Commentary

Commentary: The pope’s next steps on sexual abuse in Chile

Credit: Vatican Media
Credit: Vatican Media

.- After meeting with him for three days, and reading his reflections on the problem of clerical sexual abuse in their country, 34 Chilean bishops submitted their resignation to Pope Francis Friday.

The pope is unlikely to accept all their resignations. He is likely to accept resignations from those at the center of Chile’s sexual abuse scandal, and those whom he has accused of destroying documents, mishandling abuse-related investigations, and moving priests accused of malfeasance from parish to parish, rather than handling the problem.

It is, for any Catholic, discouraging to read that shepherds, entrusted with the salvation of souls, would do such things. But to American Catholics it is not surprising- the illusion that bishops are above such things was shattered for most U.S. Catholics by the sexual abuse scandals of 2002.

Sexual abuse is not unique to the Catholic Church. In fact, there is not even evidence that sexual abuse is more likely to occur in a Catholic setting than in another context- in the U.S., children are sexually abused in public schools with startling regularity, and an appalling number of children are sexually abused or assaulted by their own family members.

But when the Church is implicated in a scandal like this, she loses the credibility to decry the evil of sexual assault against children. She also diminishes, to many people, the claim that grace fosters righteousness. Sexual abuse in the Church is a counter-witness to the Gospel’s claims, and a foil to the evangelical witness of Catholics striving for holiness.

Because of what she claims, moral behavior is expected of the Church and her leaders. When those leaders harm children, or fail to take such harm seriously, they give real and dispiriting scandal.

It is refreshing that Francis chastised the Chilean bishops for “serious negligence,” and for the clericalist attitudes that fostered it. Accepting the resignations of negligent bishops, and perhaps subjecting some of them to canonical trials, may begin to restore the credibility of the Church in Chile- a place where parishes have been set to fire and protests outside the apostolic nunciature have been violent.

Accepting some resignations might also help to restore the pope’s credibility on this issue- damaged by years of fervently denying some parts of the problem, by his accusations of “calumny” against victims, and by the revelation that he was informed of credible allegations against a sitting bishop in 2015, and did not act until a media spectacle earlier this year compelled him to.

But accepting resignations won’t solve systemic problems regarding sexual abuse in the life of the Church. Nor, actually, would penal trials, undertaken through a process for allegations of episcopal negligence established by Francis in 2016, and not yet put to use. Such trials might restore justice and repair scandal in individual cases. They might even serve to reform offenders, which is among the purposes of criminal justice. But the issue of clerical sexual abuse is broader than individual cases.

It is encouraging that Francis has called for systemic change for the Church in Chile - a systemic change that is likely needed in many parts of the world. It is particularly encouraging that Francis has noted the role seminaries play in preventing abuse, especially by screening out candidates with immature or gravely disordered sexuality.

The call for change is familiar to Americans, who have become accustomed to measures designed to place child protection at the fore.

In 2002, the U.S. bishops promulgated norms for addressing allegations of sexual abuse, and a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

Those documents emphasized the importance of referring allegations to civil authorities, and  called for background checks for adults in regular contact with children, training designed to promote vigilance about unseemly situations, and lay review boards involved, mandatorily, in the process of investigating allegations that minors or vulnerable adults have been abused.

Of course, such measures are themselves subject to abuse, to overreach, to scapegoating, or to becoming a procedural veneer aimed at restoring credibility, without being taken seriously enough to prevent the scourge of child abuse. The U.S. approach is not perfect, and some parts are in need of rather serious reform.

Nevertheless, without a plan to change the praxis and culture of the Church, replacing negligent bishops won’t prevent the possibility of sexual abuse in Chile, or anywhere. Those Chilean bishops who remain in office must return to their country and begin developing their own plan - it must be thorough, direct, and just - and then they must have the humility to implement it seriously.

Other regions in the Church would be wise to begin doing the same - no place is immune from the problem of sexual abuse.

But the Chilean bishops are not the only ones with work to do after their historic meeting with the Holy Father. In the Church, the pope exercises supreme, full, immediate, and universal power. He is a figure without parallel in any other institution. He always has the authority to act, and the buck usually stops with him.

The pope thus has questions to answer about his own responsibility for the Chilean abuse scandal. Of course, he has apologized for his “serious errors” in judgment, and now he has called for change in Chile. But do victims- and parents- deserve that he account for those serious errors?

Is it yet understood how he could have received credible allegations in 2015, and discounted them until a media scandal in 2018? Was the pope misled? How? What has he learned from his own “serious errors?” How will he ensure they are not repeated?

The pope told the Chilean bishops that “unacceptable abuses of power, of conscience and of sexuality” have diminished the prophetic vigor of the Church in Chile. He’s right. Guilty bishops may never again be credible prophets in their own homelands.

But this scandal, compounded by so many sexual abuse scandals of the past, has diminished the prophetic vigor of the Church globally, and the pope has the responsibility to address that. To do so, he likely needs to address his own role in the scandal, and speak transparently about what happened, and why. He needs to demonstrate more than contrition- he needs to give witness to reform of the judgment that caused “serious errors.”

John Henry Newman wrote that God chose men, not angels, to be his priests and bishops, in part so that the entire world could see grace working through sinners, and transforming them. The Church, and the world, need the witness of God’s grace, and the witness of real and authentic transformation.

May the pope, who prayed that all victims of abuse would encounter Christ’s love, give prophetic witness to his own transformative encounter with the Lord.

This commentary reflects the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Catholic News Agency.

Tags: Chile, Pope Francis, Catholic Commentary, Bishop Juan Barros