The Sex Abuse Scandal of the Catholic Church – Are clergy above the law?

The Sex Abuse Scandal of the Catholic Church – Are clergy above the law?

Earlier this year, a high level Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that 7% of Australian priests belonging to 75 Catholic Church authorities were accused of abusing approximately 4,444 children between January 1980 and February 2015. Three separate data surveys revealed that in some orders over 40% of brothers have been accused of sexual abuse. (Source: CNN).

Reports like these from all over the world reveal that there is a global epidemic of sex abuse and cover-up within the church. A report by John Jay College of Criminal Justice based on a nationwide survey of church records in the US, revealed that there were over 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse by priests. Of the 11,000 cases, 6,700 were investigated and substantiated according to the report. The 11,000 alleged cases were perpetrated by approximately 4 per cent or 4,450 of the priests over the 52 years that was studied.

According to the survey, nearly 25 percent of the priests had two to three allegations and almost 13 percent had four to nine allegations. Nearly 3 percent had 10 or more allegations. The survey also documents the age of the victims with 78 per cent of those abused being between 11 and 17, 16 percent between the ages of 8 and 10, and nearly 6 percent tragically aged 7 or younger.

Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic churches most senior cleric charged with multiple historical sexual assault offences

Last June Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric and head of the Vatican’s finances, 76 year old cardinal George Pell was charged with a number of  historical sexual assault offences that allegedly took place in Ballarat in the 1970s.

Although as ABC News reports, “others in senior roles inside the church had been involved in serious prosecutions, this case was unique” because Pell is number three in the Catholic hierarchy behind Pope Francis and is considered one of the most senior Catholics to be involved in a serious prosecution.

Paradoxically, in 1996 during his tenure as Melbourne’s archbishop, George Pell was the first Catholic leader to address the child sexual abuse plaguing the Catholic Church when he initiated the Melbourne Response under the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.  The Melbourne Response is a professional standard that was established to assist people who have been abused sexually, physically or emotionally by priests, religious and lay persons under the control of the Archbishop of Melbourne.

The response by the Catholic Church

In 2013 The Vatican established a commission to investigate claims of sex abuse and in 2015 Pope Francis created a church tribunal for bishops who failed in their due diligence to protect children from priests who abuse them. However, critics complain that many of the recommendations in the commission endorsed by Pope Francis have otherwise been ignored by the Vatican bureaucracy.

Although Pope Francis has done more than his predecessors when it comes to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; survivors and advocates say his record is mixed because he sometimes appears reluctant to punish priests for past abuses.

However, defenders of Pope Francis say he has held priests accountable. For example, in May of this year he defrocked Mauro Inzoli from the Catholic priesthood. Inzoli was a man convicted of child sex abuse by an Italian court.

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse scandals was to try and handle complaints internally by shuffling priests suspected of sexual abuse to other congregations instead of bringing them forward to be formally charged.

For example, former priest John Geoghan reportedly sexually abused approximately 130 people (mostly grammar school boys) in Boston, United States between 1962 and 1995.   Despite the church’s knowledge of the allegations, Geoghan was transferred to another parish that knew nothing of his history and kept on as a priest. Church officials were well aware of the priest’s activities because they ordered him to get treatment (Source: CNN).

Critics argue that although surveys like the one mentioned above count the number of children who have been abused and the number of priests who have been abusers, they do not identify how many bishops knowingly re-assigned priests who had complaints against them for sexual abuse.

Tom Roberts, the editor of the National Catholic Reporter says the Catholic sex abuse scandal is not just about sex abuse. “It’s a scandal about abuse of power and trust.”

Francis Sullivan, the head of the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council told CNN in an interview that people held in high regard, like priests, are “never questioned.” He also said that people in positions of privilege tend to cover up these scandals because they are “more interested in protecting the image of the Catholic Church than they [a]re in protecting children and believing victims.” One way to address this cultural problem within the Catholic church he advises, is to ensure an independent outside body investigates these types of claims and to make sure the Catholic church can no longer investigate itself.”

Critics like Annie Laurie Gaylor, author of Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, also argue that “the separation of state and church was never meant to make religion and its leaders immune from prosecution when they break the law or cause great harm to children and their families.”

In the meantime, Cardinal George Pell vehemently maintains his innocence and has made a public statement rejecting all of the allegations. As with other criminal prosecutions, Pell is entitled to a fair trial and presumed innocent unless the courts prove otherwise.  In a statement, Pope Francis said “he would wait for Australian justice to run its course before making a judgment himself.”