The highest echelons of the Roman Catholic clergy gathered in the Vatican City at the end of the week to try and deal with what they have described as the “systematic failures” that enabled widespread sexual abuse to take root, leading to a pandemic scandal that has embraced the church. It is a scandal that has reached the top level of the church, one that is increasingly taking up more time for Pope Francis, and one that is causing many of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide to indeed question their priests and clergy.
This is not a recent scandal. It has festered for more than two decades. This speaks about the failure of the senior levels of the church leadership to adequately deal with the complaints, punish those responsible and take measures to reform its methodology in dealing with these widespread cases.
From North and South America, across Europe and at almost every level of the church leadership and across its missions, allegations of sexual abuse have surfaced against clergy members — levels of repeated abuses that have resulted in the suicide of victims, the jailing of members of the priesthood and, as recently as last week, the defrocking of a cardinal.
Children placed in the institutional care of brothers and priests have reported being sexually, mentally and physically traumatised by the inappropriate and criminal behaviour of a section of clergy members. And when reports were made, those abusive priests were simply shuffled to other locations and parishes, only for the litany of abuses to begin again.
That this summit is taking place represents a victory in itself for an institution that for decades simply ignored the problem and shunned those who made allegations of abuse in the first instance. Pope Francis is determined to put policies and procedures in place that will bring in a zero-tolerance threshold for such criminal behaviours. Indeed, for that to happen will represent a victory for each of the survivors of such abuses, victims who live with the trauma of such events during every moment of their waking lives.
Sadly, the Roman Catholic church is a body that changes slowly, is rooted in a deep conservatism and is loathe to publicly acknowledge or discuss the failings of its clergy members. For too long and in too many instances across too many parishes and dioceses, those responsible for the abuse of children have gone unpunished. That is a damning indictment of a clergy with a moral and religious responsibility. But gladly, that is now changing.