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Abuse survivors deserve more from Pope Francis

Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty images

August 22, 2018   5 mins

Pope Francis will receive a different reception when he lands in Ireland this weekend from that which greeted John Paul II when he visited in 1979. Then, more than two million Irish Catholics flocked to see the Polish pope during his three days there.

But that visit took place before the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church were uncovered and before many thousands of survivors came forward to speak out. Irish friends have told me that some parishes are struggling to fill a bus to go to the papal Masses in Knock and Dublin. That would have been unheard of in 1979.

On Monday Francis issued a letter addressed to “to the People of God” around the globe. In it he called abuse a “culture of death”. He is right on that one: for many victims, the abuse they suffered indeed leads to death – physical (many survivors take their own lives through self-harming with drugs or alcohol) or spiritual, or both.

We now see some of the most powerful men in the Church being exposed for what they are

And this entire scandal – the Pope refers to cases as “atrocities” – is of the Catholic Church’s own making. The Church has protected perpetrators, moved them from place to place and sustained them even when they have fled their countries. It is hard to understate the complicity of the Church in these vile crimes.

We now see some of the most powerful men in the Church being exposed for what they are. And these exposures will continue. It isn’t just Pennsylvania, where a grand jury report released last week concluded that more than 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children. Probably many more than 1,000.

When, as an abuse survivor, I met Pope Francis in July 2014 I thought he was going to tackle the crisis. He seemed genuinely concerned. He listened to me intently and I thought he was sincere. When he appointed me to his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors a few months later, I was sure things were going to change.

I was wrong on both counts.

I quickly realised that the commission was little more than a talking shop controlled by the Vatican. It met no more than twice a year and was effectively starved of any real funding. (I expect the many cardinals flying to Ireland for the papal visit this weekend won’t be travelling Economy.)

Peter Saunders meeting with Pope Francis in 2014.

The day before I was given what the commission called a “leave of absence” in February 2016 for being, as one of two commission members said, “too outspoken”. I asked Cardinal Sean O’Malley, its president and the Archbishop of Boston, what the Commission had achieved.

He shrugged his shoulders and pointed out that a couple of bishops had been fired. I responded by saying that my understanding of the situation was that a couple of bishops had been ‘moved’. Not quite the same thing.

The commission, an advisory board, is bound to fail because it doesn’t have the backing of the Vatican bureaucracy – the powerful ‘curia’. Too many of their brother priests would be in trouble if it were to do a proper job – rooting out abusers and seeing they are brought to justice. The pressure on the Pope to stand back must be strong – we know he is not popular with many conservative Catholics and many of his own cardinals – and it was worrying that he did not visit the Commission until after the other abuse survivor on it and I had left.

My hope is that the real Catholic Church, the Catholic community worldwide, will rise up against the institution – the Vatican and the bishops

From the day of my departure from the Commission until now, more survivors of clergy sexual abuse have come forward. The scandal of the systematic abuse perpetrated by church officials, and the ensuing cover-ups, has been forced out into the open. Some of the highest-ranking officials of the church have been accused – this is not a few rotten apples: this is a barrelful.

We have seen Chile’s Bishop Juan Barros step down after accusations of covering up abuse. Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, has resigned from the College of Cardinals amid allegations of decades of abuse. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has been accused by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General of lying regarding his vigilance on abuse while he was Bishop of Pittsburgh. Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s treasurer, awaits trial in Australia for historic sexual offences – which he denies. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and other senior clerics await trial in France for failing to report abuse. And as the 2015 film Spotlight showed, Cardinal Bernard Law, who died late last year, fled the US for the Vatican when his extensive cover up of abuse in the archdiocese of Boston became apparent.

When I was setting up the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) more than 20 years ago, I went to meet the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume. He gave me a hearing. I am Catholic and was abused by two priests at my school. Like Pope Francis years later, he seemed genuinely concerned about the abuse I had suffered and my desire to bring change. And then he did nothing. And the recent findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), for which I sit on the Victims and Survivors’ Consultative Panel, exposed Basil Hume as one of those monks at Ampleforth School who turned a blind eye to the abuse that was rife in that institution. From this I conclude that we cannot trust church officials.

And can we trust the institutional Church, the clerics, to change? I don’t think so. Yes, we can demand that the Church hand all its files and everything it knows about abusive clergy over to the authorities, but I doubt it will. Files will disappear, or, as the IICSA discovered, many will end up on bonfires or in the nearest shredder.

A morally corrupt institution cannot be left to cleanse itself, but my hope is that the real Catholic Church, the Catholic community worldwide, will rise up against the institution – the Vatican and the bishops. The people are the overwhelming majority, not the clerics. According to the investigative journalist Jason Berry, 1 a certain amount of funds raised in local churches end up with the bishops and ultimately, the Vatican. One way for our community to protest this corruption would be to hold back these funds, demanding church collections only contribute towards sustaining the good priests, not the global institution.

I remain a man of faith, but I don’t think Christ came to build a structure such as we see today. All over the world I have met wonderful and decent priests and monks and nuns who are just as disgusted as I am by all these revelations. But they have been led by wolves in sheep’s clothing, and it’s time the wolves were driven out.

I remain a man of faith, but I don’t think Christ came to build a structure such as we see today

There is lot that Pope Francis could do. He could open the Vatican Secret Archives to an independent body, not a tightly controlled pontifical commission. The Church has always been very good at keeping records. Let it now be truly open and transparent so that any evidence or paper trails linked to abuse and abusers can be brought out into the open. Francis could and should order all bishops to do the same with their diocesan archives. This would lead to a purge of the many priests around the globe who are still in ministry and still abusing youngsters.

Francis refers to the cases in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report as mostly “historic” – but it’s not historic to the many survivors who continue to suffer. And there are still abusive clergy in the Church, particularly in the southern hemisphere, whom we tend to hear little about.

Recent scandals, as we’ve seen in Ireland, Australia, Chile and Pennsylvania, are set to keep emerging. The Pope, already 81, still has the opportunity to do something to address the issue. I hope and pray he does. But time is running out for him to do so.

  1. See Berry’s book Render Unto Rome, Broadway Books, 2012

Peter Saunders is the founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and a founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse. He is also a member of the Victims and Survivors’ Consultative Panel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse for England and Wales, and a member of the National Working Group for Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief.


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