Australian Cardinal George Pell / CNS

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.

Even if one acknowledges that celibacy is not the issue, it’s difficult to deny that the clergy are a problem

But recommendations on sacramental confession and clerical celibacy do raise legitimate concern about the potential for government interference in church affairs—a possible twenty-first-century version of the eighteenth-century’s “jurisdictionalism” in Catholic central Europe. On confession, the report recommends “there should be no exemption to obligations to report under mandatory reporting laws or the proposed ‘failure to report’ offence in circumstances where knowledge or suspicions of child sexual abuse are formed on the basis of information received in or in connection with a religious confession (Recommendation 7.4 and Recommendation 35).” Another recommendation notes the lack of precision among Catholic leaders themselves on this topic. “During our public hearings … it emerged that Catholic archbishops and canon lawyers were unclear about whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they had been sexually abused would be covered by the seal of confession, and about whether absolution could and should be withheld if a person confessed to perpetrating child sexual abuse, until they report themselves to civil authorities. We recommend that the ACBC seek clarification on these matters from the Holy See, and make public any advice it receives (Recommendation 16.26).” Some leaders have taken this as a request to break the seal of confession. It might not be necessarily so. Francis Sullivan, a lay Catholic who for fourteen years was chief executive of Catholic Health Australia and who headed the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice, and Healing Council launched shortly after the establishment of the Royal Commission, told me in an email after the release of the report that “the distinction between confessing a sin and disclosing information about being abused is important and should enable a better embrace by the Church with a contemporary issue that itself has perpetuated.” (The Truth, Justice, and Healing Council will conduct an assessment of the report in the next few weeks.)

Another set of recommendations may be even more consequential, given how they would impact largely unaddressed aspects of priestly recruitment, formation, life, and ministry. The report bluntly pushes Australian bishops to request that “the Holy See consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy (Recommendation 16.18).” It goes on to recommend new processes of “selection, screening and training of candidates for the clergy and religious life and their processes of ongoing formation, support and supervision of clergy and religious (Recommendation 16.20).” Such issues have remained largely unspoken of in the Church. Even at Vatican II, there was a mix of censorship and self-censorship on the topic, which remained out of the debate in order to reserve it for a later pronouncement of papal magisterium—with an interesting parallel to how contraception was dealt with by those in charge of the agenda of Vatican II.

I believe that the causal connection the report makes between priestly celibacy and sexual abuse is too facile, perhaps even populist and ideological. But additionally, the recommendation does not challenge celibacy in religious orders, something that makes sense from a theological and canonical point of view, but does not if you believe that lack of companionship is a factor in child sexual abuse. Further, it overlooks the fact noncelibate, married men are responsible for a significant proportion of sexual abuse cases. And it recalls the specious argument that often used to be advanced by those within the hierarchy that homosexuality was to blame.

Still, even if one acknowledges that celibacy is not the issue in child sexual abuse, it’s difficult to deny that clergy are a problem. The Catholic Church still has an idea of priesthood that came out of the Council of Trent five centuries ago. There is a small number of married priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and a tiny number of former Episcopalian and Anglican married priests accepted into the Catholic Church but basically asked to stay hidden, that is, impeded from serving in parish ministry (the Pastoral Provision established in 1980 by John Paul II and the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter created in 2012 by Benedict XVI. It should be noted that the first delegate appointed by the Holy See for the implementation of the Pastoral Provision was Cardinal Bernard Law.) But canon law still stipulates that the Church look for vocation among the celibate and for the celibate, which means some churches, including the Catholic Church in Australia, are keeping parishes open through massive import of celibate priests from other countries and continents. This “foreign clergy trade” creates the illusion that the shortage of priests in the global West (of which Australia is part) can be treated through “importing” them from poor countries—a dangerous illusion, no matter how good the intentions of the institution or the individuals involved.

The report comes at a time when even Pope Francis has been cautious on the topic of reforming ministry. In December 2016, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy issued The Gift of Priestly Vocation, which does not fundamentally change the Tridentine aspect of formation. If we want to use this moment to examine, by way of ecclesial discernment, the relationship between sexual abuse and the crisis in the life and ministry of Catholic priesthood, then it us up to us. Yves Congar said “there are things which come from history that it would be foolish to try to absolutize by making them identical with Christianity.” Clerical celibacy is one of those things.

In the history of the Catholic Church, no reform ever originated from a spontaneous will of the institution to purify itself

What the report and its recommendations may mean for the Church in the long run is not fully clear. In normal circumstances, such demands from public institutions would invite equal or greater pushback. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Today, the Catholic Church in Australia knows that clergy and bishops facing accusations of abuse could be called into court—they only have to look at the example of Cardinal George Pell, who left Rome last summer to stand trial on allegations of incidents dating back decades. Another difference, as I wrote in my letter from Australia last September, is that the Australian bishops are planning a Plenary Council for 2020, the first since 1937. Thus the reception of the commission report will be not just institutional, but also ecclesial and synodal because of this particular process the bishops have set in motion (an example that one hopes will inspire other episcopates). Expectations will be high, from Australians and the Australian Church, for the Plenary Council to address the recommendations, separate from how church leadership will decide to deal with them; it’s hard to imagine preparations for the Plenary Council not including debate on the report. And because of the constitutional framework of relations between the Australian public institutions and churches—very different from the separation of church and state principle of the United States—the Royal Commission’s final report actually has some teeth.

In the history of the Catholic Church, no reform ever originated from a spontaneous will of the institution to purify itself. All reforms were necessitated by major crises and advanced under external pressure. The measures taken in these last fifteen years to address sexual abuse—by any historical measure a major crisis in Catholicism—are mostly emergency fixes, not long-term solutions. The Holy See’s press office statement on the report merely notes that it “deserves to be studied seriously.” (It also mentions Pope Francis’s September 21 meeting with the now-inactive Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.)

For some Catholics, there is only one thing worse than change in the Church, and that’s change forced by secular governments upon the Church. Current concerns about religious freedom globally are certainly justified; if the Australian government’s demands are met, one would be right to wonder what might happen tomorrow, in this post-secular moment of ethno-nationalism and religious nationalism, to the Catholic Church in China, India, Russia, or in Muslim-majority countries.

But this is not the first time in history that public institutions have set their own expectations on the Catholic Church. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy didn’t mean the end of the Catholic Church in France, and Napoleon’s attempt to suffocate Catholicism and the papacy backfired spectacularly. This could be a kairos, a critically opportune and decisive moment for the church in Australia, on the condition that Catholics don’t think about it in purely legal and political terms. The Australian church’s plenary council will have not just the issue of faith to address, but also the issue of restoring a more basic trust between the Church and Australians, as well as Australian Catholics. Catholics around the world would be wise to watch carefully what happens in Australia over the next few years. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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