Catholic leaders have to be defenders of children

Manila Times [Manila, Philippines]

November 14, 2021

By Fr. Shay Cullen

Shame, anguish and anger at child sexual abuse in the Church should lead to a devoted commitment to eradicate abuse everywhere. This active stance has to be the primary focus of society and of the Church and every individual member. Jesus of Nazareth said the child is the most important of all. If we continue to fail children, we fail Christ. The established institutional Church and many members — lay people and priests — have spectacularly failed to care, protect, help, support and compensate innocent vulnerable children for heinous crimes against them. Many of the bishops, priests and lay people have over the years, denied, covered up, transferred abusive priests, lied and forced child victims to shut up.

The most recent, shocking exposes and revelations of clerical child abuse in France led to a pilgrimage to Lourdes by no less than clergy to confess incompetence to protect children. What they and clergy everywhere need to do is to surrender their absolute power and invite independent prosecutors to investigate all the priests and lay suspects against whom credible allegations have been made. The culture of silence is the shield of the abusers.

The chronic lying and cover-up by clergy about the extent of child abuse and turning a blind eye to it as if children had no rights resulted in as many as 216,000 children being abused by French pedophile-priests alone from 1950 until 2020. The silence of bishops and other priests makes them accessories to the crimes. It is a conspiracy of sorts because charging a priest in court with such crimes is unthinkable, embarrassing and scandalous for the institutional Church. Bishops and priests must first care for the child victims and should stop coddling and protecting pedophile-priests. They should be angry as Jesus was and give the child abuser the Mill Stone of Justice (Matthew 18:6) that Jesus said he should be given, to help him repent, confess and accept it as penance. Then, mercy and forgiveness can be given. That is the elementary lesson of Jesus Christ. The number of French children sexually abused is 330,000 when we add in the abuse by Catholic lay people. It is a worldwide problem.

Child abuse and cover-up is a shocking abuse of power that has to be removed. This is because the institution is male-dominated and there are no women with positions of authority and leadership to hold the diocesan leaders to account. The role that Jesus gave to the apostles and bishops was to be washers of feet, servants of the poor and healers of the abused. He said the tyrants of heathens ruled with total authority but it must not be like that among you. “Whoever among you wants to be great must become the servant of you all, and if he wants to be first among you, he must be your slave — just as the Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life to set many others free.” How many clergy obey that command, we may ask. To stop child sexual abuse by clergy, the power structure must change. Pope Francis has denounced this power as clericalism.

We should feel more just anger than shame. Jesus was angry at his disciples when they blocked the children from approaching him. How much angrier he is today with the extent and cover-up of historical and present-day child abuse? There are hundreds of thousands of good, self-sacrificing priests and many bishops of true commitment and virtue working in impoverished circumstances, sacrificing themselves daily for the poor and risking their lives fighting for human rights and justice. Why should they be shamed and brought into disrespect because some bishops and priests who abuse their authority choose to support pedophile-priests and cover up their child-abuse crimes. The sins of a few are vested upon the many. This is another aspect of injustice.

The time has always been here for the good clergy to take a stand against the cover-up and shame brought upon their vocation and life’s work. They are being unjustly and wrongly smeared with the crimes of the few who are protected. That deference and protection should end. Not reporting abusive clergy is being part of the problem. The honest, innocent and hardworking priests and lay people should act as Jesus of Nazareth did: Denounce the abusers. They should not be tarnished and never tolerate the cover-up and secrecy protecting pedophile-priests. They can give tip-offs anonymously to authorities, or child-protective NGOs like Preda Foundation as to the whereabouts of the victims who need help and tell who the abuser is. The child victims are the center and most important of this mission for justice.

In the Philippines where child abuse among clergy is systematically covered up and denied, victims are allegedly intimidated from making complaints and parents are paid off not to pursue complaints. An independent investigation like that in France is long overdue.

It was in 2002 that victims of clerical abuse were identified and the Church apologized. Since then, there has been a total lockdown. The policy of dealing with clerical child abuse as a secret internal matter that must be dealt with internally, as Antonio Cardinal Tagle has said on television, must change. Transparency and the needs and rights of the child victims must be the top priority, not protecting the pedophiles or Church reputation. Many child-abuse cases are referred to and the victims are found and rescued and brought to protective sanctuary while the abuse is verified. The children are healed and empowered and the abusers, no matter their power and status, will be brought to justice.

It has been the lay people, adults, brave and courageous victims, who have come out in public to make complaints and demand justice. They found the courage to speak out and their numbers grew, demanding justice. Their actions led to independent investigations around the world.

All Christians have to act to heal the wounds of physical, emotional and psychological suffering inflicted upon them. A terrible evil that continues today and the great and good people in the Catholic Church have to be defenders of children, not defending their abusers.