“Serious mistakes” and “serious cases”

A young woman prays for victims of abuse by church members © Fabrice Caterini-Inediz (KNA)

The abuse scandals in the USA, Ireland and Chile, Australia, but also in Germany have massively damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church. The Vatican has been dealing with the case for many years. A compilation.

1983: The compendium of canon law that is still valid today, the Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC) of 1983, takes over from its predecessor of 1917 the paraphrase of sexual misconduct as a violation of the Sixth Commandment ("thou shalt not commit adultery"). Canon 1.395 § 2 of canon law refers exclusively to priests and members of religious orders and prescribes "just punishments" up to and including removal from clerical status.

1994: Irish Gov. Albert Reynolds falls over case of pedophile priest not adequately prosecuted.
1999: Ireland's government officially apologizes to all victims of child abuse and sexual abuse and provides five million euros. Cases in church and state-run homes date back to the 1940s.
March 2001: Reports of sexual abuse of women religious by priests, especially in Africa, cause a stir.
April 2001: The papal decree "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela" (The Protection of the Sanctity of the Sacraments) establishes that sexual offenses committed by priests henceforth fall under the jurisdiction of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The letter assigns sexual abuse to the very serious offenses, the "delicta graviora". For relevant cases, the harshest disciplinary sanctions under canon law, up to and including laicization, are provided for. In addition, the decree introduces a statute of limitations of ten years.
May 2001: The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, explains the new legal situation in the letter "De delictis gravioribus"; it is published exclusively in Latin. After coming into force, the Congregation will have about 3.000 accusations of sexual transgressions by diocesan and religious priests reported from past 50 years.
2002: After numerous cases of abuse came to light in Boston and other dioceses, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted strict new guidelines. This "zero tolerance policy" includes, among other things, an extension of the statute of limitations and automatic laicization after proven abuse. The new guidelines become particular law for the Church in the U.S.; they apply complementarily to the provisions of the CIC. In contrast, the guidelines ied by the German Bishops' Conference in September 2002 are legally non-binding recommendations.

Boston priest John Geoghan, laicized since 1998 and accused of 150 cases of abuse against young people, is sentenced to many years in prison. Questions arise about a cover-up of cases by Cardinal Bernard Law. Boston archbishop resigns in December and is given a position in Rome.

January 2002: The Catholic orders in Ireland want to compensate victims of sexual abuse with 128 million euros.

November 2002: John Paul II. Authorizes Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to waive statute of limitations in exceptions to deal with old cases.

April 2008: In the USA, Benedict XVI meets. First time with victims of abuse. The pope prays with them and listens to their accounts. In July there is another meeting with victims in Australia.

2009: In the Catholic community "Legionaries of Christ" a system of lies and abuse is revealed, which the founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, who died in 2008, had built up. After Maciel's sexual offenses come to light, Benedict XVI orders a new statute of limitations. A comprehensive inspection by the Vatican takes place and the entire leadership of the order is replaced. The community works out new statutes for years.
January 2010: Father Klaus Mertes, then head of the Jesuits' Canisius College in Berlin, sets the ball rolling on uncovering the abuse scandal in the German church.
February 2010: The German bishops apologize. Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier becomes special commissioner for abuse cases. A victim hotline is established.
March 2010: Vatican publishes papal letter on abuse cases in Ireland. In it, Benedict XVI asks. Victims for forgiveness and exhorts perpetrators and church leaders to take responsibility for their mistakes.
April 2010: The Vatican publishes a "comprehension aid" for the approach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to allegations of abuse. According to this, priests "in very serious cases" can be laicized by the Pope even without canonical proceedings. State laws on reporting crimes to competent authorities are "always to be followed".
July 2010: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith publishes a new text, revised in parts, of the "norms on more serious crimes". In it, the statute of limitations is increased to 20 years. It also clarifies previous provisions on child pornography and sexual abuse of adults with mental disabilities. Accelerated procedures are in place for dealing with abuse cases.

August 2010: German bishops tighten their "guidelines on how to deal with sexual abuse".

September 2011: In Germany Benedict XVI meets. Pope meets with abuse victims for fifth time overall.
July 2014: Pope Francis meets abuse victims for the first time in his tenure, including two from Germany. Victims weigh on conscience of whole church, he says.

January 2018: Pope's visit to Chile overshadowed by abuse scandal there. Francis initially uses harsh words there to confront an accused bishop, but is caught up with the realities in the coming days. In a letter to Chile's bishops, he acknowledges "grave errors" in assessing and perceiving the situation and sends a special envoy. Later, he calls all Chilean bishops to a crisis meeting at the Vatican and in turn makes serious accusations against them. Almost all offer to renounce their office; the Pope accepts five of them.

June 2018: In Australia, the highest-ranking Catholic Church dignitary to date, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide is sentenced to prison by a secular court for covering up abuse cases. He resigns from office in response to public prere. He may spend five of the twelve months under house arrest.
Summer 2018: U.S. abuse scandal gains new momentum. Former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (88) is accused of abusing seminarians and at least two minors. He resigns from the College of Cardinals – a unique event in 90 years. In the state of Pennsylvania, a state grand jury accuses some 300 priests, most of them deceased, of committing at least 1.000 children and adolescents abused. A "culture of cover-up" by church leaders prevailed in the state dioceses under investigation. A worldwide public outcry and protestations of reform are the result. Current Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl (77) also comes under fire.

August 2018: The main trial of Curia Cardinal George Pell (77) begins in Melbourne over two sexual assault cases. Due to Australian law, the media are not allowed to report on the event.

August 2018: Pope Francis writes four-page letter on abuse scandal to bishops of world church.

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