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Can the Catholic Church Reform From Within?

A new report on decades of clerical abuse has exposed a secretive culture that is seemingly incapable of policing itself.

John Mottern/Getty Images

The numbers alone are staggering: 1,000 victims, 300 priests. On Tuesday, to collective horror, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released the results of its grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses. The report spans all but one of the state’s dioceses and documents abuse that goes back decades. “There have been other reports about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church,” the report begins. “But not on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: It happened everywhere.”

Tale after tale of unimaginable exploitation and cruelty make up the grand jury report. One priest tried to tie altar boys up with rope. That same priest also belonged to a child porn ring with other priests. In a detail that reads like a fever dream, clergy gave victims large gold crucifix necklaces, which marked the children as prey to other members of the ring. One priest collected trophies of urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood from female victims. Another impregnated a minor and urged her to get an abortion.

Throughout it all, the church stumbled over itself to protect its priests and its reputation. In 1996, the Pittsburgh diocese received a report that one priest had been repeatedly accused of “sexual impropriety”—he remained a priest until 2004. When dozens of parents complained that a different priest had inappropriately touched and ogled their naked sons at a Catholic school, the diocese removed him from the school, but issued him a letter of good standing in 2014 that denied that there had ever been any report of wrongdoing.

What happened in Pennsylvania is similar to what infamously occurred in the archdiocese of Boston, where victims were bribed into silence and accused priests were transferred to new parishes. What happened in Pennsylvania and Boston is similar again to what happened on the island of Guam, where there are 200 clergy sex abuse cases for a population of under 160,000 people and where the archbishop himself stood accused of rape. Other clergy scandals are unfolding in the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, New York; in Baltimore, Maryland; in Chicago, Illinois; in the countries of Ireland, Poland, Argentina, Australia, and Paraguay. The scandal is as universal as the church.

At this point, what could the church possibly do to cleanse itself in the eyes of its congregants and the world? And if the church cannot police itself, is there anything outside authorities can do to intervene?

The church’s secrecy is a repeating fact throughout the Pennsylvania grand jury’s narrative of predation. While dioceses did take some complaints seriously and removed priests from ministry, it’s clear that accused priests did not consistently face justice from their own church. Instead, dioceses shuffled priests from parish to parish. The report implicates some prelates: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh before becoming archbishop of Washington, D.C., repeatedly allowed accused priests to remain in ministry, usually at the recommendation of the church’s own treatment centers for abusive priests.

How deep does the problem go? The sheer size of the Catholic Church means it’s difficult to know the extent of clerical abuse. In recent years, however, church officials have made efforts to provide a systematic approach to oversight and accountability. The Dallas charter, first created by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 and revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018, requires dioceses to publicize procedures for reporting abuse and to create review boards for investigating claims—boards that will include lay people as well as clergy. It further orders dioceses to “demonstrate a sincere commitment” to the “spiritual and emotional well-being” of victims and forbids dioceses from entering settlements that require confidentiality from victims unless it’s at a victim’s request.

The most important documents to emerge from the charter include two reports commissioned by the church in conjunction with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The first, released in 2003, examined the church’s abuse record from 1950 to 2002; the second, released in 2011, examined the “causes and context” of Catholic clergy abuse, and says the absence of “human formation” courses at Catholic seminaries contributed to abuse.

“Before, there was spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation,” explained Sr. Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., the endowed chair for the scientific study of religion at the Saint Paul Seminary and a contributor to the 2011 John Jay report. “Pope John Paul II required that there be a fourth area of formation, human formation, which included a good deal of more in-depth education about celibacy.” The idea was that previously the church had not properly prepared priests for a lifetime of celibacy. As a result of the human formation initiative, according to Schuth, abuse cases receded from their peak in the 1960s and 70s.

But the Pennsylvania scandal, combined with recent revelations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose to the upper echelons of the church even though some officials knew he had sexually abused seminarians and altar boys, shows that there is a limit to the church’s willingness to take responsibility for the decades of suffering it has caused. When confronted with the realities of abuse, it covers it up, retreats to a defensive crouch, or attributes abuse to external, rather than internal or doctrinal, factors.

On Tuesday, the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., launched a short-lived website dedicated solely to the defense of Cardinal Wuerl. Some priests also offered up scapegoats. “Men who have suffered sexual abuse, in particular as a child, should not be admitted to priestly formation,” tweeted Fr. Kevin M. Cusick. “They need help of an intense kind and that would not be it. On the contrary, for some it has proven an insuperable temptation. Children should never be thus placed at risk.”

At the religious journal First Things, Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., who teaches systematic theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., blamed gay priests. “First, we need to investigate the past and have a transparent accounting of the failures. How were known networks of active homosexual priests (and bishops) allowed to continue?” he asked. Legge recommended screening out priests who have “a history of deep-seated homosexual attraction.”

Legge isn’t the first Catholic to pin clergy abuse on the presence of gay priests, or to link homosexuality with predatory behavior. The Vatican’s then-secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, told the Chilean bishops’ conference in 2012 that “many psychologists and many psychiatrists” had told him “that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia.” In 2018, Chilean police raided the same bishops’ conference as part of an investigation into child sex abuse committed by members of the Marist Brothers.

The 2011 John Jay report rejected any causal link between homosexuality and child sex abuse, and so do other clergy. “It’s true that many of these cases are men abusing boys. But you can’t blame all gay priests,” Fr. James Martin, S.J. told me in an email. “It’s very close to saying homosexuality leads to pedophilia, which is the worst kind of homophobia. The reason you don’t see counterexamples of the many healthy celibate gay priests is that they’re afraid to come out—now, more than ever, in this environment of blaming and stereotyping.”

Martin also rejected the idea that clerical celibacy is the root problem. “I think a clerical culture of secrecy and privilege contributed more,” he wrote. “Most abuse happens in the context of families, but does anyone believe that heterosexuality or marriage causes abuse? Blaming it on celibacy is really missing the boat.”

But the church’s highest officials are still reluctant to relinquish that privilege and secrecy. In New York and Maryland, the church opposed bills that would have expanded the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, further restricting accountability for pedophilia and more. (The archdiocese of Baltimore did not return a voicemail requesting comment; the New York State Catholic Conference did not have a spokesman available for comment.) And it is worth remembering that the only reason we are having this discussion is that Pennsylvanian authorities stepped in. If the church truly intended to shed light on past and present abuse, it wouldn’t have taken a grand jury investigation to expose the abuses in Pennsylvania. For his part, Martin believes that if the statutes are expanded, secular institutions should be included in that expansion, an argument echoed by Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. at The National Catholic Reporter.

Aside from expanding that measure in a way that includes secular institutions, there’s little secular authorities can do without running afoul of the First Amendment. The constitutional wall between church and state means that the state has an obligation to protect the church’s ability to conduct business in accordance with its doctrinal dictates—which means reform to doctrine, priestly oversight, education, and systems of accountability can only come from within. Victims of clergy abuse do not even have a universal right to sue the church for negligence that contributes to abuse; some state supreme courts have ruled against it on religious freedom grounds (others have permitted it).

In any case, it is already illegal to abuse children. Crimes committed by predatory priests aren’t just crimes against the Catholic faithful. They are crimes against all society, to which Catholics belong. Priestly crimes do not end at the doors of the church; they afflict neighborhoods and cities and states, too. The church then has an obligation to the public as well as to its own laity. And that obligation is to tell the truth, and to do so in the open, even it it harms church coffers.

It is possible for the church to fulfill its obligations without sacrificing its constitutional rights. In a July column for The New York Times, in response to the McCarrick scandal, Ross Douthat urged Pope Francis to convene an inquest, “a special prosecutor—you can even call it an inquisition if you want—into the very specific question of who knew what and when about the crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and why exactly they were silent.”

Douthat’s call resembles an earlier thought experiment by Jennifer Haselberger, a whistleblower who resigned from the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese over an abuse cover-up. Haselberger, a canon lawyer, suggested a truth and reconciliation committee, based on the post-apartheid South Africa model. Haselberger’s proposal would still be an internal investigation, but its results would presumably be public—and that is exactly why Haselberger has said her experiment will never take shape as a real effort. “If we had bishops all of a sudden admitting to knowledge and any kind of public forum, we’d never be able to prevent that from being used against them, which could lead to criminal prosecutions, civil liability, we just can’t control that,” she told the National Catholic Reporter in 2014.

On Thursday, two full days after the grand jury report broke, the Vatican released a six-sentence statement about the report’s findings. Lessons must be learned, said the Holy See; abuse is “morally reprehensible.” It urged accountability, but did not explain how it planned to achieve that goal. Meanwhile, Pope Francis’s current itinerary for an upcoming visit to Ireland lacks a visit with victims of clergy abuse. Victims and faithful Catholics alike must then hope and trust that the church’s current procedures are enough to prevent future outbreaks of abuse—that the Vatican takes the problem seriously, though its prelates and even the pope either contribute to the problem or respond tepidly to its moral and criminal outrages.

One of the most disturbing details of the Pennsylvania report did not describe the abuse of children. “Abuse complaints were kept locked up in a ‘secret archive.’ That is not our word, but theirs; the church’s Code of Canon Law specifically requires the diocese to maintain such an archive,” the report states. “Only the bishop can have the key.”