Reflecting: Pope Francis © Paul Haring (CBA)
The top leaders of the Catholic Church from almost all countries will meet in Rome at the end of February. The pope wants to use them to finally enforce the protection of minors against sexual abuse in the church.
Anyone in a Catholic diocese in the U.S. or Canada who wants to report sexual assaults on minors by church employees via the Internet needs only a few clicks to do so. In almost every diocese, terms like "child protection" are at the top or bottom of the homepage. Clicking on the keyword opens a page that then allows reporting of an abuse case to state or church agencies (or both). In addition, dioceses and parishes provide comprehensive information about all aspects of sexual violence, preventive measures and penal norms, and the names of church and independent counselors.
The fact that the North American local churches today deal with the topic of abuse in an exemplary manner has to do with the painful experiences of the last three decades. Investigative journalists had pierced the veil of silence in Catholic milieus in Quebec and Boston in the 1990s and early 2000s, bringing to light hundreds of cases of sexual abuse. The scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston became a beacon in 2002: For the first time, Cardinal Bernard Law, one of the most powerful archbishops in the universal church, had to resign when it was proven that he had transferred John Geoghan, one of the worst child molesters in priestly garb, several times instead of removing him from circulation.
The horror of the 2002 revelations led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take a leadership role in prosecuting and preventing sexual abuse. The more bishops confronted the problem, the more clearly they recognized that there was far more than just individual cases. The word of "systemic" reasons made the rounds. The "culture of silence" must be broken through.
In Germany, the bishops' conference chairman Karl Lehmann spoke at the time of an American phenomenon, in Germany there were only isolated cases. But under his successor, Robert Zollitsch, it emerged in 2010, first in Berlin and then in many other places, that the cover-up and transfer also functioned in Germany for decades – to the protection of the perpetrators and to the detriment of many victims.
The full extent only came to light in 2018, when a scientific study revealed more than 3.677 alleged cases of abuse from a period of about 100 years illuminated.
Ahead in prevention
In a recent interview, the president of the Child Protection Center at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Professor Hans Zollner, attested to the fact that most German dioceses have been taking consistent preventive measures against abuse for several years and have been consistently prosecuting the cases that have drastically declined since then.
The church in Germany is now among the world's leaders in prevention, along with countries such as the United States, Australia and Ireland.
That it has come to this has to do with persistent media, but also with money. Most dioceses in Germany have enormous incomes in comparison to the rest of the world and can afford staff positions for prevention officers and costly training for all employees. In addition, there is a different mentality among the public, which no longer treats clergy with reverence and no longer protects suspected perpetrators in black with the cloak of silence.
In other European countries, the situation is still quite different. Here, too, a look at the Internet is instructive. Whether it's Spain, Portugal, Italy or Poland, you'll look in vain for the keyword "child protection" or "abuse" on the websites of major dioceses. And even in a progressive metropolitan bishopric like Milan, cross-references to texts by the Pope on this subject are the only thing that can be found offhand. After all, the Italian Bishops' Conference has had guidelines on sexual abuse offenses since 2012, and a nationwide church office for child protection has only been in place for two weeks.
Dense web of cover-up
In Latin America things do not look much better. There has been a dramatic wake-up call in Chile in the past two years, after a dense network of abuse and cover-up surrounding Fernando Karadima, who has since been removed from the priesthood, was exposed. Almost the entire bishops' conference offered their resignation, and in eight cases the pope accepted the request.
But all in all, the topic does not seem to have arrived in Latin America in the necessary breadth yet. From Colombia to Argentina, there are occasional reports of isolated cases, nothing more. The situation is different again in some Asian countries such as Thailand or the Philippines, where sex with minors is common in the 20th century. was legal in the nineteenth century. In Africa, on the other hand, culturally different ideas of sexual maturity and coming of age play a role.
For the universal church, and at its head for Pope Francis, these cultural, legal and ecclesiastical differences are a real problem. He convened the worldwide "child protection summit" of all bishops' conference presidents last November. Since then, there have been alternating great expectations – and warnings that they are far too high.
While the bishops in the USA would like to set up their own lay commissions to judge their fellow bishops who have been too lax in implementing the guidelines against abuse, in other countries guidelines must first be ied that do half justice to the problem.
If, under these conditions, the Pope succeeds in bringing all the bishops' conferences at least to a common level of awareness of the problem, he will have already achieved a great deal.