In 2019, over the course of a chilly February weekend, the Catholic Church seemed as though it was on the verge of a reckoning. For four days, Pope Francis convened a gathering of bishops in Vatican City for the Church’s first ever sexual abuse summit. Since becoming Pope in 2013, Francis has developed a reputation as a moderniser whose dedication to social justice could overcome the Church’s unwillingness to deal with a scandal that has lost it many followers in recent decades. The Pope said he wanted to address the generations-long delay in dealing with the sexual abuse of children by priests and other clergymen over decades across the world. In front of an audience of 180 bishops and cardinals, Pope Francis spoke of monstrous acts of evil and, ultimately, of justice. It was hailed as a defining moment in his leadership. At last, it seemed, the Catholic Church was ready to reform itself.
That reformation never took place. On 6 October this year, the Vatican’s first sexual abuse trial culminated in an acquittal for two clergymen: one, Gabriele Martinelli, a former altar boy who had served the Pope and has since become a priest; the other, Enrico Radice, a former rector accused of covering up instances of abuse at a seminary in the Vatican. The three-judge panel stated in its verdict that the alleged victim, a former peer of Martinelli, had contradicted himself while giving evidence. Roman prosecutors, however, are pursuing the Martinelli case in Italian courts.
The Vatican’s judgment came just 24 hours after the publication of a landmark report in France that found members of the Catholic clergy had sexually abused at least 200,000 minors in the country over the past 70 years, and that the Church hierarchy had repeatedly covered it up. Following the release of the damning report, a Vatican statement said Pope Francis “felt pain” and that “his thoughts went to all of the victims”.
It seems extraordinary that even under the fiercest public scrutiny and an ever-diminishing faith in the Church, the Vatican remains incapable of reconciling its actions with the purported desire to end the problem of sexual abuse. It’s not just that the Vatican fails to hold individual clergy members to account for alleged crimes, or that it fails to address shocking revelations of depravity on behalf of its members. What is most astonishing is that the Church continues to work against the tide of righting its past wrongs: in the US, the Church has even opposed bills aimed at expanding the statute of limitations for cases involving the sexual abuse of children.
It gets worse. In May and June this year the unmarked graves of hundreds of children were discovered in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan, on the sites of former residential schools. Many of these schools, where indigenous children suffered brutal efforts to assimilate them into Canadian society, were run by the Catholic Church from the late 19th century until the 1970s. (Canada’s last residential school closed in the late 1990s.) The schools were notorious for physical abuse, neglect and sexual assault. Conservative estimates suggest that over the course of the 20th century, thousands of children did not survive their residential school education.
The Canadian government has been trying to secure financial support from the churches that helped run the schools in an effort to compensate the victims and their families. While the Anglican and United churches have paid millions in restitution for their role in running a minority of the residential schools, the Catholic Church has resisted. Instead, it has poured money into lawyer fees to argue in court that the Church, with estimated assets worth €4bn, cannot afford to pay compensation. Though the Canadian government has been lobbying the Vatican for a papal visit to indigenous communities for more than a decade, Pope Francis has not so far obliged, and neither did his immediate predecessors.
Any powerful institution that draws its influence – and indeed its existence – from its moral authority, real or perceived, is incapable of reckoning with its own systemic problems without undermining that authority. Readers in the UK might recognise similarities with the Metropolitan Police’s struggle to acknowledge its failings in the Sarah Everard murder case. Under the leadership of Cressida Dick, the Met has appeared defensive and reluctant to accept fault, though it has commissioned an inquiry into its culture and standards.
The Vatican has been similarly resistant to change. Proposals as to how to root out endemic abuse within the Church have been put forward. Recommendations have been made, most recently by the French inquiry, regarding changes to the Catholic canon’s guidance – from giving women in the Church more authority to reassessing the rules of confession. The Vatican has rebuffed these suggestions in the past, and there is little indication they’ll be adopted now. From the outside, this is baffling. It is hard to see how anything could be worse for the Church’s ethical credibility than its refusal to take steps to end sexual abuse. From inside the Church, however, to concede that its practices and beliefs have been corrupted is to erode the foundation of its power. It suggests the problem is not a few (thousand) priests and an ineffective reporting system, but a broken institution.
To call on the Vatican to reform itself is therefore to ask the Catholic Church to reckon with its own possible extinction. It’s a Hail Mary – a desperate plan that has little to no chance of success.
[see also: What the left can learn from Pope Francis]
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm