The Spanish newspaper El País has collected testimony from well over a thousand victims of clergy sex-abuse. Earlier this month, one of the reporters presented 385 pages of information to Pope Francis. On Sunday, El País made all of this public. The paper added: The Vatican and the Spanish Bishops’ Conference will investigate all the cases.
I expressed some misgivings about El País’ confidence in an ecclesiastical investigation. On Monday, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference confirmed my skepticism. The Spanish bishops published a defensive, less-than-honest press release. They referred to a “lack of rigor” in El País’ investigation. The bishops offered multiple justifications for not investigating anything.
Juan Cuatrecasas, president of the Stolen Childhood victims’ association reacted with outrage:
That these gentlemen speak of rigor is offensive. Let them interview each victim in that report and tell them face-to-face, looking in their eyes, that what they say is not ‘rigorous.’
Speaking of embarrassing ecclesiastical defensiveness, I promised to consider the criticisms that a group of French Catholic intellectuals have made against the comprehensive report on sex-abuse published in October–the Rapport Sauvé, or CIASE report.
The CIASE report gathers the testimonies of sex-abuse survivors; it reviews the records of dioceses and prosecutors; and it reports the results of an on-line survey of the general population of France, about sex-abuse.
Based on these various sources of information, the report estimates that 216,000 young people have been sexually abused by French Catholic clergymen, since the 1950’s.
The French-intellectual critics insist that this staggering total cannot be supported by the information that is actually available. They point out that the percentages garnered by the on-line survey are too small to be extrapolated from, since they are smaller than the margin of error.
This is, no doubt, a valid point, in and of itself. But it is not a convincing criticism in this case.
First, because the CIASE report freely acknowledges that the extrapolated total does not tally easily with the hard data collected by other methods of investigation. CIASE estimates a maximum of 3,200 abuser clerics during the time period. To reach a total of 216,000, the average abuser would have over 60 victims–not a conclusion that is easy to feature, as the CIASE itself acknowledges.
The critics insist that the CIASE should have reported 24,000 victims, starting with 3,200 abusers and multiplying by the CIASE’s own estimate for average number of victims per criminal, which is 7.5.
But this would disregard altogether the insight given by the on-line survey of the general population.
Let me put it like this: the Catholic intellectuals’ criticism here is unconvincing because:
1. 24,000 victims is itself a staggering number.
2. The problem might not be that the total of 216,000 is too high, but that the estimate of 3,200 criminal clergy abusers is too low.
3. 216,000 actually fits reasonably into the overall picture of sex-abuse in France:
5.5 million French people have been sexually abused in childhood, since 1950. (This number is not in dispute.) If only 216,000 of those 5.5 million were abused by Catholic clergymen, that actually makes the incidence of Catholic clerical sex abuse lower in France, as a portion of total sexual abuse, than in other largely Catholic countries.
The critics dwell on the admittedly uncertain total estimate because they want to dispute the CIASE’s conclusion that sex-abuse of minors is a “systemic” problem in the Catholic Church. The Catholic intellectuals accuse the CIASE of inflating the number in order to shock the public into accepting the idea that the problem is systemic, without any further debate on the point.
Again, an unconvincing criticism, because: Even if the CIASE total is significantly off, would that somehow make the problem less ‘systemic?’ If there are actually only 108,000 victims, wouldn’t that still be a systemic problem? Or even if we stuck with the number that the critics themselves suggest–24,000. Isn’t that total enough to justify the conclusion that there is a systemic problem?
The criticism of the estimated total seems more like a quibble intended to obfuscate the matter, rather than an engagement of the real issues at hand. The clear fact is: criminals have hidden in the Catholic clergy for decades, in order to prey freely on minors, and then go unpunished for it by their superiors. Something definitely needs to be done about this. The question is not if something needs to be done; the question is what.
The critics further obfuscate the matter by trying to play both sides of the sexual-morality issue.
On the one hand, the critics rightly point out: It is precisely the teaching of the Church that tells us just how wrong the criminal sexual abuse of minors is.
This is true, and amen to it. No one has ever suggested that it would solve the Catholic sex-abuse crisis if the Church stopped teaching that sexually abusing minors is wrong and a sin.
But then the critics bring up the fact that, in the 1970’s, some prominent Frenchmen, including the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, publicly proposed that pedophilia be de-criminalized. It was part of the crazy ‘sexual revolution.’
(Pope-Emeritus Benedict used another version of this same argument in his unconvincing 2019 essay on the sex-abuse crisis.)
The critics then go on to suggest that the thinking of the 70’s influenced the Catholic clergy of the time–even though it contradicts perennial Church teaching, not to mention the basic moral instincts of the human race.
But if this were, in fact, true–namely that Jean Paul Sartre & Co. managed to confuse the French clerical establishment about sexual morality–wouldn’t that actually suggest an even-more-serious systemic problem in the Catholic Church in France?
The criticisms outlined so far, however, are all secondary issues in the dispute between the Catholic intellectuals and the CIASE. The central point of conflict is this:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an image to explain the role of the clergy in the life of the Church. We clergymen exercise sacred ministry in persona Christi capitis. In the person of Christ the Head.
The whole Church of the baptized = the mystical Body of Christ. But we ordained clergy operate in the person of Christ the Head of the Body.
Now, not even Protestants say that this is out-and-out wrong. After all, you can’t have a community without leaders. Plus, in the Church, the leaders do something unique. We give Jesus Christ to the community.
That is something no human community could ever give to itself. The Son came from the Father, not from Europe, or Africa, or Asia. God incarnate was born of the Virgin in Bethlehem, in an altogether unique event. And that’s where this unique thing called the Church started.
All that conceded, the CIASE nonetheless recognizes: The image of in personal Christi capitis–used to identify what a Catholic clergyman is–it may be a necessary image, but it is still dangerous. The idea can be cruelly exploited, with disastrous consequences. The justifications that have been used to exploit the image must be identified clearly. And unequivocally condemned.
We read in the Rapport Sauvé:
The Commission believes that it is necessary closely to examine the hierarchical constitution of the Catholic Church in view of the internal disagreement concerning its own understanding of itself: between communion and hierarchy; between apostolic succession and synodality; and, essentially, affirmation of the authority of preachers and the reality of grass roots practices which are increasingly influenced by democratic practices.
Granted, these ‘discussion points’ require a vast range of reflection on the part of us Catholics. There are no immediately evident ‘action items’ here.
But who could deny that we do, in fact, very much need to reflect carefully on these very points? I myself have been meditating daily on these ‘internal tensions’ in our religion for the past three years. And it has done me an enormous amount of good.
But the French-intellectual critics of the CIASE can only dismiss this thoughtful recommendation with a sniff. They write: “We can hardly see what practical approach can be suggested by this motley enumeration.”
Motley? How about: Profound, insightful, and deeply challenging–for good reason.
The critics then proceed to poke holes in the CIASE’s concept of ‘reparative justice’ for sex-abuse survivors. The critics explain–with perfect plausibility–that the legal systems now in place, both civil and canonical, cannot be used to obtain the outcome that the CIASE envisions, because the cases are mostly too old.
Again, in their defensiveness, the critics only manage to beg the question. One of the CIASE’s contentions is, in fact, that the canon-law system we now have is inadequate to deal with the problem.
To conclude. In their essay, the CIASE’s critics make a fundamental mistake, the same mistake made time and again by well-meaning Catholics facing the sex-abuse crisis. They see an enemy, where a friend is actually trying to help.
Again, it all seems painfully familiar to me. So let me make a distinction, when it comes to “enemies” of the Church.
Publicly to “incite hatred or animosity” against the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or to “provoke disobedience against them”–this is a crime under canon law, punishable by severe penalties.
But isn’t this canon missing a necessary qualifying phrase? For a real crime to occur, wouldn’t the criminal have to intend to damage the Church?
Without this qualification, the law runs the risk of criminalizing virtuous acts. What if a bishop or pope does something unjust, or even criminal? Was it a crime against the Church when one of McCarrick’s victims went to a journalist in the early 2000’s, to try to get his story out–after he had been brow-beaten and gas-lighted by multiple prelates?
The Chancellor of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, recently published an article interpreting the canon in question here (canon 1373). Chancellor Caridi tsk-tsks public critics of the hierarchy and suggests that we deserve penal sanctions. He writes:
The Church is not an institution instilled with the values of self-governance or a right to protest.
But wait. Isn’t this a straight-up contradiction of the teaching of all the post-Vatican II popes? Don’t we Catholics think that it is precisely our Christian vision of the human person that has given rise to the realm of free speech, open debate, and freedom of conscience that we have traditionally called “the Western world?”
We believe that the magisterium of the Church delivers to us the truths of Divine Revelation, in which we put our absolute faith. But that doesn’t mean that prelates cannot err in their acts of governance. There is no charism of infallibility when it comes to governance.
When it comes to clerical sexual abuse, our prelates have erred in governance–as a body–so grievously, and over such an extended period of time, that reasonable, good people have lost confidence in their judgment.
If open debate about this evident fact results in penal sanctions in the Church, that does not serve good order or Church unity. To the contrary, it only serves as further proof of ecclesiastical misgovernment.