The Catholic Church Faces an International Reckoning
By Courtney Bergsieker
On the heels of scandals including the sexual abuse of nuns and guidelines for priests who father secret children, the Catholic Church has been at the focal point of controversy this month. Responding to the public outcry for justice and reform, Pope Francis held a historically groundbreaking conference to discuss the systemic abuse of minors and its destructive effects on the institution of the Catholic Church.
The meeting was held last week at the Vatican with 190 bishops attending and other religious prelates attending to discuss abuse culture in the clergy and accountability according to Rachel Donadio with The Atlantic. Megan Specia with the New York Times reported that Pope Francis essentially assembled the conference to salvage the reputation of the Catholic Church where “decades of abuse disclosures [have] rattled the church, eroded trust in its leadership and driven away some of the faithful.”
To the disappointment of many, the conference concluded without a true concrete plan or agenda for tackling the problem of clerical abuse. Rachel Donadio reported a comment made by Anne Barnett Doyle, a leader for BishopAccountability.org: “Pope Francis’ talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful … As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the pope instead provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before.”
According to Donadio, the Vatican did state that it would be implementing a book with guidelines for bishops dealing with abuse cases and a new team of experts to assist bishops in the process of investigating abuse cases, but these measures were apparently already being developed before Pope Francis convened the meeting last week.
Despite the lack of a real plan for dealing with the issue of systemic clerical abuse, Pope Francis made a resolute declaration at the end of the conference that clearly states the Catholic Church’s stance on the recent scandals and history of sexual abuse. Jason Horowitz and Elizabeth Dias with the New York Times report that he concluded the meeting by calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and insisting that the church need[s] to protect children “from ravenous wolves.’” Refreshingly, Pope Francis offered a strong awareness and opposition to issues that the Catholic Church has been silent on for decades.
In addition to encouraging dialogue on the sexual abuse of minors, Pope Francis gave a platform to women in the Catholic Church to speak on their experience with sexual assault by members of the clergy during the meeting at the Vatican. According to Deutsche Welle, one anonymous woman described her experience of being forced to have three abortions after being sexually assaulted repeatedly by a priest in her teens. Another anonymous woman in the Church is quoted powerfully addressing the members of the clergy saying, “You are the physicians of the soul and yet … you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul.”
Besides the monumental meeting at the Vatican, the Catholic Church made more headlines after the conviction of Cardinal George Pell from Australia. According to Philip Pullela with Reuters, Pell, a 77-year-old Cardinal, is the highest-ranking member of the clergy to be charged for sexual abuse. Cardinal Pell has pleaded not guilty to charges that accuse him of sexually assaulting two young male members of a church choir twenty years ago. Cardinal Pell’s sentence hearing will take place on March 13, 2019, but Pell has appealed the conviction and his defense is waiting to hear whether or not the appeal will go through.
As a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church and a formerly close advisor to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell’s conviction is a major blow to the church’s already suffering reputation. Pope Francis has faced questions regarding whether or not he will remove Pell from his cardinalship; but according to Reuters, Pope Francis will wait until the case is settled in court before offering any official response.
Members of the clergy who support Cardinal Pell have been quick to denounce his conviction as a sham. As reported by Pullela, William Donohue of the Catholic League was quoted saying, “There are many holes in the story that led to Pell’s conviction … hysteria and the animus that exist makes for a toxic environment.”
Both the conference held by Pope Francis and the conviction of Cardinal Pell demonstrate the general desire for change in the Church. A Pope willing to openly discuss decades of abuse, members of the clergy being seriously convicted for serious crimes, women coming forward to recount their tortuous experiences at the hands of priests, and the white-hot spotlight of the media aimed directly at the Vatican surmount to a tremendous opportunity for real, tangible change in the priesthood and the entirety of the international Catholic Church.