1. Religion & Spirituality
Scott P. Richert

Should the Vatican Come Clean on Clerical Sexual Abuse?

By February 7, 2011

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That's essentially what John Allen, the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, argues in "Avoiding the blame game on abuse." In building his case that Vatican officials should quit pointing fingers at one another, Allen points to a 1997 letter to bishops in Ireland warning them against adopting a mandatory reporting policy concerning clerical sexual abuse, as well as a letter from 1984 to the bishop of Tucson, Arizona, concerning nonsexual misconduct by a priest. There is, he suggests, enough blame to go around, and it does no good to handle each new revelation separately.

Instead, Allen suggests, the Vatican should acknowledge that

until very recently, the primary concerns vis-à-vis cooperation with police and prosecutors, aside from the sanctity of the confessional, were the following:

  • Preserving the church’s independence from the civil sphere, a value encoded in the Vatican’s DNA after centuries-long battles to fend off kings, emperors and dictators;
  • Protecting an accused priest’s right to his good name;
  • Defending a bishop’s right to confidential exchanges with his priests.

Some readers may be surprised to find that Allen argues that "The values listed above are entirely legitimate, and it’s no scandal that Vatican officials strove to defend them."

He's right. Where Allen goes somewhat wrong is in what he fails to say. As Twitter user Londiniensis put it, "All this also at a time when both church and society's attitude to/knowledge of child sex abuse was minimal [and] also at a time when the scale of the problem was unimaginable." The latter was especially true in the Vatican. Individual bishops on the ground knew much more about the scale of the problem than the hierarchy in Rome did, and all too often they kept it from officials in the Vatican—something that anyone who has covered the clerical sexual-abuse scandal knows, but which Allen doesn't mention.

Allen believes that responding to each new revelation about Vatican documents and directives is playing a losing game. He would rather have Vatican officials come clean about what they had hoped to accomplish, and to acknowledge that they should have responded more strongly much earlier.

There are two problems with Allen's proposed course of action, however: First, the truth won't satisfy the critics of the Church, because in the fever dreams of SNAP and VOTF and abuse attorney Jeffrey Anderson, the problem didn't stem from a lack of awareness in Rome but from a deliberate attempt at the highest levels of the Catholic Church to cover up horrific crimes (and even to perpetrate and perpetuate such crimes).

And second, Allen's proposed course of action has already been tried (which is why we know it won't work). Indeed, Allen himself has reported on it. Last year, during the new "crisis" largely manufactured by the New York Times and Jeffrey Anderson, Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict himself, spoke at length about the changes made in 2001 to consolidate control over cases of clerical sexual abuse in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is, in the hands of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

More than implicit in all of that discussion, and explicit in Pope Benedict's statements on clerical sexual abuse, was an acknowledgment that the Vatican had not understood the scale of the problem and had addressed it a haphazard manner before 2001. Yet every admission, implicit or explicit, led to further attacks.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Vatican's current response is, in Allen's words, "to counterpunch" whenever a new document comes to light?

Allen's solution may be naive, but his analysis of how we got to this point is very good (except, as I noted above, where he fails to say some things that need to be said). It's well worth a read. And once you've had a chance to digest it, tell us what you think in the comments.

More Coverage of Clerical Sexual Abuse on the About.com Catholicism GuideSite:

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February 8, 2011 at 11:04 am
(1) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent piece.

February 8, 2011 at 11:53 am
(2) Paulo says:

Good insights about John Allen who seems fair, overall.

The response to cover up is different than the response to abuse. These are two situations that are poles apart. I trust the church will never again deal with systemic abuse. Abusers are being removed from the priesthood. Good!


The men (bishops and cardinals) who moved abusers are still in their positions of significance. Cardinal Law is the poster child for rewarding good soldiers who hid crimes and placed criminals (rapists) in the parishes with unsuspecting children. He was responsible for abusers touching more children. I think that as long as Cardinal Law is in a Basillica and has an apartment in the city of Rome and has power in selecting new American bishops then he has not been punished!

We know child abuse is a crime. As a parent I am repulsed by the very idea of sexual abuse of children. I know it is a crime and I know it is a sin. We expect our priests to also know it is a crime and a sin. We hold priests to a high standard and see thier sins as more intense as they are in the business of preaching against sin. Cardinal Law is held to an even higher standard because he selected and approved each man for ordination. After Ordination he protected the sinners and their criminal activity. He should be held to the apex of standards. The church must punish those who are guilty of allowing more children be raped and tormented. Start with Cardinal Law!

February 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm
(3) Ike says:

Paulo, There was a typo…
each reference to Criminal Law showed up as Cardinal Law.

February 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm
(4) Char says:

Why would a sex abuse case in the vatican/church be treated any differently than one a neighbor, teacher, relative would witness? Mandatory reporting of abuse never should be in question! This is a moral issue that priests of ALL people should know that they would need to report. That disgusts me, that it would even be in question or that someone would need to tell them that they need to report it!
Why hy should priests be treated any differently then a lay person? No way should they have different laws. I see descrmination and loop holes in that “brotherhood”

Protecting an accused priests right to his good name… hmmm, have a problem with this one. I f there is abuse that athis priest has done… he lost his rights! When you hold an office such as this or any higher office you are in the spot light. Your choice. Your right is to keep it clean, honest and pure, when you make choices that take you away from your virtues, then you have to pay the pipe. Free will can go both ways so priests need to accept their fate when the screw up just like the rest of us.

Blame game… If the church would excommunicate the priests from the church we would have a very short list of rules in the blame game. Would somebody please look up excommunication in the catechism and write out what it states about “grave sins”. Sexual abuse is a grave sin and this excommunication should be followed threw.

February 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Protecting an accused priests right to his good name… hmmm, have a problem with this one.

Char, two questions. First, do you believe that every priest that has ever been accused of sexual abuse is guilty?

Second: I know that you have been involved in religious education at your parish. If someone came to your parish priest and falsely accused you of sexual abuse, would you expect your priest to defend you or to turn you over to the authorities?

It’s very easy to say in the abstract that every allegation of abuse should result in a police report and a public notice. But when we consider the actual circumstances in which allegations may be made, and the damage that may be done by false allegations, the proper response is no longer quite so obvious.

February 9, 2011 at 9:54 am
(6) Char says:

I did state that it should be those that have proof against them. I do believe that lay people should not be going to the bishop or some other priest to report these allegations, they should go to their local authorities. This is a matter that should be handled by the law of the people, not the law of priests and bishops.

If someone went to my priest and reported me? I would expect him to go to the authorities. Who is my priest to know whether I am that kind of a person or not? It is his responsabiltiy to do the right thing. Its not up to him to confront me and then I deny it and then he believes me and in the mean time its possible that I am not telling the truth and their is a child and a family that is hurt and grieving. Sexual offenders obviously are good at hiding their sin. Why on earth would we leave it up to anyone but the authorities? Do you think a sexual offender is going to be honest when a priest asks if they are abusing a child? Just because he is a priest doesn’t mean they are going to tell the truth.

Asking that second question, you reminded me of the priest I use to work for. He asked me if my husband told me that he (the priest) saw him stealing from the parish, would I believe the priest or would I believe my husband? Naturally I would believe my husband! Do you know what he said to me? ” I can’t believe you work for the church; not to believe a priest over anyone else!”

So basically what a priest says is golden in his eyes. So back to your question about someone accusing me. If my son or daughter were to accuse someone and I go to the priest and ask him and just because he said it isn’t so, I should disregard what my child told me?

Every allegation should be thoroughly examined by the authorities.

February 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm
(7) Char says:

Once again, not just for lay people but priests as well. When this is done, faith will be restored in our Church. all priests and bishops that have proof against them should be ousted from the church and have to live by the same rules like the rest of us. No way should they get special treatment. They need to step down and repent and let our Lord work through them. NOt as a priest but as a lay person. this cover up and the games all the archdiocese plays does them or our Church any good. I also include in this other abuses that these priests are doing. Abuse of power, money, taking advantagae of the elderly. Their abuse does not stop at sexual

The canon law should be rewritten or thrown out. Rewritten by lay people that uphold the scantity and Tradion fo of the Church. The canon law from my exoerience has made many priests, arrogant, selfish and power hungry people.

February 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm
(8) Paulo says:

Put the criminal in prison after or before or while the latization process is on-going. I mean the criminal who reassigned rapists to other churches to rrape and abuse again.

February 8, 2011 at 3:20 pm
(9) Paulo says:

Cover up of crimes is a crime.
Set a felony level punishment for the cover up.

In Virginia there is a state legislator who wants castration put in the law for sex offenders. A bit harsh. But the cardinal (Bernard Law) who sent the offender to rape more children needs a stern punishment (not castration).

February 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm
(10) glorybe1929 says:

Start by LEAVING THIS DEN OF ENIQUITY!!! You will never get rid of the sexual abusers because they have a good deal and they want to keep the Status Qu!


February 8, 2011 at 6:35 pm
(11) chris says:

You are quite ignorant in your assessment. God has NOT left the Church, nor will He ever do so. If God has left, why does he still call men to the priesthood. If He truly has left, then why does the Church survive? You have a very distorted view of the way things are. If you honestly believe that the Church knowingly ordains these people, then you don’t know very much at all. Since the scandals, the process for entering into seminary includes a very thorough psychological examination. This is to see if any tendencies are there for the potential to abuse children. It is people like you who blow things way out of proportion to overshadow the many good priests with a few bad ones. Keep drinking the kool-aid.

February 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm
(12) glorybe1929 says:

Char…are you Rosaire’s friend? If so, I’m G that you visited on our boat in SD. We left the church on our 50th wedding Anniv. after mass on the back deck by Fr. JJ.from USD 2001.

February 9, 2011 at 8:26 am
(13) Jane says:

What happened at the mass on the back deck?? I am sorry to hear of your disillusionment with the Church. Despite my own disillusionment, I continue to believe that Jesus founded our Church and God continues to work through her. If not, we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. As Hans Kung stated (not an exact quote), though she is flawed, she is still our mother. I often imagine God looking down upon the hierarchy, “C’mon, boys, work with me here.”

February 9, 2011 at 9:23 am
(14) Char says:

glorybe1929 ~ Not the same Char. Sorry!
Why did you leave the church?
We can not allow humans to take away our faith. We need to stay true to Christ. We can disagree with what is going on in the church when its against moral and the true Church beliefs, but stay true to her!

February 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm
(15) Marianne says:

I agree with John Allen’s assessment. And his proposal of transparency.

Scott- my response to your arguments about regarding Allen’s advice- Nothing, short of the Church’s destruction, will satisfy its many critics. This is not a valid excuse for continuing the blame game. That is not a valid reason for lack of transparency.

I think the humble admission of error, as well as continued full disclosure of the growth process, which the Pope has done, as you rightly point out, is all that can be done. And it needs to continue.

As Allen rightly points out- the sharks are still in the water- there will be new revelations, and there will be continued criticism of any way the church handles things. But, I think Allen’s point about not causing greater internal strife, as a result of the blame game, is wise advice. The Church, after all, is to model unity.

February 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm
(16) Londiniensis says:

Thank you for quoting my modest contribution to the Twitter comments about this.

February 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm
(17) Bel says:

The Catholic Church hierarchy and clergy have forgotten that they are a representative of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church has a global responsibility as a representative of Jesus Christ to protect Gods children. The decisions that the church hierarchy makes affects the whole world, Catholic and non Catholic. When the sins of our church are protected for the sake of her good name, it destroys the trust and faith of her followers, and the foundation by whom our church was built, Jesus Christ. 

I am a devout Catholic and a sexual abuse survivor. I was extremely dis-heartened at how the hierarchy of the church handled sexual abuse allegations among the clergy. I, unlike many sexual abuse saviors have never left the church. I believe in the foundation of our church Jesus Christ, the apostles and saints, and the many wonderful priests who represent Jesus Christ, and lives the word of God. Sexual abuse is not a new issue in our society, it’s the way the church handled clerical sexual abuse against minors. The church hierarchy chose not to address the dilemma by hiding the problem, hoping it would just go away. I would have liked to have seen the church use critical thinking in addressing clerical sexual abuse of minors, instead of hiding behind church law. It took the victims and society to challenge the catholic church, to rectify the injustices suffered by victims to prevent such abuse from ever happening again. Our church is a global representative of Jesus Christ, we need to rectify the injustices of clerical sexual abuse so we can heal. There is no blame game in my eyes, we are one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, there for, it doesn’t matter what dioceses hid sexual abuse against minors, how big or small the allegations where or are, every member of the church clergy represents the Catholic Church, who represents Jesus Christ. I have faith in our Pope and believe he will help our church heal.              

February 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm
(18) Char says:

Bel, Well said and I hope you are right.

February 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm
(19) John says:

Good evening to all who have written before me. Some thoughts. I was born into a mixed Filipino/American farm worker family in the central valley of California; Delano to be more precise. My father was raised a Catholic and therefore my mother, who was raised as a Baptist, followed my father’s tradition and faith. Due to anti-marriage laws against white and non-white persons which continued until the late 40′s, they were married in New Mexico. I attended a catholic school and diocesan parish as did my brothers before me. (cont)

February 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm
(20) Lynne Lamont says:

Since when has the Vatican ever been clean? One would have to be completely deluded/brainwashed to give this nest of scheming demons one penny or to give credence to their alledged “apostolic succession” crap. Rome has always had but one agenda. Try researching more of their crimes against humanity like the Orphans of Duplessis and their involvement in genocide in Viet Nam, Rwanda, Germany, the “witch” hunts, the Crusades, the American Civil War, WWII, etc., etc., etc.

February 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm
(21) Scott P. Richert says:

Don’t tell me, Lynne, that you forgot that the Vatican was behind the faked moon landing, too?

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