Will Pope Francis now step up to the plate and decisively deal with the issue of the clergy’s sexual abuse, asks Pinky Khoabane.
As Pope Francis prepares to meet victims of sexual abuse by clergy, will he concede that the notion of abstinence has failed, and even more importantly, demand that priests facing accusations of sexual abuse be handed over to the law?
During a flight from Jerusalem last week, Francis announced he would be meeting with sexual abuse victims at the Vatican and declared the act of priests’ molestation of children equivalent to “a satanic mass”.
This meeting would be the first of this sort since the pope’s election in March last year.
Francis is quoted as saying “sexual abuse is such an ugly crime… because a priest who does this betrays the body of the Lord. It is like a satanic mass”.
By now victims and whistle-blowers of the Roman Catholic’s sexual scandals – details of which have exploded in the last 15 years or so – could do with more action and less of the emotive descriptions of what are plain unlawful acts which ought to be handed to law enforcement for prosecution.
The late Pope John Paul II, under whose watch the American diocese and religious orders reportedly spent over $2 billion on legal action and treatment of sex offenders, once said “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young”.
In 2008, Pope Benedict apologised for the sexual abuses of the clergy, calling them “evil” and “grave sins which offend God and wound the dignity of the human person created in his image”.
In his last visit to the US in 2011, Benedict said one of the purposes of visiting the country was to acknowledge clerical child abuse and “… to acknowledge personally the suffering inflicted on the victims and the honest efforts made both to ensure the safety of our children and to deal appropriately and transparently with allegations as they arise”.
The comparison of the sexual abuses in the Roman Catholic Church to those perpetrated in society and the conclusion by defenders that sexual abuse is not unique to the church but is a broader societal issue is just a deflection from the gravity of this abominable act by priests.
During his US trip, Benedict alluded to this somewhat demotion of the church and its servants to the level of mere mortals and sinners “…that the church’s conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community to recognise the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society”.
“By the same token, just the church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.”
In responding to the church’s criticism of turning a blind eye to the problem, Francis was quoted as saying “it is perhaps the lone institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility… yet the church is the only one to have been attacked”.
Benedict and Francis conveniently forget that the church holds itself to a higher standard than that found in the broader society.
It is the church which ordains its priests to act in the person of Christ the Head.
But that aside, what has transpired in this regard since the declarations “to deal appropriately and transparently” with these sordid deeds?
The Ryan Commission set up by the Irish Government to investigate the extent and effects of abuse on children in Irish institutions operated by Catholic Church orders found wide-ranging abuse including physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect.
The Belfast Telegraph described the details of the commission’s report as “Ireland’s nightmare from hell” and “Ireland’s shameful holocaust”.
The paper said the findings were “our Nuremberg trial, Irish style, with no names, prosecution and no court appearances”.
The Congregation of Christian Brothers, a worldwide religious group that operates within the Roman Catholic Church, thwarted the commission’s commitment to name and shame abusers by taking it to court to protect the identities of its members being named in the report.
A study of the nature and scope of clerical sexual abuse, commissioned by the bishops of the US in 2002, found that 4 percent of the clergy in a 52-year period had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct.
The study identified 10 600 victims.
What has happened to the many children, men and women – the numbers of which run into thousands – whose lives have been stunted, if not completely destroyed, by the trauma of sexual abuse at the hands of priests?
And what of the many bishops and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who have stymied investigations into the accusations, and where priests who have been identified as wrong-doers have been shifted from parish to parish to obstruct and deny victims justice?
Where are the offending priests?
What of the men and women who have come forth on the side of the victims and spoken up but have now been chastised as a result of their actions?
Apart from more revelations, which have even included accusations by two boarding schools in Germany that Benedict’s elder brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, was involved in sexual and physical abuse, to what extent have the perpetrators been called to account, either within the law of the church or civil law?
There have been a few – but too few in comparison to the accusations and the extent of the secrecy and protection from prosecution that still accompanies them.
To his credit, Francis moved swiftly towards what is seemingly addressing the issue, by appointing Cardinal Sean O’Malley to head a panel of seven other advisers to help guide a new Vatican anti-abuse commission.
However, another commission is not what the victims want nor are they interested in another set of public condemnations of the molesters.
In fact, history has shown that these public utterances are nothing but a public relations exercise similar to that of Francis’s kiss and prayer at the apartheid wall built by the DA’s funder, Nathan Kirsch, which has condemned Palestinians to the worst human indignity in recent times.
Enough with the public relations and prayer, the latter being what the pope will be doing at his first meeting with victims of his colleagues’ sexual crimes.
The message from an advocacy group for victims, The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, released shortly after news of the anti-abuse commission, is a simple one, and it is backed by the Catholic Whistleblowers in an open letter to Pope Francis: “Catholic priests have concealed child sex crimes for centuries and are still concealing child sex crimes… The pope must take strong steps right now to protect kids, expose predators, discipline enablers, and uncover cover-ups.”
If there is one pope who has been revolutionary and has challenged the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church it is Francis.
Will he now step up to the plate and decisively deal with the issue of the clergy’s sexual abuse and, while at it, put up for review the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests?
* Khoabane is a writer, author and columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.