Last week we looked at the Catholic Church’s claim that all the evils of the cover-up of child sex abuse so rivetingly portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight are behind it now—a claim belied by the facts on the ground, from Australia to India to Florida to St. Louis to Boston itself. And, just within the past month, by three separate signals from the Vatican itself.
The first was the publication of a document with instructions for newly appointed bishops—not the platitudes for public consumption, but the orders for managers on the ground. In plain language, it told them that when they learn of child sex abuse within the ranks, “it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police, or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds.”
The head of one victims group called the document “unfathomable, and yet it does not surprise me.” Another explained that “Their systems function to protect the interests of the institution. They don’t put the protection of children first.”
The Vatican quickly tried to back and fill, claiming that the guidance doesn’t mean exactly what it says it means. Theologians live and breathe this kind of nonsense: one teaching says one thing, another says a different thing, so they can spend days pondering their navels trying to sort it all out, generally concluding that whatever opinion they held before commencing the thought process has now been proven right.
Clarity, if you want to call it that, was supplied a few days later in a statement from Pope Francis. “A bishop who changes parish (for a priest) when he detects pederasty is reckless and the best thing he can do is present his resignation,” Francis said. “Clear?”
Report the crime to the authorities? Nope. Just resign, on your own volition. Be subject to internal church discipline? Nope. Just resign, on your own volition. That should work well.
Imagine the commandant of the Marine Corps saying, “Any marine who sleeps on guard duty should present his resignation. Clear?”
Imagine the president of Safeway saying, “Any clerk who steals money out of the cash register should present his resignation. Clear?”
Do you have trouble imagining these statements? The store checker will be fired on the spot and turned over to the police. The marine, for an offense during wartime, can be shot. That’s how organizations act when they really want their employees to do something. Instead, we see yesterday’s major investigative report from the Associated Press: “Pope’s abuse accountability tribunal going nowhere fast,” describing how the new Vatican PR initiative has been crippled by built-in bureaucratic obstacles—that give every appearance of being deliberate—from day one.
For the past sixteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has flatly refused to concede that it is subject to governmental authority. It obeys a “higher law,” one that allows its officials to do as they please. That’s the culture that leads to sex abuse, not just among Catholic clergy but among others as well. Only grudgingly has the church acknowledged that it needs to obey the sex abuse reporting laws—all the while demanding huge exceptions—but there is every indication that they don’t really mean it and will revert as completely as they can to the bad old days as soon as the heat dies down. If the church were serious it would say, “Everyone on the payroll who has any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in the ranks must report it to the police, immediately. If you don’t, then (1) you’ll be fired the minute we learn of it, and (2) any expenses we suffer from that abuse will be deducted from your pension.”
Which brings us to the testimony of Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, whom Pope Francis appointed to the second most powerful position in the Vatican—some would say the most powerful—as head of the Vatican Bank. Catholic child sex abuse has become so rampant in Australia that the government there set up a “Royal Commission” to investigate it and make recommendations. Pell claimed he had a heart condition that would prevent him from flying back to testify, so the commission arranged for video testimony instead. Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, fifteen abuse survivors were able to fly to Rome to hear his testimony directly (though Pope Francis refused to see them).
What the survivors heard was Pell admitting that he had been told about a priest sexually abusing children—“misbehaving” was his euphemism—and done nothing about it. He was fully aware, he also admitted, of priests kissing and swimming naked with boys. Pell himself says he “should have done more,” but that “if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”
What he did not admit was becoming angry at the bearers of bad news who informed him of the problem or yelling, “Young man, how dare you knock on this door and make demands!” as other witnesses before the commission swear happened. He also denied trying to bribe victims to drop their charges, as other witnesses have sworn.
While Pell was serving as an assistant bishop, his boss was busily engaged in shuffling pedophile priests from parish to parish, exactly as portrayed in Spotlight and exactly what the pope now says should require resignation. Yet Pell had no idea such shuffling was going on—he was utterly oblivious to what his immediate boss, whose paperwork it was Pell’s precise job to help with, was doing. In fact, he laments, everyone around him, including the Catholic Education Office, was busily pulling the wool over his eyes. If he’s telling the truth, he’d seem to be the last, most naïve person in the world anyone would want to put in charge of a place with as sordid a history as the Vatican Bank.
One Australian who traveled to Rome described how his oldest daughter committed suicide after being repeatedly raped by a priest and how her sister turned to binge drinking for the same reason and was later struck by a car while in a drunken stupor. When he approached Pell to seek support for the girl’s medical bills, Pell responded with a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”
But this is harsh. Pell has actually burbled with empathy for some who are caught up in the saga. When the notorious serial abuser Fr. Gerald Ridsdale suffered the indignity of being hauled into court, there was Pell by his side, giving him moral support. Ridsdale was then convicted on charges involving fifty-four different children. Here’s how Pell now casually dismisses the Ridsdale case: “It’s a sad story, and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
Pell has now taken the decisive action of tying a yellow ribbon to the fence in the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican Gardens in a show of solidarity with the victims. So what’s everybody complaining about?
The undertone to Pell’s testimony, and to the rest of the church’s posture, is: “That was then, this is now.” It’s somehow unfair to apply rigorous twenty-first century standards to the ancient era of a few decades ago. “We weren’t alert in those ways anything like we are alert today,” Pell whines. It’s a posture as ludicrous as it is offensive. Child sex abuse was every bit as evil then as it is now, and everyone knew it to be so. Pell and his ilk just thought (and still think) that priests should be above the law.
The allegations against Pell were common knowledge in the press long before Francis appointed him to his current position of immense power. The fact that Francis appointed him anyway shows how little he really cares about child abuse. The fact that he’s not removing him now, after this public disgrace, is even worse. The Sydney Morning Herald put it bluntly: “The cardinal must go, and Pope Francis must be involved.”