We canon lawyers, unfortunately, spend a lot of time dealing with tragic, disturbing, sometimes appalling situations. It’s all too easy to become inured. But even among canonists who routinely deal with cases of child sexual abuse, the news that Mgr Pietro Amenta, a senior Vatican judge, has been convicted of possessing child pornography is shocking.
Mgr Amenta was not a minor figure: he was a prelate auditor (judge) of the Roman Rota, the Church’s final judicial court of appeal. (It does not, thank God, have jurisdiction over abuse cases.) He also appears to have been well-known to the police, having been reported for alleged obscene acts and harassment in 1991 and 2004 respectively. (He was not charged.)
If this were an isolated act, it would be one thing. But it suggests a culture in parts of the Church which is still not taking abuse seriously enough. Even a cursory examination would have shown that Mgr Amenta’s appointment should have at least been delayed until matters were properly investigated.
This is not the only case of basic due diligence being skipped. Bishop Juan Barros denies all the allegations that he turned a blind eye to abuse. But in that story, too, we see the same failure to address concerns before appointing someone to a position of authority. The same goes for other cases. Last year, for instance, a Vatican diplomat was recalled from assignment to Washington, DC, after both American and Canadian authorities opened investigations into alleged child pornography offences.
There is still a great divide in the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandals. Where these scandals have been most public, like the United States, the response has been clear, systematic, and robust. The creation of the Dallas Charter has brought a new era for the Church in America in which “zero-tolerance” means exactly that – indeed, in some cases the pendulum can be argued to have swung too far the other way. But elsewhere – despite solid and necessary legal reforms by Pope Benedict XVI, especially in the document Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, which centralised handling of sexual abuse cases and laid out a clear legal procedure to follow – Rome has continued to pursue a policy which in practice often appears little better than “don’t ask.”
Well-intentioned reformers have been baffled and dismayed by this attitude. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, headed by Cardinal O’Malley and finally renewed this weekend, lost one of their high-profile members, the abuse survivor Peter Saunders, back in 2016 in large part over his frustration at Rome’s failure to respond proactively to growing indications of problems in South America, including in Chile.
Another former member of the Commission, Marie Collins, found progress frustratingly lacking when dealing with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which handles all complaints of sexual abuse. While one has every sympathy with Collins, who speaks with obvious authority in the subject of sexual abuse, the CDF has its own legitimate frustrations. Time and again, what they have been offered is structural reform, new processes, working groups and commissions. What they need is manpower and resources, and a clear mandate to be proactive in their work; what they have got is a Vatican-wide hiring freeze since 2014.
Vatican authorities, including the Pope, must demonstrate to the world that child protection is not only about listening to victims. Listening is, of course, necessary, but as important is doing something about what you hear. Ask anyone in Rome and they will tell you they want to see an end to sexual abuse scandals. Suggest the kind of CDF expansion of manpower, resources, and authority needed to make this happen and you will get a far less enthusiastic response.
Mgr Amenta’s case, awful in itself, could have a been a chance to show initiative. Instead of being allowed to resign, and only confirming this to the press when asked, he should have been immediately and publicly removed from the Rota. His canonical trial should now proceed with all possible speed, and he should have the best canon lawyer that can be found for his defence. While respecting confidentiality of process, the verdict should also be properly publicised. It is time the Vatican spoke a little less about justice and did a lot more of it.