This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to get the whole issue in your mailbox or inbox!
The Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal took a dramatic turn this summer when criminal charges were filed against an archdiocese for “turning a blind eye” to repeated reports of abuse by a priest. Prosecutors alleged that while Archbishop John Nienstedt led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, church officials failed “to protect children” and contributed to “the unspeakable harm” done to victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest convicted of sexual assault of minors. Nienstedt and one of his auxiliary bishops resigned days after Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, the local prosecutor, announced the criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“We are alleging a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the course of decades,” said Choi in a statement. “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well.” Although no individual has been charged—the case has been brought against the archdiocese as a corporation—a conviction could result in fines.
As the scandal unfolds, Pope Francis is preparing for his first visit to the U.S. Arguably the most charismatic church leader in the world, Francis has won the hearts of millions—but his record on the abuse crisis is, so far, more talk than action.
“This pope has been good about demanding economic reform, and what he’s doing on the environment is good,” says Barbara Blaine, who founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and this summer marked 30 years of action on priest abuse. “On the issue of sex abuse by priests—we’re still waiting.”
Under Francis, the Vatican has asked victims of priest abuse to sit on an advisory panel reviewing the church’s response to abuse allegations, and a new tribunal has been established to consider and advise the pope on complaints against bishops who either cover up or mismanage charges against clergy under their supervision.
But as in the past, nearly all of the recent serious action taken by the church has been spurred by whistleblowers, victims and advocates outside the church bureaucracy speaking out. In Minneapolis, for example, Nienstedt resigned only after former lawyer for the archdiocese Jennifer Haselberger turned whistleblower and revealed his failures, leading prosecutor Choi to file charges.
The same was true in Kansas City, where Bishop Robert Finn resigned in April only after he was convicted of failing to report that a local priest was in possession of child pornography.
Outside the U.S., Australian Cardinal George Pell agreed to testify before a royal commission established to investigate child abuse only after a series of high-profile abuse cases caused a public uproar. Pell allegedly ignored complaints of abuse and may have offered payment to keep allegations from being publicized.
As victims, investigators and civil lawyers have continued to uncover cases of abuse and evidence of cover-ups by church leaders, one official action by the church seemed to indicate a new level of concern at the highest levels of the Vatican bureaucracy. On June 15, church officials announced that former Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski would be tried by a church tribunal for child sex abuse that he allegedly committed while working in the Dominican Republic. Wesolowski may also be tried for possessing child pornography. Allegations against the archbishop, who was a longtime ally of archconservative Pope John Paul II, first surfaced in the work of Dominican-based journalist Nuria Piera in 2013.
The Vatican’s move against Wesolowski prompted praise around the world, but the celebration was misplaced: The church actually helped Wesolowski to flee the Dominican Republic, where he would have faced a criminal trial. The Vatican is providing him refuge, just as it has provided refuge to other clergy implicated in sex-abuse scandals. And if Wesolowski is found guilty by a church tribunal, it may not have the means to punish him in a significant way because the Vatican city-state has no prison-like facilities.
The difference between a church trial in Rome and criminal prosecution in Santo Domingo is not lost on Blaine. “There is an illusion of change being promoted,” says Blaine, who has been honored as a Woman of the Year by Ms. “There have been many policies, procedures and promises for decades. We have heard this over and over again but we haven’t seen any real change.”
In fact, for all of his calls for clergy accountability, Pope Francis tuned out the uproar that arose when he promoted to the post of bishop a priest embroiled in an abuse scandal in Chile. Weeks of protests followed the news of Juan Barros’ promotion, and more than 3,000 people showed up to disrupt the mass where he was installed in his new office. Barros has been accused of covering up sexual-abuse allegations against a priest who was his friend by destroying letters describing the abuse. Ignoring the protests, Francis went ahead with the appointment.
Perhaps there’s a reason Pope Francis is the first in his position to employ a personal media advisor, a man who was previously a Fox News correspondent. Says Joelle Casteix, an abuse survivor and victim advocate, “The public relations is a success, but [the Catholic Church is] still an all-male institution that doesn’t even have the input of women. Even now they don’t consider the abuse of women and children a serious problem.”
For those who hoped for more from the so-called progressive pope, the Vatican’s continued failures suggest that without fundamental reforms—such as an end to the ban on women clergy or official defrocking of church leaders who cover up abuse scandals—the Catholic Church will be unable to end the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy.
Casteix, Blaine and others remain committed to their cause even as they struggle to understand how an institution supposedly devoted to the family—Francis is visiting the U.S. for a conference on that very topic— can continue to fail children and women. The best answer to this quandary comes from someone who knows the problem from the inside, former priest Richard Sipe.
“The members of the all-male hierarchy are afraid of women [and women’s sexuality],” says Sipe, author of many books about Catholicism and sex. “And they don’t live in families themselves so they are interested in families only in theory. [Real] improvement is going to require that both of these things change first.”
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