Two stories broke this week regarding the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals, one in Italy and the other in the States, and in different ways, each speaks to a missed opportunity.
In Italy, a book came out titled Lussuria: Peccati, Scandali e Tradimenti di una Chiesa Fatta di Uomini (“Lust: Sins, Scandals and Betrayals of a Church Made of Men”) by journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, one of the five defendants in last year’s “Vatileaks 2.0” trial pivoting on leaked documents from a papal commission on Vatican finances.
In the States, a former employee of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the country’s best-known advocacy organization for survivors of clerical abuse, has sued the group, charging that in reality it’s a commercial operation funded by kickbacks from lawyers who sue the Church.
Here’s why each story suggests that chances to promote real reform have slipped through the cracks.
With Fittipaldi’s book, because he writes on Church finances, people expected he would expose more money-related skullduggery. Instead he focused on the sex abuse scandals, largely recycling well-worn material. (In retrospect, probably the title, “Lust,” should have been a clue about what was coming.)
Fittipaldi goes back over Cardinal George Pell’s multiple appearances before an Australian Royal Commission. He covers the scandal in Chile of Fernando Karadima, that country’s most notorious abuser priest, and Pope Francis’s appointment of a bishop known as a Karadima apologist. He recounts the story of Lawrence Murphy, an American priest believed to have molested around 200 boys at a school for the deaf up to the mid-1970s.
All that has been extensively chronicled, and Fittipaldi doesn’t add much to the record.
At one level, Fittipaldi’s book is off-putting because of its sloppiness with facts. He describes Cardinal Timothy Dolan as “head” of the U.S. bishops, a position he hasn’t held since 2013. He calls Pell the “right hand man” of Pope Francis, something any observer of the Vatican these days knows to be clearly exaggerated.
(For the record, he also describes me as the “dean of the American Vatican writers,” another debatable proposition.)
More basically, the problem is that Fittipaldi caricatures the real situation in the Church.
Anyone being honest has to concede that Catholicism has made enormous progress over the last decade and a half. For example, vast resources have been invested in developing state-of-the-art abuse prevention and detection programs, to the extent that many other institutions are now scrambling to catch up.
Scores of abusers have been weeded out of the priesthood, including more than 400 in the last year of Benedict XVI’s papacy alone. Dioceses in many parts of the world have adopted stern “zero tolerance” policies, suspending any priest facing a credible abuse allegation and turning the case over to civil police and prosecutors to investigate.
To read Fittipaldi, however, you would never know any of that happened.
Case in point: Fittipaldi claims that the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors created by Pope Francis is a sham, writing that it’s accomplished “little or nothing.”
Baroness Sheila Hollins of the U.K., a member of the commission, responded in a letter to the Guardian: “Members have had more than 50 educational engagements in five continents during the last 12 months … The intensity of the global educational and policy work is quite different to Fittipaldi’s dismissive suggestion.”
One could go on, but the basic point is that Fittipaldi tells only half the story.
In the SNAP lawsuit, former employee Gretchen Hammond describes an organization founded for noble purposes, but which has lost its way in a near-fanatical quest for money.
“SNAP does not focus on protecting or helping survivors – it exploits them,” says the lawsuit, filed Jan. 17 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.
“SNAP routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of ‘donations.’ In exchange for the kickbacks, SNAP refers survivors as potential clients to attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors against the Catholic Church.”
Once she began raising these concerns, Hammond says, she was subject to workplace reprisals that led to serious health issues, and eventually she was fired.
SNAP has called the allegations “not true” and says they’ll be vindicated in court, and time will tell how that plays out.
In the meantime, another longstanding issue with SNAP and similar organizations doesn’t require a legal proceeding to establish: The fact that they’re often incapable of telling the good guys from the bad. To take the most obvious example, if Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston is your idea of a problem bishop, as SNAP has repeatedly asserted, then something’s gone seriously wrong.
To be sure, there are real challenges in the Church to finishing the job of reform, and someone does need to bang the drum.
The new papal anti-abuse commission has struggled to get the support it needs, from timely approval of new members to authorization for hiring and salaries. Despite announcement of a new judicial section with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prosecute bishops who cover up abuse allegations, to date it exists only on paper.
There are bishops’ conferences in the developing world who haven’t even adopted anti-abuse policies, let alone implemented them, and there are still instances where priests facing allegations can move to another jurisdiction with impunity, usually international priests serving abroad who go home. Still today, there are situations in which bishops don’t act appropriately when abuse allegations surface, sometimes failing to apply policies they themselves have approved.
Moreover, eternal vigilance is the price of progress: Despite the fact the Church has made historic strides forward, there’s always the risk of lethargy and backsliding if someone isn’t holding its feet to the fire.
The truth, however, is that there are plenty of people in the Catholic Church who understand all that, and are striving mightily to do the right thing. Real reform means identifying those people and supporting them, not demonizing “the Church” writ large as the problem.
As one example, on Friday a commission in Northern Ireland released a report on child sexual abuse, finding significant failures by both police and the Catholic Church. Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, primate of the Irish church, accepted the findings and said, “We in the Church must do everything we can to submit to the demands of justice, and demonstrate that we are serious about making reparation for the sins and crimes of the past.”
Mature advocates for victims would want to work with Martin in fleshing out what that vow means in practice, not to dismiss it a priori.
Bottom line: Trafficking in ideological bias and sweeping stereotypes, while ignoring the complex nitty-gritty of reality, can be more harmful to reform — and, in this case, to child welfare — than the straw men some writers and organizations make a career out of attacking.