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Ideas | Michael Rezendes

With so much of its leadership compromised, is the Catholic Church irredeemable?

St. Peter's Basilica stands in Rome. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/file 2018/Getty Images

IT’S DIFFICULT TO EXAGGERATE the crisis that has engulfed the Catholic Church due to unending revelations about priests who have sexually abused children, young adults — even nuns — and the bishops who have covered up for them.

Each week, it seems, the scandal detonates yet again with fresh news of priests who have had their way with children, and the bishops who have allowed them to continue working as trusted clergymen. Nearly two decades after the scandal erupted in Boston and began its relentless march around the world, it’s become a crisis without end.

Later this week, in what is merely the latest attempt to arrest the scandal, top bishops from around the world will gather at the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis and assure the Catholic faithful that leaders of the global religion, with an estimated 1.2 billion followers, are finally ready to face the crisis.


But Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, are already working to manage expectations. They are particularly concerned about those followers who think it’s high time that the Holy See adopt a set of clear, global guidelines for preventing abuse, as well as a mechanism for disciplining the bishops who try cover it up.

While returning to Rome from a recent trip to Panama, the pope told reporters he was seeking to “deflate” those hopes, describing the gathering as a “catechesis” — an educational opportunity to help bishops understand the effects of clerical abuse and proper ways to respond.

In the American church, where the crisis is perhaps most acute, the sense of disappointment among Catholics is bordering on outrage. The anger is no longer limited to survivors and their advocates; others have joined them in the years-long effort to urge the Vatican to take decisive action.

“One thing I’ve noticed that’s different from 2002 when the story broke is the people who are most infuriated are the most devout Catholics,” said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an online publication aimed at conservative Catholics. “In 2002, a lot of my friends who I would see at Mass didn’t want to talk about it. It was hurtful and distasteful. Now, there’s smoke coming out of their ears.”


Given the continuing revelations concerning the very highest church officials, some Catholics are starting to wonder whether significant reforms are even possible. Put another way, if every bishop and cardinal in every corner of the world has either committed abuse or covered it up, how can the church be expected to change?

And what will happen if it doesn’t?


To understand the relentless nature of the crisis — and the Vatican’s failure to stop it — some Catholics underscore the revelations that some of the highest Church officials, including Pope Francis, either sexually abused children or young adults, or excused or covered up for those who did.

Just one year ago, every active bishop in Chile resigned when Pope Francis accused each of them of “grave negligence” for their failure to investigate clergy sexual abuse and take decisive measures to protect children. But the 31 bishops offered to step down only after the pope dropped his dogged defense of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros — a Pope Francis appointee — who survivors said had personally witnessed and covered up abuses committed by the Rev. Fernando Karadima.


Two months later, the pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC, after allegations that McCarrick had abused minors and adult seminarians studying for the priesthood. A further bombshell allegation, which came via a long letter written by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Francis himself was accused of covering up for McCarrick.

Then, in December, a jury in Australia convicted another Pope Francis appointee, Cardinal George Pell, on charges that he sexually abused two choir boys. Pell, formerly the archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney, was named by Francis as the Vatican’s chief financial officer and was often described as its third highest-ranking official.

And just last month, the Associated Press reported that church officials in Argentina told the Vatican that bishop Gustavo Zanchetta had taken naked selfies and engaged in inappropriate conduct with seminarians before he resigned as head of an Argentine diocese and took a high-ranking position at the Vatican created by Pope Francis. A Vatican spokesman denied the allegation.

For Catholics in the United States, perhaps the most dispiriting news came in November, when the Vatican blocked the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from adopting measures that would hold bishops accountable if they covered up for abusive priests. Many of the bishops at the Baltimore meeting considered the action essential to restoring confidence in the church following McCarrick’s resignation and an explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report, which found that 300 priests working in the state had abused 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years.


The Vatican’s intercession with the American bishops led many to conclude that the Vatican acted as it did because it intended to take up the
issue of global bishop accountability at the Rome summit, triggering soaring expectations. But now many Catholics doubt the Vatican is prepared to take significant action on this issue during a meeting that will last only a few days.

“When the pope asked the American bishops not to make any decisions about holding bishops accountable, that raised expectations that the issue would be dealt with in Rome,” said Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College. “But it’s now clear that they’re not going to take that on. There’s just not enough time. The subject is very touchy and will take a lot of deliberation. So I think it’s inevitable that American Catholics are going to be disappointed.”


For Marie Collins, a clergy abuse survivor in Ireland and a former member of the blue-ribbon panel named by Pope Francis to make policy recommendations for preventing clergy abuse, any effective reform should include three measures: Clear definitions of clergy sexual abuse and zero tolerance, which the pope has said he supports; a best practices guide for the protection of children, applicable to every diocese in the world; and clear and specific sanctions for bishops who fail to adhere to the definitions and guidelines.

But Collins, who resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors after accusing the Vatican of inaction, said she doesn’t expect these measures to be implemented at the coming summit.


Collins said this is partly due to church tradition, which grants the pope sweeping authority but also cedes each bishop considerable sovereignty over his diocese. It’s also due, she said, to a pervasive belief within the Vatican that cultural differences in the developing world — for instance, in some areas there may be no existing laws on abuse — argue for education first, and guidelines at some point down the road.

“Each child deserves the same standard of safeguarding,” Collins said. “You can’t have a child in Africa have a lower standard of safeguarding than a child in America just because the culture is different.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the advocacy group, agrees. “Reform can change mindsets,” she said. “The Supreme Court didn’t wait for Americans to vote that it was wrong to discriminate against people of color.”

Catholics who have spent years pushing the church to take decisive steps to prevent child sexual abuse and discipline wayward bishops also note that this month’s summit is not the first time the church has staged an international gathering of bishops in Rome to address the issue.

Almost exactly seven years ago, in 2012, a year after every diocese in the world was instructed to come up with a plan for preventing clergy sex abuse, the church held a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University — organized by some of the same players organizing this month’s summit — calling it, “Toward Healing and Renewal.” But in the intervening years, little in the way of reform has transpired, leaving many Catholics impatient for change.

“It’s way past time for words and promises,” Collins said. “I think the church is at a crossroads. It’s either do something now or get off the playing field. A lot of people have come to the end of their tether.”

If the church fails to do something — meaning, promulgate specific reforms and implement them globally — it will be only a matter of time before Catholics in the developing world revolt against the sexual transgressions of priests, whether their victims are children, vulnerable adults, or women.

In Chile, for instance, Pope Francis was greeted by protestors irate over his appointment of Bishop Barros when he visited the South American country early last year. And in India, a group of nuns recently staged a public protest to demand that police arrest a bishop accused of raping a sister 13 times over a period of two years. The pattern has led many advocates to predict that Catholics in the developing world may well follow the path chosen by discouraged Catholics in America, Ireland, and other Western countries who have deserted the church.

“I think the trajectory in the developing world will be the same: exposure, cover-up and disillusionment,” said Barrett Doyle. “All it takes is a few aggressive prosecutors and a robust press.”

Some Catholics, as well survivors and their advocates, go so far as to say a sexual abuse crisis left unanswered could lead to a schism within the church, with the American church breaking away to establish accountability standards for bishops in an effort to restore the confidence of an increasingly restless laity.

As far back as 1992, Richard Sipe, the former priest and psychotherapist who dedicated his life to researching clergy sexual abuse, opened a gathering of survivors, saying, “My friends, welcome to Wittenberg.” He was referring to the church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation.

Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the advocacy group Child USA, raised the possibility of a schism between the American Church and Rome in 2002, when American bishops were waiting for the Vatican to approve its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young people.

Eventually, the Vatican approved most of the charter’s provisions, with modifications to canon law known as the “essential norms,” which are applicable only to the American church. Whether the Vatican allows American bishops to resume their effort to sanction bishops who cover-up abuse, or fail to adhere to the essential norms, after the coming summit is an open question.

But either way, newly emboldened prosecutors are certain to continue their investigations of sexual abuse within the church.


Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general and the guiding force behind the state’s shocking grand jury report, has said he does not believe the church is capable of policing itself and has encouraged other investigators — including top officials at the US Department of Justice — to take on that responsibility.

“I firmly believe that the church cannot be trusted to police itself, and that absent secular involvement in new processes and new procedures, and a wholesale change in how they handle predator priests and the
cover-up, nothing will really change,” he said.

Since the release of the grand jury report in August, Shapiro said, 14 attorneys general in other states have said publicly they are launching investigations, while federal officials have initiated an investigation of their own, with a directive to church officials to preserve all related documents.

“I have spoken directly with then-Attorney Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about this,” Shapiro added.

Meanwhile, survivors and advocates who are urging state legislators across the country to extend the amount of time victims are given to file civil lawsuits are experiencing new momentum. Last month, for example, the New York legislature approved changes to the existing law after 15 years of bowing to church opposition.

Like other Catholics, Stephen Pope, the Boston College theology professor, said Pope Francis “has good intentions.” But he also said it’s time for the Vatican to address the increasingly urgent calls for change coming from within the church.

“The church can no longer be an island of secrecy and privilege,” he said. “There has to be transparency and accountability. The church’s survival depends on it.”

Michael Rezendes was a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team that revealed the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.