The Catholic Church Still Isn’t There on Abuse Prevention

The Catholic Church Still Isn’t There on Abuse Prevention May 30, 2019

Two stories came across my radar earlier this month. Each dealt with different aspects of what the Catholic Church is (and is not) doing on preventing child sexual abuse. The upshot is this: the Church is still dragging its heals. Preventing child sexual abuse and holding abusers accountable is simply not on the top of their priority list. Instead, they’re prioritizing things like protecting the Church from local hostility, and ensuring that penitents have access to confession and the forgiveness it brings, without having to face legal consequences for their actions.

First, there was this article:

Pope Francis issues groundbreaking law requiring priests, nuns to report sex abuse, cover-up

The law mandates that the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests and 660,000 religious sisters inform church authorities when they have “well-founded motives to believe” abuse has occurred.

This is good, right? Well, sort of. The problem is that this new regulation still does not require priests to report sexual abuse (including sexual abuse of children) to local law enforcement. No, really. Have a look:

The law doesn’t require them to report to police. The Vatican has long argued that doing so could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. But it does for the first time put into universal church law that they must obey civil reporting requirements where they live, and that their obligation to report to the church in no way interferes with that.

Reporting child sexual abuse … could endanger the church? This logic seems suspect to me. Maybe don’t abuse children if you’re worried that civil authorities will be angry with you for abusing children. 

The regulation says that the priests and other Catholic Church employees must obey civil reporting requirements where they’re located. Okay. However, many countries don’t have mandatory reporting laws. Additionally, it seems odd to me that one universal organization could have such different rules on something like reporting child sexual abuse. Isn’t part of the point that you can walk into any Catholic Church in the world and find the same prayers, the same rituals, the same format and structure? Why not have something universal here, as well?

Look, I’m glad that priests and nuns will now be required to report suspicions of abuse to church authorities. But I don’t for a minute trust those authorities to do the right thing with that information.

Case in point, the next article. This is an article in a Catholic newspaper. It’s written by Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Barron is upset about a bill before the legislature in California.

SB 360, a piece of proposed legislation currently making its way through the California state senate, should alarm not only every Catholic in the country, but indeed the adepts of any religion. In California, as in almost every other state, clergy members (along with a variety of other professionals, including physicians, social workers, teachers, and therapists) are mandated reporters — which is to say, they are legally required to report any case of suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement. However, California clergy who come by this knowledge in the context of “penitential communication” are currently exempted from the requirement. SB 360 would remove the exemption.

Oh lord. Seriously?

I would like to make clear what the passage of this law would mean for Catholic priests in California. Immediately, it would place them on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Since the canon law of the Church stipulates that the conscious violation of the seal of confession results in automatic excommunication, every priest, under this new law, would be threatened with prosecution and possible imprisonment on the one hand or formal exclusion from the body of Christ on the other.

This “seal of confession,” it would seem, is more important than protecting children from being sexually abused. In case you think I’m being unfair, let’s read on:

Why do we Catholics take this sacrament with such seriousness? We do so because we believe that through this sacramental encounter, a sinner accesses the healing and forgiving grace of Christ. In the context of confession, the priest, we hold, is operating in the very person of Christ, and therefore, the penitent is speaking to and hearing from the Lord himself.

Granting sinners access to healing and forgiveness is more important than protecting children from child sexual abuse. Why do the two come in conflict? Barron clarifies this as follows:

If a penitent thought that the priest to whom he confessed were likely to share with others what was given in the most sacred confidence, he or she would be reluctant indeed ever to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And this is why the Church has striven so strenuously to protect, at all costs, the integrity of confession.

What it comes down to is this: Barron is valuing the penitent’s comfort in coming to confession—knowing that what he says will not be repeated—more highly than the state’s interest in having child sexual abuse reported to authorities so that it can be investigated and stopped. What is most important is that the penitent have access to God’s grace and forgiveness—that is more important than civil authorities being able to do their job.

Oddly, Barron never argues that priests should work to talk penitents into reporting child sexual abuse they may be aware of. He never says that if criminals didn’t feel comfortable making a confession, priests would never be able to persuade them to turn themselves in. I have heard people make these arguments, but Barron does not. He argues that penitents must always have access to God’s grace and forgiveness, and leaves it at that.

Although really, he doesn’t leave it at that. He goes on to argue that the church has long been under attack from the “secular state,” and urges Catholics to rise up and protest “this very aggressive incursion.” He means SB 360.

So much for taking abuse seriously.

I’m reminded, too, of all of the dioceses that have opposed bills to extend the statute of limitations. The Catholic Church could have responded to the initial bombshell investigations of 2002 by getting out ahead of the issue. They could have immediately created new rules, requiring clergy to report suspicions of child sexual abuse to both church authorities and civil authorities and revising rules surrounding confession to make exceptions from the seal of confession for cases where there is ongoing harm. But they didn’t.

Instead, they’ve made the entire process feel like pulling teeth. They have dragged their feet and fought and complained and protested, and insisted that their religious liberty is under attack. Well I’m sorry, but if your religious liberty includes the right to shelter and protect child abusers, I don’t give a damn. 

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