It feels as if a lot of time has passed since Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in July that a “major gap still exists” when it comes to the Catholic Church’s policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse and misconduct by priests, bishops, and cardinals. He was speaking in the wake of emerging details about the actions of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the clerical culture that enabled his semi-secret behavior to continue for decades with no repercussions. Of course, the existence of that gap has since been horrifically underscored with the release of a grand-jury report on seventy years of sexual abuse and systemic cover-up by bishops in six Pennsylvania dioceses. In remarkably blunt language, the report makes clear that church officials sought to protect hundreds of perpetrators and the institution at the expense of more than a thousand victims and their families. Its graphic description of a range of acts is a painful and necessary reminder of just what the sexual abuse of a child is—and why its evil is compounded when the perpetrator is a trusted adult vested with moral and spiritual authority. The pain caused by such abuse can crush a life.
In his letter this week to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis said the church has “abandoned” its children. The expression is apt. Echoing O’Malley, the pope acknowledged that “we as an ecclesial community” have been slow in “realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” and that “we have delayed in applying the actions and sanctions that are so necessary” to protect children, punish abusers, and hold accountable those who cover up such crimes. While many may welcome Pope Francis’s statement, words do not suffice for those understandably frustrated by the lack of specific proposals. “The Vatican would do well to listen now”: this was the final line of the Wilson Quarterly’s review of Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, all the way back in 1993. How often have the bishops been similarly admonished since then, yet with seemingly so little to indicate that they have mended their ways?