ROME – To the extent it’s a virtue, one can at least say this about the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: It clearly has not been cowed by the internal politics of the Catholic Church. Indeed, it hardly seems to be aware of them.
On Friday, the commission issued its final report after four years of hearings, investigations, and research, and unsurprisingly, the Church was a major object of its attention. Based on its findings, the commission could have restricted itself to the following propositions – all of which are present in the report in some form.
- The Catholic Church is guilty of massive failures in its responsibility to protect children, failures so vast they weren’t random or merely personal, but systematic.
- Leaders in the Church, especially the hierarchy, must be held accountable for child protection in ways that go beyond the notional or merely symbolic.
- The Church must cooperate, always and at all levels, with civil authorities, because no institution can be allowed to police itself when it comes to child sexual abuse.
- The reform process in the Church, while encouraging, remains seriously incomplete, and must be accelerated and made uniform.
Had that been the commission’s bottom line, it probably would have attracted 80 to 90 percent Catholic support in many parts of the world. It also would have strengthened the hand of those promoting change in the Church, perhaps lending a new sense of urgency to their efforts.
Make no mistake: There is a political battle underway in Catholicism today over child sexual abuse, and its outcome is uncertain.
In the old days, the battle lines were between reformers and deniers – those who acknowledged the problem, and those who insisted it was media-driven hysteria, or an ideological attack on the church by its enemies. Today, buried under an avalanche of data, first-person testimonies, court verdicts, and so on, that kind of denial has been largely suffocated.
However, a new foe of reform has arisen, which we might call the “let’s move on” crowd.
This group, whether they say it out loud or not, believes the abuse scandals are largely over. The needed changes have been adopted, the appropriate level of contrition has been expressed, the Church has paid its bill for legal settlements to victims, and now it’s time to focus on other matters. Yes, some level of ongoing maintenance will be required to prevent backsliding, but this is simply no longer a front-burner priority, and continuing to talk about it now often strikes these people as egregious and even a bit obsessive.
Worryingly, the “let’s move on” camp often seems to be calling the shots these days.
If that weren’t so, it’s hard to explain why the pope’s much-ballyhooed new forum for imposing accountability on bishops who drop the ball hasn’t gotten off the ground, and why his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors continues to run into bureaucratic frustrations in the Vatican, down to silly things like securing the appropriate credentials for new staff. It also would be otherwise puzzling why there are still huge gaps in the Church’s protocols for dealing with abuse, from some parts of the world that are state-of-the-art to others that essentially have done nothing at all.
There’s little perceived sense of urgency in the Vatican these days about the ongoing challenge of reform, perhaps because the media and political spotlights of 2002/3 in the United States and 2010/11 in Europe have faded. The Royal Commission report could have helped to jar the Church out of that complacency.
Instead, the commission chose to muddle its utterly legitimate indictments with two other points:
- A recommendation that Catholicism eliminate mandatory priestly celibacy.
- A call that the seal of the confessional be abandoned when it comes to confessions involving child abuse.
In effect, the first is a red herring and the second is, almost certainly, a non-starter.
To begin, there is the empirical reality that the sexual abuse of children is not confined to, and likely isn’t any more pronounced among, celibate males than non-celibate ones.
By now, it’s well-established that the vast majority of child sexual abuse is carried out within families, where most perpetrators are married. Other religious communities with married clergy have experienced massive scandals, the Associated Press did groundbreaking work documenting patterns of abuse within the public school system, and on and on.
With regard to the seal of the confessional, that’s an absolutely core sacramental principle in Catholicism, one for which martyrs have given their lives over the centuries, and it’s deeply unlikely that anyone in authority in the Church would seriously entertain setting it aside, no matter how noble the motive.
To tell the Catholic Church that the only way to deal with sex abuse is to get rid of the seal of the confessional is somewhat akin to telling Judaism that it has to drop its special spiritual identification with the land of Israel, or telling Islam that it must junk the Qur’an. Those may be interesting thought exercises, but they’re never going to happen, and therefore are unproductive as a path to reform.
Moreover, by including these two points, the commission may have strengthened the hand of the “let’s move on” crowd, appearing to offer confirmation that anyone still talking about the sex abuse mess now has an agenda to force the Church to change its teaching and tradition, not simply to protect children.
Time will tell how all this plays out, but right now one thing seems clear: If you’re a reformer in the Catholic Church on child abuse – and when it comes to protecting children we should all be – prior to this week you may have been eagerly anticipating what the Royal Commission would have to say.
After this week, you may be more likely to hope everyone forgets about it, and soon.