Skip to main content

Pope Francis must finally root out child abuse

By Mary Dispenza
updated 8:33 PM EST, Thu February 6, 2014
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, seen in 2013, was relieved of all public duties over his mishandling of cases of sex abuse of children.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, seen in 2013, was relieved of all public duties over his mishandling of cases of sex abuse of children.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mary Dispenza: Finally, the U.N. condemned the Vatican for its negligence in priest abuse cases
  • Dispenza was raped by a priest when she was a young girl and it shadowed her life
  • She says abuse is still secret and the church still protects priests, holds back evidence
  • Dispenza: Pope must take strong action to stop clergy abuse of children and coverup

Editor's note: Mary Dispenza, a former nun, was a plaintiff in a successful class action suit against the Los Angeles Archdiocese over child molestation claims. She is the area representative for SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, in Bellevue, Washington. She is also the author of "Split: A Child, a Priest and the Catholic Church."

(CNN) -- Finally. Finally. Finally, a strong important voice in the world, the United Nations, speaks out on behalf of the rights of children and condemns the Vatican and the bishops for crimes of violence, rape and sexual abuse against children by transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish, withholding documents for prosecution and perpetuating an institutional culture of secrecy and shame.

What's truly shameful is that the Catholic Church was not itself that strong and important voice, protecting "the least of these." It's shameful that in spite of Pope Francis' refreshing compassion toward the poor and downtrodden, to date he has not addressed the issue fully. Pope Francis is caught up in the shame and like most of his brother bishops, seems unwilling to say, "Enough is enough -- not ever again in our church will one of these little children be harmed."

Mary Dispenza
Mary Dispenza

The media have said the church is suffering from a "code of secrecy." Kirsten Sandberg, the chairwoman of the United Nations, put it this way: "We think it is a horrible thing that is being kept silent both by the Holy See itself and in local parishes. "

As a survivor of rape and violence at the hands of a priest when I was a young girl, I understand that secrecy.

I went silent at age 7 and became a part of the secret code that no one could unlock in me, because there were always pieces missing. For the rest of my childhood I really wasn't there. I split and left a part of me behind in shame and secrecy.

For the rest of my childhood I really wasn't there. I split and left a part of me behind in shame and secrecy.
Mary Dispenza

It has taken me more than half a lifetime to piece myself back together. I was 52 years old and still captivated by the Catholic Church when I let the buried "secret" memories emerge. His name was Father Rucker -- George Neville Rucker. I must have trusted him when he asked me to crawl up on his lap as he sat watching a movie in an auditorium so long ago. He raped me while my mother was in the lunchroom nearby.

The tragedy here -- among others -- is that Mom died before I was strong enough to tell her about that terrible day. We missed out on conversations about intimacy and love because I would always shut down and disconnect. Rape robbed me and my family of so much that mattered -- like truth and honesty between us.

After high school at age 18, I entered the convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Santa Barbara, California, and remained there as a nun for 15 years. Detaching from the destructive invasion of Father Rucker into my body and soul allowed me to hold onto God and to the sisters I loved. Very simply, that is how I was able over half a lifetime to remain in the Catholic Church until the day I awakened to the tragedy of the little girl whom I once was.

Mary at 7 years old
Mary at 7 years old
Mary as a sister at the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary convent in Santa Barbara, California.
Mary as a sister at the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary convent in Santa Barbara, California.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles released 12,000 pages of files on scores of priests accused of sexually abusing children in 2013. I found out that the pastor of our parish back in 1947 suspected Father Rucker of "touching" little girls. It was the bishop who would not listen and passed Father Rucker on and on until 2002, when he was defrocked. He had become a real liability to Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the archdiocese.

About 33 women accused him of abusing them when they were young. That's five decades of abuse.

In 2002, he was charged with 29 counts of molesting girls. He was taken off a cruise ship on its way to Russia to face the charges; authorities thought he was trying to flee. But his case was dismissed in 2003 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the charges were too old.

It is easy to think that when we talk about the crisis of child rape and abuse that we are talking about the past -- and the Catholic Church would have us believe that this most tragic era in church history is over. It is not. It lives on today. Pedophiles are still in the priesthood. Coverups of their crimes are happening now, and bishops in many cases are continuing to refuse to turn information over to the criminal justice system. Cases are stalled and cannot go forward because the church has such power to stop them. Children are still being harmed and victims cannot heal.

Vatican quizzed by UN
Pope: Church can't interfere with gays

These criminal acts happened over and over to tens of thousands of children in the past, continue now and will continue until Pope Francis and the bishops act fiercely to insist that children and their safety come first, and that priests and protecting the image and power of the Catholic Church come a distant second.

Pope Francis must take action and mandate every bishop to immediately defrock any priest who has sexually abused children in the past or in the present and let the civil authorities investigate any priest or bishop alleged to have sexually abused a child. It's common sense. Nothing else will show the world that the Catholic Church is serious about its promise to address this issue.

Pope Francis will need to begin at home and release whatever records the Vatican possesses on priests and bishops accused of these crimes, wherever they are in the world. Anything short of this speaks of lip service and platitudes.

Francis also needs to chastise and demote bishops guilty of protecting priest abusers and working against the criminal justice system -- not honor and promote them. Cardinal Mahony was recently honored in celebrating Mass with Pope Francis -- and yet it is documented that he withheld information and transferred priests within and outside his diocese. At least Mahony acknowledged in a statement in 2013 that he had been "naive" about the lasting impacts of abuse and then met with 90 victims. But Pope Francis' speeches and actions to date do not reflect a spirit of compassion for, or understanding of, the impact on survivors.

Any positive changes in the Catholic Church to protect children and hold the church accountable have come about largely because of the tireless work of SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. These are brave and courageous men and women who tell their stories of abuse without shame. We can also thank the Catholic community of laypeople who want their children to be safe and their church to become the church it can be: a beacon of hope for its members and the world.

Now, it's the Vatican that must take action, as the U.N. report urges, to show us that its apologies are matched by actions to both stop the abuse of children and the church's coverup.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Dispenza.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT