ROME – News of credible sexual abuse allegations against a United States cardinal may not have shocked small Vatican circles, accustomed to the rumors circulating for years, but for many faithful it came as yet another blow to their faith in the Church.
Yet according to experts at the vanguard of child protection in the Church, the fact that the Archdiocese of New York could go after a once-larger-than-life figure like Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick for claims of sexual abuse signifies an important shift in the culture of the Church, and one that is not afraid of holding accountable those in power.
“It’s not unlike the ‘Me Too’ movement. Something is happening in the culture, and one of the signs of this culture shift is that people are able to speak up,” said Archbishop Mark B. Coleridge, President of the Australia Bishops’ Conference, at a press conference on Thursday.
Last Wednesday, statements released simultaneously by the Archdiocese of New York, where McCarrick began his priestly career, and the Archdiocese of Washington, where he once served, indicated that 87-year-old McCarrick has been removed from priestly ministry over a “credible and substantiated” claim of sexual abuse dating back more than 50 years.
The claim involves an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
“While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people,” McCarrick said.
Speaking on Thursday in Rome, Coleridge said that a key aspect of this “major shift” is that victims of abuse are willing to speak, and more importantly they are believed. “No one is exempt from accountability,” he added, explaining that the archdiocese was able to address the issue today, whereas once it would have been up to the discretion of a single bishop.
“What has happened with Cardinal McCarrick does focus on episcopal accountability, and that remains a burning question in the Catholic Church,” Coleridge said.
These remarks were made at a press conference concluding a four-day summit of about 80 delegates of bishops’ conferences and conferences of religious mother superiors to discuss “Culture: An Enabler or Barrier to Safeguarding.”
The Anglophone Safeguarding Conference was born as an initiative of several English-speaking bishops’ conferences in order to safeguard children, young people and vulnerable adults, and to promote a culture that protects the weakest by addressing a culture of abuse within the Church.
The event, currently in its 15th edition, was organized by the episcopal conferences of Australia and Papua New Guinea-Solomon Islands in collaboration with the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome, June 18-21.
According to German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, President of the Center for Child Protection (CCP) the response of the Church concerning McCarrick “shows that things are tightening up and that the thoroughness of the approach reaches now even the highest levels.”
The New York board of the archdiocese, he continued, came up with “credible and substantiated allegations,” allowing for a decision to be made according to the regular procedure of Canon Law. “The process works, and the process means that people who are responsible for prosecution do what they are supposed to do,” Zollner said.
“The Church step by step, too slow – but more and more consistently – lives up to what the norms are,” he added.
Over 15 countries were represented at the conference, spanning beyond the anglophone sphere to include countries such as Chile, Singapore, Malaysia, Poland and many others. The focus was attempting to recognize not only how culture in different countries affects sensibilities regarding the protection of minors, but also how the specific culture of the Church plays into that as well.
“There is a deep ambivalence of every culture, including the culture of the Church,” Coleridge said, adding that the “destructive elements” of a culture can lead to abuse and its coverup.
“There is a long journey ahead of the whole Church but, in a sense, it is the great task,” he added.
The archbishop’s native land, Australia, has been inundated by a sexual abuse scandal tsunami, with Cardinal George Pell, among the most powerful men in the Catholic hierarchy, currently facing trial on abuse allegations, and Archbishop Philip Wilson already convicted of a cover-up.
Recently Australia and its territories have been considering enacting a law that would require priests to break the confessional seal in cases of sexual abuse against children stirring a countrywide debate.
“The proposed legislation is simply poor public policy,” Coleridge said, adding that not only will it not make children safer, but it will also compromise religious freedom rights.
According to the archbishop, there is a “thirst for the Church’s blood,” and “there is a desire to punish the Catholic Church and to show the Catholic Church who is in charge.” Yet forcing priests to break the confessional seal is not the answer, he added, and it “will create problems and help no one.”
What is happening in Australia, he continued, “is a public humiliation of the Church, but one that the Church has taken onto itself.”
Anger against the Church in light of sexual abuse scandals is not limited to Australia, but also many parts of the world, including Chile and Ireland. Pope Francis will be visiting Ireland in August for the World Meeting of Families, just months after the country voted in favor of removing safeguards against abortion from its constitution.
“The Church finds itself in a situation of deep mistrust,” Zollner recognized. “There is no other way than to be as consistent as possible, as transparent as possible to prevent further abuse.”
“You learn it on your own will or the hard way because there are no excuses,” he added.
Zollner says the effort made by the Church to place safeguards and increase education concerning abuse is “enormous.”
“It will not still the bloodthirst in five minutes, in five years, but over time, hopefully it will show that we are serious about this,” Zollner said.
The case of Chile, Coleridge said, is different because “a proper response has been long delayed,” with the Church being informed of the allegations against notorious pedophile priest Fernando Karadima more than 20 years ago.
The South American country has been hit with a sexual abuse scandal implicating the majority of its Catholic hierarchy, with all the Chilean bishops submitting letters of resignation to Pope Francis.
Organizers and participants at the conference expressed the hope that such initiatives may be a model for other bishops’ conferences around the world to imitate in order to create a culture of knowledge, dialogue and commitment within the Church.
“Giving the powerless a voice,” is the essential paradigm going forward, Coleridge said. “It’s absolutely critical, that the children and the vulnerable wherever they are, even in the seminaries and religious community, that they be given a voice and be listened to.”