Child Sexual Abuse in the Institutional Church

Fr. Shay Cullen

There are serious and profound changes taking place in the Catholic Church to acknowledge and prevent child sexual abuse by clerics and lay, people, to prosecute the perpetrators and to heal the victims. It is the belated result of generations of historical clerical child sexual abuse and the denial and covers up of their crimes by some bishops and cardinals around the world. It has become a crisis for the church as an institution.

Pope Francis has approved recently a new law to protect child victims and prosecute any clerical suspects accused in the Vatican State. Before this, there was no such law protecting children in the Vatican. It is a model for others and is a zero-tolerance law. Every complaint of child abuse must be reported and investigated immediately.

In the Philippines, the arrest and detention of an American Father Kenneth Hendricks, 78, in Naval, a town in Biliran province last December 5, 2018, for allegedly sexually abusing dozens of boys has focused attention on the culture of silence, cover-up and inaction by fellow clergy, officials and Catholic townspeople.

The alleged crimes were first reported to the US authorities who carried out a quiet investigation and filed charges against Hendricks in Ohio where a judge issued an arrest warrant.

The fact that no local people dared accuse the priest despite local knowledge and complaints by several alleged victims indicates the fear of retribution of going up against a priest fo the Catholic church. That era of fear and impunity is coming to a close in many countries but not yet in the Philippines.

Most cases of child sexual abuse by clergy are rarely exposed and Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle says they are investigated internally. So no civil punishment for the abusers and no justice for the victims. Impunity reigns it seems and that will have to change.
For some Catholics, the worldwide shame and widespread history of clerical child abuse have weakened and challenged their faith and some have even left the Church. The non-abusing clergy is deeply ashamed by the terrible crimes against children that many of them allowed happening either by their ignorance, inaction or silence. They were afraid or ashamed to report a fellow priest and cowardly to protect the child victim. That silence is a form of consent. Now, dioceses have strict rules and regulations to report child abuse and prosecute the offender in civil courts.

Are we shocked by the serious wrongdoing by clergy, bishops, and cardinals around the world? They are supposed to give a good example of Christian living by a life of virtue, a love of justice and protecting children. But many of them have failed. Is our faith shaken, weakened and rendered useless? For some, the answer is yes but for others, no. Because their faith is not primarily belief in the church as a human institution but in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and his Gospel values.

It is a time of challenge for all us Christian Catholics and especially bishops and priests to examine our faith and ask if it is faith in the person of Jesus and if we have a personal relationship with him. Do we have a strong commitment to his simple but profound teaching?

Is our faith in his moral principles, in the human dignity of every person? Do we believe and live out his values on social justice, human rights, compassion and love and especially in the innocence and protection of the child and the stranger? Does our faith express itself daily in action for justice and protection of the child and the stranger? If it doesn’t, then as St.James says, our so-called faith is dead. (Letter of James 2:26)

The Church as founded by Jesus is a community. It is the People of God, all believers, and non-believers of good-will gathered in the one faith and practice of what Jesus has taught and done and which we are called upon to imitate and follow his principled way of life.

As an institution, the Church is a human creation with a hierarchy, a chain of command, a bureaucracy, a system of law, discipline, rules and regulations and a sacramental practice from which we are told salvation flows. But faith in action is what brings us closer to Jesus Christ in daily life.

This institutional, very human church has in many incidents betrayed Jesus and his teachings. From Chile to Brazil, to the United States, Ireland, France, UK, Germany, Austria and elsewhere scandals of child sexual abuse and other serious failings of clergy and bishops are evident. Some have failed to listen to victims and respond immediately. They have failed to have compassion and care for child victims and get healing and justice for them.  Some priests and bishops hid the crimes, transferred priests, allowing them to abuse children again. That is a crime in itself.

Many bishops have resigned for their failure to act according to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18: 1-8. Jesus says a child is the most important in the Kingdom of God, not the adults. That kingdom is here on earth. Justice must be delivered for the child victim and Jesus said that a symbolic millstone be tied around the neck of a convicted abuser and he or she be thrown into the ocean. Strong words indeed, yet Jesus underlines the innocence of children and how serious it is to abuse them. To accept and protect one is to accept him. That is why healing and justice are so important for victims of abuse.

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