The findings of an inquiry into sexual abuse and paedophilia in the French Catholic church, published last week, are difficult to read and painful to contemplate. Over the past 70 years, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church found that at least 216,000 children were subjected to abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and members of religious orders. Sexual exploitation within the church and associated institutions, the commission stated, had been a “massive phenomenon”. Beyond immediate family and friends, the prevalence of sexual violence in the church outstripped that in any other social environment.
These conclusions represent, as Pope Francis rightly acknowledged, “a moment of shame” for the Catholic church. They should also be the catalyst for far-reaching reform of its practice and culture. The French report is only the latest in a dismal, heart-rending sequence. Last year, an investigation found that the Catholic church in England and Wales had failed to adequately deal with sexual abuse perpetrated over decades by clergy and others associated with the church. It had, the report’s authors stated, prioritised its own reputation over the welfare of abuse victims. Other investigations have reached similarly damning conclusions in the United States, Ireland, Germany, Chile, Australia and Poland.
Revelations of the extent to which a culture of cover-up has pervaded the higher echelons of the church have disillusioned and alienated millions of Catholics. Irreparable damage has been done to its credibility as a moral institution. The callous indifference to victims’ testimony – and the craven desire to avoid scandal at all costs – has been chronicled in movies such as the Oscar-winning Spotlight, based on revelations of child sexual abuse in the early 2000s by priests in the Boston area. Other widely seen films such as Tell No One, in Poland, and By the Grace of God, in France, tell the same appalling story: an insular, arrogant culture, deeming itself outside the jurisdiction of secular morality, has routinely ignored the suffering of the abused while offering mercy, secrecy and escape routes to the abusers.
On being elected pope in 2013, Francis said that the church needed to “act decisively” to root out clerical sexual abuse. Since then, certain necessary steps have been taken. Two years ago, he hosted an unprecedented Vatican summit on child sexual abuse at which victims were at last given a proper platform and hearing. Secrecy rules that hampered investigations into abusive priests have been removed. In December, changes to the code of canon law will explicitly criminalise sexual abuse, grooming minors for sex, possessing child pornography and the covering up of abuse.
These are welcome, if horribly belated, moves. But Pope Francis should also heed calls this week by the French commission for greater involvement of lay people in church governance. Women, in particular, should be given greater influence and power in reforming an institution that has invested its male clergy with a dangerous amount of prestige and authority. In delivering the French commission’s conclusions, its president, Jean-Marc Sauvé, pointed to the immense power conferred by the “identification of a priest to Christ”. The theology of the male priesthood has allowed flawed human beings to believe themselves to be above the law; a corresponding culture of deference has too often made the church a safe space for abusers. If a more healthy church is to emerge after this latest set of revelations, a cultural transformation, including greater openness, diversity and humility, is required.