Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Let’s give the pope’s abuse commission a chance

Vatican Coat of Arms
Vatican Coat of Arms

Vatican Coat of Arms

It’s not surprising that long-time victims’ advocates have been less than blown away by the naming of eight members to the new papal commission on sexual abuse in the church. Whatever progress has been made in resolving the biggest crisis in Catholicism since the Reformation, there remains much work to do.

Here’s how Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi described the commission’s assignment:

Certain that the Church has a critical role to play in this field, and looking to the future without forgetting the past, the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.

I would suggest to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the big dog on the commission, that the key item on this list is “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities.” In the U.S.and many other places around the world, there’s  been plenty of attention to education and the discipline of abusers, to say nothing of symbolic acts of ecclesiastical apology. What’s needed are binding and enforceable legal procedures.

In the Middle Ages, church leaders emphasized the need to teach verbo et exemplo — not only by word but also by example. Just last week, a judge had to order the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to turn over documents related to its priests credibly accused of child abuse. The archdiocese had argued that it didn’t have to do so because they involved constitutionally protected “internal policies of the Roman Catholic Church,” but the judge said it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

Bogus and hardball legal tactics do not constitute “best practices.”

I’m just back from a lovely spring break in the Dominican Republic where the most lively religious event I witnessed was a Sunday morning crowd  outside a colorful Catholic Church in Sanchez. But while the Dominican faithful continue to gather, the Vatican continues to dicker with the authorities over the fate of its former nuncio, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who faces criminal charges for abusing children in both the DR and Poland. The extradition of Wesolowski, now holed up in the Vatican, would be a fine place to start as an exemplary exercise in cooperation with civil authorities.

The exemplum that is most needed is the forced retirement and public humiliation of a bishop who covered up abuse. In this regard, it’s a good sign that one of the members of the commission is Baroness Sheila Hollins, a professor of psychiatry who founded the Irish victims support organization One in Four. Hollins is notable for calling on the Vatican to punish church officials (read: bishops) who fail to implement or enforce church rules on pedophile priests.

Whether she gets her way will be the key to the whole exercise.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Well put Mr. Silk. I am optimistic. When I worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago in the late 1980’s & early 1990’s, pedophile priests were simply shuffled from parish to parish, preying on their new stable of young church-goers like wolves. Occasionally, offenders causing too much public embarrassment were sent off temporarily to the Jemez Springs, New Mexico retreat for “contemplation.”

    Now, two decades later, there is much more accountability for the (sometimes nefarious) behavior of the local priest, as well as those working in the Archdiocese itself. Part of it is because the Church cares. Part of it is because the lawsuits were getting costly, and young Catholics were avoiding their area churches on Sundays in disgust. But, OK, it seems to be on the right track, or at least, a better track than before.

  • After Cardinal Pell’s response before the royal commission and being an adviser to Francis…….
    One thing I know for sure and that’s they would lie to their own mothers’s, all of them….. so take it from there

  • Pope Francis needs to take decisive actions ‘now’ to protect kids.
    –Every day that passes by, while a commission studies the sexual abuse and cover up within the Catholic church, leaves another child at risk of being sexually abused by clerics.
    –Every day that passes by, which high ranking bishops and cardinals who have and still are covering up these crimes are not held accountable, leaves another child at risk of being sexually abused by clerics.

    Tragically the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are still not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their power and the institution rather than protecting children.

    It’s hard to stay hopeful. But thankfully because of brave victims, law enforcement, journalists, and prosecutors, (not hand picked Vatican commissions), we continue to hope for change so the kids will be safe today.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511
    SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,

  • With all due respect, at this point a “commission” to “study” the matter is not even needed. The worldwide “priestly pedophilia” scandal has been going on for over a decade now. It’s been investigated in many countries around the world, and those investigations have been responded to, by local Catholic hierarchs and by the Vatican.

    Those responses are all predicated, somehow and in some way, on the idea that the Church has done nothing wrong … despite the fact that all of those investigations have revealed that the Church did plenty wrong.

    Appointing a commission, at this rather late date, is just another example of one of the Church’s tactics, one colloquially known as “foot-dragging.” The Church is very good at this. In places like Los Angeles, for example, the Church agreed in court settlements to release records … but then spent years refusing to follow through with its concession, having determined that it didn’t actually have to live up to the terms it had freely agreed to.

    Besides, it’s not as though it hasn’t been done already. The USCCB, for instance, established a review commission. It was headed by Frank Keating, who ended up resigning. That commission then punted the issue to John Jay College, which ended up blaming the abuse and cover-ups not on the criminality of the abusers or their protectors, but on “the sexual revolution.”

    What we need is not more commissions to cook up more rationales for why it was OK for clergy to abuse kids and for hierarchs to shield abusers from the law. At this point, nothing useful can come of that. We know this, because it’s been tried already, and nothing useful has come from it. What is needed is something the Church does not seem to possess, which is “contrition.”

  • Mr. Silk:

    In various articles, the Vatican has already stated that they have little or no control and jurisdiction over worldwide dioceses. Even under the most idealistic of outcomes from this (another) commission, it is very likely that the recommendations or protocols are not enforceable.

    And, now within the past week, we have our Philadelphia spiritual leader’s perspective on ACCOUNTABILITY and RESPONSIBILITY for this city’s ongoing clergy abuse issues:

    “…..”the negligence of the church’s pastors”…..” Archbishop Chaput’s phrase in his sermon at the healing Mass…….

    The use of the word “pastors” is intentional and deliberate. If he were serious about healing and forgiveness, our Philadelphia spiritual leader would have said:

    “the negligence of the church’s BISHOPS”

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  • Individuals can be moral, empathetic, or self-sacrificing, but organizations cannot. They live and die by the Darwinian struggle of social competition.
    The lie that any group can be the dispenser of divine favor or moral order is the root of the evil. Child abuse is merely a symptom.

  • It was interesting to go over an old BishopAcountability article I had on file..*Francis and clergy abuse in Argentina……is it any wonder he feels he’s in between a rock and a hard place…..probably watching in trepidation the outcome here in Australia and the falling on the sword in a fashion, of Cardinal Pell.