Will the Synod on the Youth Set the Stage for Zero Tolerance on Abuse?

By Peter Jesserer Smith
National Catholic Register
October 27, 2018

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta.

The Church’s ministers face a credibility gap as a global pattern of sexual abuse cover-up by bishops emerges.

For Catholics looking for the Synod on the Youth to provide answers to the Church’s sex-abuse crisis and the scandalous cover-ups emerging all over the globe, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the foremost and most-trusted Vatican investigator of clerical sex-abuse, provided a dose of reality. 

He told reporters Oct. 8 the global synod of bishops would discuss how sex abuse affects youth, but the solutions would likely come later. The Maltese archbishop said the upcoming meeting between Pope Francis and the heads of bishops’ conferences in February will be the “the best forum for this question.”

“That is the moment where we need to put on the agenda not only the issue of prevention but also of accountability,” Archbishop Scicluna said. 

The Oct. 3-28 Synod on the Youth and Young Adults is discussing the issues affecting young people, primarily the youth who belong to the Millennial and Post-Millennial generations between the ages of 16-29. But many young adults and veterans of the fight against clerical sex abuse believe the Synod should be setting the ground work for a global zero tolerance policy, and one that fixes the gap in the U.S. zero tolerance norms that have helped protect children, but would not have applied to ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and others who sexually prey on vulnerable adults.

Archbishop Scicluna told reporters to give Pope Francis “more time” to address the crisis and cover-ups. Pope Francis has acknowledged the Church’s failure to address sex abuse is an obstacle to evangelization. The Pope admitted Sept. 25, while in Estonia, the scandals have sapped his own credibility with young people to the point he suggested some might say, “’Don't you see that nobody is listening to you any more, or believes what you have to say?’”

How Will Synod Move?

The final document from the Pre-Synodal Meeting in March, which laid the groundwork for the Synod in October, called on the Church’s leaders to“condemn actions such as sexual abuse and the mismanagement of power and wealth,” and “continue to enforce her no-tolerance stance on sexual abuse within her institutions.”

The Instrumentum Laboris, the working document of the Synod discussions, took up this observation in the context of why young people, primarily from “highly secularized areas,” were not interested in the Church or its message. 

But sex-abuse survivor advocates dispute the Catholic Church actually has a global “zero-tolerance” policy. Sex-abuse survivor Marie Collins, who resigned in 2017 from the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, pointed out Aug. 25 in an address at the World Meeting of Families in Ireland that only the U.S. has particular norms in canon law that enforce a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse for minors.

According to a 2011 advisory sent by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to episcopal conferences to assist in drafting guidelines for dealing sexual abuse of minors, a cleric who is guilty of sexual abuse of a minor in some cases still could be returned to ministry, but be restricted “from any contact with minors.” However, it indicated that “the return of a cleric to public ministry is excluded if such ministry is a danger for minors or a cause of scandal for the community.”

But these directions did not restate the zero tolerance norms, approved by the Vatican in 2002, that have the force of Church law in the U.S., which state: “When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.”

Collins said the Vatican has resisted making these zero-tolerance norms binding on the entire global Church. She also noted Pope Francis has not implemented his own 2016 motu proprio to establish a specific tribunal within the Roman Curia that would have the competency to try cases of abuse or negligence brought against bishops, and when convicted, demand their resignation in 15 days or initiate removal proceedings.

A Global Phenomenon

The Church is now coming to grips with the reality that the sex-abuse crisis and cover-ups are a global phenomenon, and not unique to secularized Western countries. The Church in India is embroiled in a scandal over a bishop accused of raping a nun, and a cardinal caught on tape vowing to discredit the nun if she approached the police. Nuns also have made allegations of sexual abuse in Africa and South America, but the Associated Press highlighted the Vatican had a dossier compiled in the 1990s on the sexual abuse of nuns by clerics and noted it is unclear what, if any, action was taken. And a new film in Poland called The Clergy, which producers said is based on true stories of sexually abusive priests, has generated controversy and hundreds of new allegations of sex abuse, both recent and from the past. 

Peter Saunders, a former member of the Pope’s Commission on the Protection of Minors, and co-founder of Ending Clergy Abuse, told the Register that the Synod should prepare bishops in advance of the February meeting in Rome to understand clearly the problem is global, and they have to implement zero tolerance against sexual predators in the clergy. 

“I’m willing to wait a little bit,” Saunders said, for the bishops and Pope to develop a zero tolerance plan in February. But if they fail to implement a comprehensive zero tolerance plan for sexually abusive clergy, it will be “appalling.” 

The Synod is focused on the needs of young people between the ages of 16-29 years old, but much of the bishops’ discussion on protecting minors from sex abuse tends to extend to those under 18. The era has highlighted the problem of adults being vulnerable to sexual abuse by clergy, with many stories of men and women experiencing grooming and sexual assault, emerging in the aftermath of revelations that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick preyed upon young seminarians and priests.

Saunders said young people over 18 also need the Church’s protection from sexual predators in the clergy and those who would cover up for them.The papal commission’s mandate from Pope Francis was to “promote the protection of the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults” — Saunders believed that meant protecting everyone from clerical sexual abuse. 

“We are all as human beings vulnerable at various times,” he said. 

Saunders said that by the time he left the commission, he was distressed that protecting adults seemed to have fallen by the wayside. 

The Church’s definition of who are “vulnerable adults” is vague, and not universally agreed upon. Vatican norms on clerical sexual abuse in canon law, as updated in 2010, only refers to victims as minors under 18 years old, and its reference to adult victims states “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor.”

In a previous interview with the Register, adult sex abuse researcher Stephen de Weger explained Church’s authorities have thought of vulnerability in terms of the victim’s objective condition, not the inherent power dynamics between the ordained clergy and those under their spiritual authority and care. De Weger said this is a mistake, because sexual abuse involves an abuse of power, which can and does occur regardless of the individual adult’s status.

Giving Justice Back Her Sword 

But the concerns about vagueness of policy and procedures extends even to the concept of “zero tolerance.” Msgr. William King, a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and a seasoned judge in clerical sex abuse cases, told the Register that the “zero tolerance” policy is enshrined in U.S. practice — but is challenging to enforce within the universal law of the Latin Church. 

“Zero tolerance for what?” he asked, noting that an accusation is just that, and requires a process of law to establish the facts.  

He added the Code of Canon Law is also hobbled by outdated concepts, such as that sexually abusive priests can be rehabilitated for ministry under certain conditions.

“It’s time for that to change,” he said.

Msgr. King said the Church needs to reform its statute of limitations for sexual abuse, and define sexual abuse by clergy — even bishops — as an irregularity under canon law, meaning a “permanent incapacity to return to ministry.” The current statute of limitations in canon law is 20 years past a victim’s 18th birthday. But this may prevent the Church from removing a “true criminal” from ministry.

“We can’t enforce zero tolerance unless that changes,” he said.

Msgr. King said objective standards of evidence and procedures are needed to enforce a zero tolerance policy that preserves the rights and reputation of the accused, and gives victims a process that allows them to tell their story and seek justice. One important reform, he said, is the Church’s justice system needs to involve laity in ecclesiastical trials, and avoid the appearance of “clerics judging other clerics.”

“We have very competent lay canon lawyers who could serve as judges,” he said. 

Another issue, Msgr. King added, is that the 1983 Code of Canon Law lacks many prescribed punishments for clerics convicted of moral crimes committed against youth and adults. The 1983 revision of the existing 1917 code, following the Second Vatican Council, had as one of its guiding principles to “minimize the overlap between [what is] moral and legal [canonical].” The authors preferred the moral reform of the offender, and viewed prescribed punishments as an opposing consideration.

“Frankly, that may not have worked for us so well,” he said. For that reason, in previous decades, allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct against adults were “largely treated as a moral offense.” Therapy and return to ministry were prescribed by bishops and psychological experts alike.  

“But there are times when punishment is appropriate,” he said, and the Church may be learning now with the current crisis that it needs to prescribe punishments “rather than expect civil government to be the enforcer of Church discipline.” 

Msgr. King also noted, “We’re also seeing that canon law lacks objective directives for receiving and responding to allegations against bishops. This is a painful learning process, but we are seeing Church law evolve.”

Zero Tolerance for Complete Credibility 

Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, who first chaired the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board on clergy abuse after it was created in 2002, said the Church’s credibility as an institution is at stake in the sex abuse crisis. 

He said the bishops at the synod need to realize the Church cannot afford to fail to set the groundwork for a global zero tolerance policy that kicks out sexual offenders. But he said the Church needs also to punish bishops who cover up clerical sex abuse, which has led to a massive loss of faith, and credibility in the Church’s message. 

“Those devils in clerical garb don’t realize what they’re doing to people,” he said. 

Keating said his board listened to parents talk about the sexual abuse of their 11-year old boy — just one of the youths he learned about who eventually lost their lives to suicide. 

Keating said to his knowledge the bishops have largely escaped punishment for their role in allowing priests to destroy these lives — and he said bishops do not deserve a pass for mistakes. At the same time, the Church’s zero tolerance policy and due process for the accused should go hand in hand. 

“You need to have a burden of proof, at least the preponderance of the evidence,” Keating said, citing the standard for convictions in civil court. “If there’s one offense and it is proven, you’re gone.”


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