Accusations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergy have been growing louder in recent years. Critics contend that the church has been largely unresponsive to these claims, leaving victims without recourse and parishioners vulnerable to future attacks. While the announcement of a new church law by Pope Francis earlier this week suggests that the Vatican is finally taking sexual abuse allegations seriously, victims assert that the new mandates fail to provide adequate protections.
Until now, victims’ accusations against priests were often handled by wildly divergent means within the Catholic Church – if they were responded to at all. The new church created law attempts to remediate these inconsistent responses. Priest and nuns around the world must now share plausible suspicions of sexual abuse with church authorities. The law holds clergy accountable for sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, as well as for creating and/or possessing child pornography. Investigations extend to church officials who have suppressed sexual abuse allegations. Past abuses may be reported, and reporters of abuse, as well as the abused, are offered protections.
Enforceable protections are exactly what the new law lacks, say some survivors of clerical sexual abuse. While the law instructs church officials to conform to their local civil reporting requirements, it fails to mandate the reporting of abuse to law enforcement. While the church claims such a directive would put vulnerable churches at risk, critics suggest an internal system of accountability will only perpetuate abuses. According to the New York Times, “The church’s failure to hold bishops and senior clerics accountable for covering up sexual abuse has fueled enormous frustration and backlash inside and outside the church. Victims’ advocates say the church can no longer be trusted to police itself, which is exactly what the new law demands.” Survivors and their advocates point to further shortcomings of the law, including a failure to require financial compensation for victims, as well as a lack of clear consequences for perpetrators and the officials who conceal their abuse.
Universities and Catholic organizations are spending increasing amounts of resources on determining the causes of clerical abuse. The weaknesses of the new law may be symptomatic of divergent viewpoints among church officials and scholars. Some theologians and officials blame the devil, the influence of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the mainstream media, and homosexuality for the epidemic of sexual abuse within the church. Others believe that clericalism, which positions clergy at the top of a religious hierarchy, creates power imbalances that embolden sexual predators and leave parishioners vulnerable to abuse.
We need only look to recent media reports to support this last theory. Religious or not, hierarchies shape people’s experience of power. Those with access to privilege have opportunities to abuse their power – and get away with it. We see this dynamic at play in youth sports, in the Boy Scouts, in thousands of experiences detailed in the #MeToo movement, and in the Catholic church. Institutions and organizations that support and perpetuate abusive dynamics must be held accountable. If you have been a victim of clergy abuse and would like to pursue justice through civil law, please contact our experienced attorneys for a free consultation.
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