Commentators use phrases like “tsunami” and “wildfire” to describe the Catholic sex abuse and cover-up crisis that is engulfing Europe right now. While the imagery is somewhat helpful, it obscures the origins of the scandal. Thousands of lives were not devastated by some unforeseen and unstoppable natural phenomenon; they were permanently scarred as the result of decades of deliberate and ongoing secrecy, recklessness and deceit by the self-serving Catholic church hierarchy.
It is no surprise to the survivors of priest abuse that allegations of cover-up are now reaching the Pope. But we are surprised that the hierarchy did not clean up its act before now. A German priest exposed this week was convicted of molesting a young boy back in the 1980s but removed from his ministry just days ago. Considering how large the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising is (approximately 1000 priests) and how long (1977-1982) Archbishop Ratzinger–now Pope Benedict XVI–led that Archdiocese, it should be no surprise that a predator was knowingly transferred to a new assignment during his tenure. It is safe to expect that more will be uncovered about the Pope’s involvement there.
Many are looking to the Vatican for solutions. That, frankly, is silly. It is the secular authorities who have not acted and must act. Foxes never have, and never will, compassionately watch the chicken coop.
Any government’s first priority should be to identify all those in the Church who have and are abusing, and all the enablers who have and are concealing that information. German officials have announced that they will engage in a “round-table” with church authorities next month. We reject this as meaningless and distracting. Church officials should not have any hand in conducting the investigation into the crimes they have perpetrated and covered up.
Others in Germany are urging that the statute of limitations be reformed. We find this encouraging. But it is crucial that predators who walk free today, not just those who molest tomorrow, be exposed. The statute of limitations must be suspended immediately, so that those already hurt can “out” pedophiles, warn parents, protect kids, reveal truth and seek justice. Legal reform must start with “civil windows,” like the ones enacted in California and Delaware, which lift statutes of limitations right now. That enables victims to take action to stop future crimes by still-hidden child molesters, regardless of when their rapes and abuse occurred.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that church officials are talking about the current crisis in the past tense. Their implication is that all this is in the past. But evidence strongly suggests that little, if anything, in the church hierarchy has changed much. The only prudent assumption is that priests across Europe and the globe are molesting today, and that bishops are hiding the crimes.
The church’s first priority, however, should not be “repentance, healing and renewal,” as the Pope maintains: Child safety comes first. Wounded adults can heal themselves, with or without the Pope’s help. Vulnerable kids, however, can’t protect themselves without the Pope’s help.
That help must involve action, not words. No apologies or explanations or letters or excuses or promises. So far, the Vatican has only talked, not acted. That must change.