Catholics Are Desperate for Tangible Reforms on Clergy Sex Abuse

Pope Francis says he supports a “zero-tolerance” policy, but some insist those words are not enough.

Divine Redeemer in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, is one of many Catholic churches in the area where abusive priests were assigned. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

This week, Pope Francis convenes the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, a massive, triennial gathering of Catholics to celebrate “joy for the world.” The timing could not be more awkward. The event comes in the wake of a terrible period for Catholic families amid revelations about clergy sex abuse, including the release of a massive new report detailing years of misconduct and cover-up in Pennsylvania.

These new findings are the latest entry in a long list of scandals from around the world: reports that Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal in Washington, D.C., sexually harassed children and adults for decades; the mass resignation of Chilean bishops who mishandled sex-abuse allegations in their country; Cardinal George Pell’s return from Rome to his home in Australia, where he is standing trial on several charges of sexual abuse.

A decade and a half after the first major wave of sex-abuse scandals upended the global Church, clergy, theologians, and lay people are desperately calling on the Church to take concrete steps to prevent abuse or cover-ups from happening again. Some say the greatest problem lies in the hierarchical structure of the Church, and are advocating for more power for lay people and an overhauled seminary system.

In an unusually forthright letter “to the People of God” on Monday, Pope Francis himself seemed to agree that the Church’s structure presents a real problem. After calling for “a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse,” he identified what he sees as the major cause of the sex-abuse crisis: clericalism. It’s what you might call the “old-boys’ club” of the Church hierarchy—a system that gives the clergy immense influence over the laity, that exalts them with pomp and pageantry, and that some say has enabled many priests to abuse their power without accountability for too long.

“Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons … supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today,” Pope Francis wrote. “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism."

It’s a strong statement from a pope who has been denouncing clericalism for years. But some Catholics argue that this is not enough: New, concrete steps are now needed to reform the Church, an institution with an embedded culture of secrecy that won’t dismantle itself. For many years, the Church failed to report sex-abuse allegations to law enforcement, preferring instead to handle matters internally by shifting accused priests to different dioceses or having them quietly treated at psychiatric clinics, for example. Some Catholic leaders are concerned that the pope’s letter—and the Church itself—lack specific recommendations for preventing this from happening again.

“My question is, ‘Have we learned our lesson?’ I’m not so sure the answer is yes,” said Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America. As Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who quit Francis’s commission on clergy misconduct out of frustration, told National Catholic Reporter this week, “You can keep saying how terrible this is. And everybody knows that now. What we want to know is what are you going to do about it. And that’s what we still haven’t got.”

The seriousness of the latest round of Catholic sex-abuse scandals is evident in the details that have emerged and the seniority of the leaders who have been implicated. The Pennsylvania grand-jury report that came out last week detailed allegations against some 300 priests, involving more than 1,000 known child victims. The individual stories are horrifying: One priest was accused of raping a 7-year-old while she was in the hospital. Another allegedly raped and impregnated a girl, and later arranged for her abortion. These and other crimes were consistently waved off and covered up by diocese officials: One priest who finally quit his post after years of complaints was able to get his superiors to recommend him for a job at Walt Disney World.

Prominent clerics and allies of Pope Francis, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., have been blamed for their role in letting this culture of abuse fester. Cardinal Sean O’Malley is also under fire in a separate case for disregarding a letter sent to his office years ago warning about McCarrick’s abuse of young seminarians. O’Malley helped lead the U.S. Church’s efforts to implement safe abuse-reporting processes after the 2002 revelations of widespread sex abuse and cover-up in Boston.

“The clock is ticking of all of us in the Church leadership,” O’Malley said in a recent video statement. “Catholics have lost patience with us. Civil society has lost confidence in us. But I am not without hope, and I do not succumb to despondent acceptance that our failures cannot be corrected.”

In recent weeks, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, has drafted a number of changes to how it handles sex-abuse allegations, including requesting an independent investigation by the Vatican into the McCarrick case; proposing new, confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and promising to advocate for “more effective resolution of future complaints.” Their intensity—if not their specificity—was echoed by Pope Francis, who wrote that he is “confident” that zero-tolerance policies and sanctions against abusers “will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”

But for many Catholics—including clergy and lay people—these apologies and promises are not enough.

“After 2002, and up until today, for the most part, the bishops as a collective body do not seem to recognize and personally take responsibility for the magnitude of what has occurred,” said Susan Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University. “Like everyone who read the [Pennsylvania] report, my first instinct was revulsion, coupled with a deep sense of rage … and also a deep sense of betrayal.”

As Reynolds pointed out, calls for better processes and accountability aren’t new. The USCCB put in place its “charter for the protection of children and young people” the same year that The Boston Globe broke the story of sex abuse in that city. Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, also decried sex abuse in the Church.

Reynolds believes the problem is structural: Lay people have little power and few ways to hold clergy accountable. She recounted a story from her own parish, of a man standing up in the middle of mass on Sunday after the priest called for reform in the Church to end sexual abuse. “How?” the man asked, simply. This, Reynolds said, was highly unusual and moving—in general, lay people don’t have many ways to make their voices heard in the Church.

“This isn’t a democracy. We can’t call our representatives. There aren’t town halls with bishops,” Reynolds said. “This groundswell of rage—very righteous anger and rage on the part of lay people—comes from this place of … almost wanting to reclaim our rightful role in the Church.”

Martens, the Catholic University canon lawyer, pointed out that recent calls for independent investigations from the Vatican amount to the “Church investigating the Church.” Although Pope Francis appointed several lay people to serve on his special commission for the protection of minors, which he created in 2014, that effort has largely stalled. Martens sees the pope’s efforts, and specifically his latest letter, as “too little, too late,” he said. “I’m not saying Francis is a bad guy. I’m just saying that even he, at times, may not grasp the seriousness of the problem.”