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Sex Abuse Scandal: The Absence of Institutional Change within the Catholic Hierarchy Damages the Church

March 29, 2010

The latest coverage of the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic church reveals that while some progress has been made in dealing with the crisis, the absence of institutional change leaves significant room for improvement.

Pope John Paul II quickly laid the blame at the doorstep of rogue priests within the church. His analysis never went further, and the scandal grew month on month. Pope Benedict XVI elevated the problem to one of rogue bishops, which is certainly a step in the right direction. However, until the pope acknowledges that the epicenter of the crisis lies in the Vatican itself, the church will never be able to move on.

The public face of this scandal is, of course, the abused themselves. Their stories are heart wrenching. The underlying problem is, however, the power structures within the Vatican that allowed and continue to allow bishops to cover up the problem with impunity, disregarding the need to report abuse to civil authorities and to dismiss abusers.

When Pope Benedict visited the United States in 2008, his meetings with victims and his public expressions of sorrow went some way towards healing the pain that many feel. Apologies are a first step. But many more steps need to follow.

We have yet to see a plan that would lead to full disclosure, recompense to victims (insofar as that is possible) and a thorough housecleaning to ensure no similar situation can recur. The hierarchy must shine a light on all of those who abused and those who covered up that abuse. More importantly, the plan must include a shake up in the power structure of the hierarchy so as to ensure that the reputation of clerics was never again considered to be more important than the well-being of individual Catholics or of the church.

We need to remember at this time that the Vatican’s sexual problems do not just extend to young children and adolescents. We have seen evidence of the widespread sexual abuse of nuns and women religious in Africa by priests and bishops. This problem is endemic within the church. Only a root and branch overhaul will suffice.

The Vatican’s fire engine approach—one that seeks to put out fires rather than putting in place adequate fire prevention policies—has failed. Catholics can and should expect that those responsible for administering to their spiritual needs are above reproach.

Conscience has continued to expose the full scale of this issue. Our latest issue has an excellent article by the renowned Irish journalist Eamon McCann about the recent revelations from Ireland.

In addition, SNAP, The Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests has many excellent resources.