The hard truth of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is demoralizing. But we must confront it

By Dr. Michael W.  Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

Pontifex Minimus blog

Special to The Globe and Mail on October 10, 2021


When Pope Francis met with the Archbishop of Paris and other French bishops at the end of September, he observed on the matter of the then-forthcoming report on sex abuse in the church of France: “Look the truth in the face.”

It is not only the hierarchy that is now doing so, but all of France, Catholic and otherwise. Indeed, the world has taken shocked notice.

The Sauvé Report, an investigation commissioned by the French bishops in 2018 in the wake of a series of clerical sex abuse scandals, was issued on Oct. 5. The tremors of disbelief, outrage and horror continue to reverberate. The statistical tally is staggering: 216,000 people sexually abused by clerics since 1950, with an additional 114,000 abused by lay people in ecclesiastical service. The number of accused priests is conservatively estimated at 3,000.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, a retired senior civil servant, judge and practising Catholic, berated the church for showing a “profound and total, even cruel, indifference to the victims,” and acknowledged publicly that he sought out psychological help after listening to the experiences of some of the survivors.

His report was comprehensive, drawing on numerous experts in jurisprudence, history, theology, psychology and sociology. More than 6,000 victims were canvassed for their input or interviewed. Working closely with various polling bodies, Mr. Sauvé and his commissioners took several years to do their work, and then presented their findings to a church still capable of shock.

In commenting in La Croix International, the leading French Catholic publication, Jesuit theologian and university rector Ḗtienne Grieu anguished: “How is it that we did not dare to say out loud what we were witnessing in secret? And how is that we did not give credit to those who had the courage to alert us?”

Answering these questions has been a global dilemma for many Catholics. How many times have we been in this place? How many commissions and reports before Mr. Sauvé's have asked the same things, probed similar pathologies, excoriated bishops for not exercising a Gospel-centered pastoral oversight by privileging errant clerics over suffering victims, and seeking, often vainly, to change the structures that enable such abuse to occur?

Before France, there was Germany, England and Wales, Ireland, Canada, the United States, Australia, Chile and on it goes. Before the Sauvé Commission Report there were the Winter (Canada), the Ryan (Ireland), the Nolan (England) and numerous others. And the number of films (Fall), documentaries (Deliver Us from Evil), plays (Doubt), novels (The Bishop’s Man) and scholarly studies (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) are legion.

The universally agreed upon diagnosis is multi-layered: a romanticized conception of priesthood that removed the priest from regular human commerce; a rampant clericalism that ensured a power imbalance that facilitated clerical predation; the subordination of victim needs to the higher priority of maintaining the church’s good name; the failure of seminaries to nurture mature psychosexual growth. For those Catholics who call out for meaningful and transparent reform – and their number is growing by the minute – patience for this often Sisyphean undertaking has been replaced by a crushing demoralization.

And it isn’t just the laity who are demoralized. Countless priests, nuns and monks persisting with personal fidelity to their lives of religious service under the shadow of this dark history continue to carry their own overwhelming feelings of shame and betrayal. No less a figure than the vice-president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Franz-Josef Bode, has remarked that during his many conversations with sex-abuse victims there were times when he nearly lost his faith.

I suspect that he is not alone in this.

A month before the release of the Sauvé Report, Tomas Halik, a renowned Catholic priest, scholar, psychotherapist and Templeton Prize winner, spoke at an international conference in Warsaw about the scandal of abusive priests. In his address he argued that: “the situation of the Catholic Church today strongly resembles the situation just before the Reformation. … It is necessary not just to change structures but to change the mentality, to change the culture of relationships within the Church.” Mr. Halik insists that the abuse crisis is just one aspect of the larger crisis of the clergy itself, indeed of the church and of faith.

How Catholics approach this crisis will determine the future shape of the church as, in Mr. Halik’s words, “a place of encounter, sharing and reconciliation.”

But first, as Pope Francis exhorted the French bishops, we need to look the truth in the face.


This content is published with the permission of The Globe and Mail and originally appeared on October 10, 2021.


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