Roman Catholic Church officials in India made a startling statement a few days ago. They said they would henceforth report claims of sexual abuse by clergy to the civil authorities.
The statement was startling not so much because the Catholic Church decided to obey the law, but because it hadn’t until now.
As a church that sees itself as divinely instituted, the Roman Catholic Church has always had a strained relationship with civil authorities and has vigorously resisted all governmental attempts to investigate its internal operations.
To maintain its autonomy, the Church has employed a variety of dissimulations, subterfuges and a virtual shell game regarding responsibility. And it has employed an extensive panoply of excuses, blaming variously modern sexual liberation doctrines, homosexuals, vaguely specified “enemies of the church” and a hostile press (led by The New York Times) for its current problems.
But the result was that abusive priests were seldom punished. At most they were transferred to a different diocese, where they could continue their behavior, with no explanation to the old or the new parish of why the change was made.
Some abusive priests were sent off to a supposed treatment (which almost never works) or told to practice prayer and repentance. (How many genuinely repented their behavior is unknown.) Few if any were laicized or defrocked. After all, the Church has a shortage of priests as it is.
This is a widespread phenomenon. In Europe and the United States there has been extensive coverage of claims by youths who say they were sexually abused. Bishops have resigned as a result of questions raised about their handling of the abusive priests.
Finally the Pope has spoken out about the issue. Here is what he said: “The greatest persecution of the church does not come from enemies outside the church but is born from the sin inside the church. The church has a profound need to learn on the one hand forgiveness, but also the necessity of justice.”
This is a remarkable statement of a new attitude. What we all await now are actions that will give life to these fine sentiments from the pope indicating a fairly complete turnaround – the proof of the pudding.