemning the actions was meaningless, wishing the pope had instead focused on actionable strategies for providing justice for survivors and preventing further harm to children in the future.
Last Saturday, a letter sent by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was published in numerous Catholic news outlets. The letter accuses the pope of playing a role in the cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal and calls for him to resign, an unprecedented and explosive move. The pope has refused to comment on the letter. While some people consider this damning, others have decried the Viganò letter as less than genuine, citing a long history of tension between the Archbishop and Pope Francis as a potential ulterior motivation.
On Aug. 30 at a panel discussing the youth of the Church, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia announced that he had written to the pope requesting the cancellation of the upcoming Youth Synod. This assembly of the clergy has been planned to take place in Rome this October. Chaput asserted that the bishops lacked the credibility necessary to address the topic of Catholic youth in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, suggesting a synod focusing on the life of bishops instead. A UK bishop named Philip Egan made a similar suggestion regarding a topic change of the synod with the aim to improve accountability and supervision of the clergy.
Aug. 31 the Catholic Church in Australia accepted most of the recommendations proposed in the final report of a five-year inquiry in Australia into child abuse in institutions in the country, with some glaring exceptions. The inquiry included testimonies about abuse in churches, schools and sports clubs, though the Catholic Church had the most cases of the institutions investigated. The final report of this inquiry, published last December, found tens of thousands of children had faced sexual abuse in Australian institutions, and seven per cent of priests in Australia had been accused of child abuse. The report provided over 400 recommendations for the government and other institutions to provide justice and improve prevention efforts. While the Church agreed to the recommendations to alter canon law to reclassify sexual abuse as a crime, as opposed to the current classification of “moral failing,” introducing voluntary celibacy rather than mandatory involuntary celibacy, and general improvement in accountability, there was one particularly significant recommendation they refused to entertain. The Church in Australia formally refused to require priests to report sexual abuse that is disclosed during confession, claiming it would make disclosures less frequent. Currently, teachers, boarding supervisors, police, doctors, nurses, and midwives are mandatory reporters in Australia. While the inquiry and its final report have both been in the public eye for longer than the recent resurgence of allegations, the Catholic Church’s refusal to make priests mandatory reporters has coincided with the backlash over the alleged papal cover-up, though the scandal may not have prompted this refusal.