News Analysis

Are we getting the full picture on the abuse crisis?

Even in Paul VI’s day, concerns were brewing (Getty)

The organisers of the February meeting on child protection at the Vatican have sent a letter to participants, encouraging them “to follow the example of Pope Francis and meet in person with victim survivors before the Rome summit”.

As one cleric involved in child protection told the Catholic Herald when asked whether he had seen the letter: “Is it the one where they urge the bishops to meet with victims, so they can understand that rape is wrong?” The world in a nutshell.

Attached to the letter is a questionnaire which bishops are asked to complete and submit ahead of the meeting. “It provides a tool for all the participants of the meeting in February to express their opinions constructively and critically as we move forward,” the letter explains, “to identify where help is needed to bring about reforms now and in the future, and to help us get a full picture of the situation in the Church.”

The press office of the Holy See told the Herald that there will be no further information from official sources regarding the nature or scope of the questionnaire, as it is for internal use in preparation for the meeting.

Vatican officials past and present have been quite willing, however, to offer their takes on the meeting and its background. In addition to interviews that organisers Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Charles Scicluna granted to Crux and America (in which their talking points tracked uncannily), there have been other interventions by highly placed figures.

Kim Daniels, a member of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See, delivered an address to a panel discussion sponsored by the Lumen Christi institute ­– later published by the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal – entitled “The Four Waves of the US Catholic Abuse Crisis”, the first of which, Daniels says, started with the case of Fr Gilbert Gauthe, who abused nearly 40 boys in four different Catholic parishes in Lafayette, Louisiana.

The Gauthe case, which became public in 1984, was the first to garner major and sustained media attention. The bishops of the United States, however, were aware of the scope of the problem within the ranks of the clergy as early as the 1950s.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter in 2009, Tom Roberts told the story of Fr Gerald Fitzgerald, a Boston-area native ordained as a secular priest there, who went on to join the Holy Cross Fathers and then to found the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, whose principal charism was the care of priests struggling with substance abuse.

Fr Fitzgerald, however, soon found himself saddled with hard cases: those of men struggling with serious sexual perversion, including predilections for children. Fr Fitzgerald was apparently loath to accept such cases, and repeatedly tried to establish a policy of refusal for his congregation’s facility in New Mexico. His work was so well regarded that he was invited to write to the Vatican.

In April 1962, Fr Fitzgerald wrote a five-page response to a query from the Vatican’s Congregation of the Holy Office about “the tremendous problem presented by the priest who through lack of priestly self-discipline has become a problem to Mother Church”. One of his recommendations was for “a more distinct teaching in the last years of the seminary of the heavy penalty involved in tampering with the innocence (or even non-innocence) of little ones”.

Kim Daniels’s approach, in short, conflates the scandal in the media with the crisis in the Church. But long before there was any media attention, the US bishops knew how bad things were. They were sending men to New Mexico and corresponding with Fr Fitzgerald (and each other). The Vatican knew in the early 1960s; Fr Fitzgerald even had an audience with Paul VI in 1963. Fifty-five years is long enough to get everyone on the same page.

Fr Federico Lombardi, SJ, former director of the Holy See press office, has also weighed in, and managed much the same conflation as Daniels. “The first widely reported crisis occurred in the United States in 2002,” Fr Lombardi writes in his rehearsal of the history. Not quite: 2002 was the year in which the crisis became a major international scandal in the press.

When Fr Lombardi comes to the Chilean chapter, his account contains an important elision. “Even the visit of Pope Francis to Chile at the beginning of 2018 did not overcome the problems,” Lombardi writes. “The Pope recognised that he had made mistakes and undervalued the problem, and this in itself is unheard of and admirable.”

There is no mention of how Francis repeatedly criticised ­– in public – victims of Fr Fernando Karadima, then Chile’s most notorious abuser-priest (Francis laicised him in September), accusing them of calumny while he was a guest in their native country, and then doubling down on the allegation while in the air on the way to Rome. Those men were victims the Vatican’s own court had found to be credible witnesses against Karadima.

In its gloss of the organisers’ letter, the press office said the meeting “will focus on three main themes of responsibility, accountability and transparency as participants work together to respond to this grave challenge”.

We pray for their success.