Heidi Schlumpf: While some like to paint clergy sex abuse as an issue of the past, the problem persists
The charge against Cardinal George Pell proves sex abuse is not a once and done thing, writes Schlumpf
Editor’s Note: Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The news that a high-ranking Vatican official has been charged with sexual abuse is a reminder that the church’s sex abuse crisis is not over — and that it has potential to affect the entire church, across so-called liberal or conservative lines, even to the top echelons of the church hierarchy.
Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne and current head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, denied the allegations that will require him to return to Australia from Rome to face multiple charges of sexual assault.
Speculation about Pell’s abuse is detailed in a recent book, which the publisher has now pulled from the shelves in the Australian state of Victoria so as not to prejudice the court. Pell also has a less than credible record for his handling of sexual abuse allegations against other priests, especially his involvement in the case of Gerald Ridsdale, a former priest who was convicted of abusing more than 50 victims. Last year, testifying via video to the Australian child abuse royal commission, Pell said the church made “enormous mistakes” in its handling of the matter.
Pell’s story is significant not only because it marks the first time authorities have charged a Vatican official with sexual abuse, but also because it shows that the decadeslong sex abuse crisis is not a “once and done” thing. Catholics will be hearing about this for a while.
Certainly, the early 2000s were the peak, with the Boston Globe bringing the issue to national prominence, resulting in lawsuits, criminal charges and the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight,” about the journalists who uncovered both the abuse and the coverup by the church hierarchy.
But Catholic publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter (where I am a columnist), had been shedding light on this secret since the 1980s, especially investigative journalist Jason Berry, whose reporting about sex abuse in his native Louisiana culminated in his 1992 book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”
Because many of the allegations made during the early 2000s stretched back decades, the total of accused clergy was extremely high. Still, the numbers of new, credible allegations today are still significant, with 101 priests or religious accused in 2014-15 (compared to 387 in 2004, for example), according to data compiled by the Bishop Accountability organization.
That’s 101 too many.
And Pell is not the first bishop, or even the first cardinal with charges of sexual impropriety. According to Bishop Accountability, 85 bishops worldwide have been accused of sexual wrongdoing, 58 of them for allegedly abusing minors.
While the institutional church has since put in place structures designed to weed out perpetrators and respond to victims’ allegations, they haven’t always been effective. Despite a zero-tolerance policy in the Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, the late Cardinal Francis George initially failed to remove a priest who molested five boys from 2001-2005, even after the priest had been taken into custody. The diocese eventually paid more than $3 million to settle lawsuits related to that case.
Despite his association with the more open-minded Pope Francis, Pell rose to prominence under Pope John Paul II, who named him a bishop and eventually a cardinal. Of course, John Paul II — his elevation to sainthood notwithstanding — will be remembered for having a blind spot when it came to the sex abuse crisis.
Pell’s star rose in the church in part because of his reputation as an orthodox watchdog, regularly denouncing homosexuality, divorce and women’s ordination. If the charges against him are found to be true, it would be further evidence that this issue crosses the traditional so-called “liberal” or “conservative” lines in the church.
While some traditional Catholics like to paint clergy sex abuse as a problem of 1960s, hippie priests, prominent cases have included more conservative Catholics, too. Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who founded the traditionalist Legion of Christ, sexually abused seminarians and fathered multiple children. Because of his closeness to Pope John Paul II, Maciel was able to deny the allegations for years, until Pope Benedict removed him from ministry. The Legion finally acknowledged the truth of the “reprehensible” behavior after Marciel’s death.
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But that is not to say that more progressive Catholic leaders are off the hook. Many of them valued the church’s reputation over children’s safety. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, known as progressive or at least moderate on some church and political issues, was recently barred from public ministry for his failure to protect children from sexual abuse.
Sadly, even our current, popular pope has a mixed record on responding to what is clearly more than a few individual “bad apples.” Catholics — at least those who have not already left the church over this issue — are right to trust the criminal justice system more than their church. With Pell, we shall soon see what that system ultimately discovers and decides.