News Analysis

Why has the global response to abuse been so sluggish?

Fr Hans Zöllner: ‘This will not be over in our lifetime’ (CNS)

The crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church resulting from the exposure of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up is protracted, pandemic and entrenched. By now it is clear to anyone paying the slightest attention that the crisis is not going away. Even churchmen are coming around to the idea that we are in this for the long haul. Whether that realisation will make any difference remains to be seen.

Speaking at Fordham University late last month, Fr Hans Zöllner SJ, director of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told participants in a panel discussion that the vast majority of local Churches in the 60-odd countries he has visited have yet to confront the crisis. “It’s not that there are not cases of abuse, and it’s not that they’re not reported,” Fordham News quoted Fr Zöllner as saying. “But it is not a number one issue, neither in society nor in church.”

Fr Zöllner doesn’t think we will live to see the end of the crisis. “This will not be over in our lifetime, at least in countries where they have not yet started to talk about it.”

The main achievements of the February gathering of presidents of bishops’ conferences and leaders of religious orders appear to be consensus among the participants on the idea that sexually abusing minors is a very bad thing to do, and a promise to provide guidance and resources so that the men whose job it is to ensure the safety of the Church and discipline the clergy can have a better idea of how to do their work.

Also last month, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, told Crux: “We have become a society that sees everything in terms of power, as an authority or force over you, rather than a service in support of you, which is [how] the Lord defines authority and power.” That was going to take “a generational amount of work” to set to rights, he added.

To sort out this mess, the first thing that needs to go is the sort of binary thinking that would reduce the problem to one of either personal spiritual renewal or institutional reform. Both are necessary. Properly understood, they are functions of one another. If law is a reflection of culture, it is also a motor of change within it. That is why the first step at the very top of the Church’s leadership structure must be the reform of law and its enforcement.

It is said that 90 per cent of leadership is telling your team they are the best, and then waiting for it to be true. Whether he knows it or not, Pope Francis’s hope in conversion of heart on the part of participants, which he expressed ahead of the February meeting on child protection, was based on this understanding of leadership dynamics. The problem is that approach only works when one is starting out with basically sound elements.

There is also the matter of trustworthiness. “If a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious Sister, commits a sin and then converts,” Pope Francis said in 2013, in response to a query from Brazilian journalist Ilze Scamparini, “the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets – and this is very important for our lives.”

That reflection was part of the 453-word answer most famous for a five-word excerpt: “Who am I to judge?” A person may repent and convert, and go on to live a happy life as a contributor to society, but there are certain failures that disqualify a person from holding offices of honour and trust, even when they are not criminal offences.

It is a leader’s job to identify people guilty of such failures and ensure they neither continue in office nor come into others. That isn’t punishment, that’s management.

At the rate things are going in many parts of the Church, it is legitimate to wonder whether Church leaders will get the chance to lead the necessary housecleaning that in any case must come. Crux’s managing editor Charles Collins recently examined the so-called “metropolitan option” – which would see metropolitan archbishops in charge of policing and disciplining negligent and malfeasant bishops in their ecclesiastical provinces. Collins’s editor John Allen asked him what he thought a better proposal might be. “It doesn’t matter,” Collins replied (in Allen’s paraphrase), “because grand juries and public prosecutors will do it for them.”

An institution’s viability is measured not so much by the number of great leaders it fosters as by the number of weak leaders it can suffer. Corrupt institutions will not survive forever, but a healthy institution will resist the ebb and flow of public moral culture. What we have in the Church looks like a perfect storm of corruption and weakness.