The sexual-abuse scandal is arguably the most serious crisis for the Catholic Church in the West since the Protestant Reformation, with still near-daily reminders of its scope, the fumbling nature of the institutional response, and the pain done to the victims and their families. Wednesday brought news of the death of former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, likely to be remembered by many in the United States (and elsewhere) for his role in keeping secret the abusive behavior of priests in the archdiocese over the course of decades. This comes the same week the Vatican has let lapse the term of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; the appointments of its members expired on December 17, and as of now it’s not fully clear whether Pope Francis will extend or renew them. And these developments follow last week’s release of the final report of Australia’s Royal Commission investigation into institutional responses to childhood sexual abuse—which could have particularly large ramifications for the Church as it continues to find a way to fully address this historic scandal.
Amounting to seventeen volumes and containing four hundred final recommendations, the Royal Commission report is the product of four years of investigation into four thousand institutions and interviews with some fifteen thousand survivors of abuse. The investigation covered schools, sports and recreation organizations, and other settings in addition to religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and two Yeshivas of the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Allegations of abuse within Australia’s Catholic institutions accounted for a majority of all the cases investigated by the Royal Commission. From the report: “Of the 4,029 survivors who told us during private sessions about child sexual abuse in religious institutions, 2,489 survivors (61.8 percent) told us about abuse in Catholic institutions […] Of the 2,413 survivors who told us about the position held by a perpetrator, 74.7 percent told us about perpetrators who were people in religious ministry and 27.6 percent told us about perpetrators who were teachers.” Clergy were not the exclusive subjects of the investigation, but the findings reveal the significant role of the ordained, of members of religious orders, and of laypeople: “Of all known alleged perpetrators, 37 percent were non-ordained religious (32 percent were religious brothers and 5 percent were religious sisters); 30 percent were priests; 29 percent were laypeople […] Of all claims made in relation to child sexual abuse in a Catholic school, 74 percent involved religious brothers or priests. … Of all Catholic priests included in the survey who ministered between 1950 and 2010, taking into account the duration of ministry, 7 percent were alleged perpetrators.”
Aside from those statistical findings, the report gives Catholics much to think about, and to fear. It goes to great lengths in blaming the institutional Catholic Church and the culture of Catholic leadership for the sexual abuses. Quite extraordinary is the passage on clericalism: “Clericalism is the idealisation of the priesthood, and by extension, the idealisation of the Catholic Church. Clericalism is linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion, and abuse of power.” The report makes use of theological language that could well be exploited by those who see anticlericalism in this critique:
The theological notion that the priest undergoes an ‘ontological change’ at ordination, so that he is different to ordinary human beings and permanently a priest, is a dangerous component of the culture of clericalism. The notion that the priest is a sacred person contributed to exaggerated levels of unregulated power and trust which perpetrators of child sexual abuse were able to exploit. Clericalism caused some bishops and religious superiors to identify with perpetrators of child sexual abuse rather than victims and their families, and in some cases led to denial that clergy and religious were capable of child sexual abuse. It was the culture of clericalism that led bishops and religious superiors to attempt to avoid public scandal to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church and the status of the priesthood.
No less damning is the report’s characterization of the governance of the Catholic Church:
The powers of governance held by individual diocesan bishops and provincials are not subject to adequate checks and balances. There is no separation of powers, and the executive, legislative and judicial aspects of governance are combined in the person of the pope and in diocesan bishops. […] We recommend that the ACBC [Australian Catholic Bishops Conference] conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and participation of lay men and women (Recommendation 16.7).
The report makes recommendations—twenty-one in total—that for centuries no one in the Catholic Church (without fear of silencing or excommunication) has been able to make, although since Vatican II many ecclesiologists have tried, albeit without success. On bishops’ appointments, for example, the report says: “Meaningful and direct consultation with, and participation of, laypeople in the appointment of bishops, as well as greater transparency in that process, would make bishops more accountable and responsive to the lay people of the Catholic Church, including in responding to child sexual abuse. We recommend that the ACBC request that the Holy See amend the appointment process for bishops (Recommendation 16.8).” Though many of the recommendations are common sense, there are some that seek change in canon law. Few if any are likely to be implemented, of course, not only because they would constitute direct interference with the internal organization of the church, but also because they’d necessitate differing standards and organizational models across global Catholicism’s many countries.