The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims

Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl had raised hopes that an important step had been taken in the sexual abuse cases plaguing the Catholic Church. However, by praising Cardinal Wuerl’s service to the church, and keeping him as the archdiocese’s caretaker until he appointed his successor, Pope Francis gave a step backward and disappointed many sexual abuse victims.

According to a Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church released last August, six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Cardinal Wuerl of helping to protect some priests that molested children while he was Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. The report said Cardinal Wuerl had accepted the advice of psychologists in allowing priests accused of sexually abusing children to remain in the ministry.

It also said that Cardinal Wuerl’s had been mentioned more than 200 times in relation to his poor handling of accusations against abusing priests. Cardinal Wuerl tried to deflect responsibility by saying that the cases had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s when the church hadn’t yet developed clear policies on sexual abuse. “I think I did everything that I possibly could,” Cardinal Wuerl said in a television interview.

The incongruity of his defense was refuted after drawing strong criticism. Cardinal Wuerl, in a sad letter to his archdiocese, accepted responsibility for the actions described in the grand jury report, saying, “I wish that I could redo some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and each time get it right.” However, it must be stressed that in addition to the cover-up, the church avoided reporting the abuses to the police. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, said at the time that the grand jury report clearly showed that Cardinal Wuerl had participated in the cover-up.

In accepting Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation pope Francis wrote, “You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

Pope Francis’ support for Cardinal Wuerl could be explained by the archbishop’s support for the social and political changes that the Pope is trying to achieve within the Catholic Church. The Pope himself is being attacked by conservative members of the church because of these actions. Given the extent of Pope Francis’ intended reforms, it is plausible that not too many high officials in the church support him, particularly if these actions curtail their benefits.

By calling Cardinal Wuerl’s actions simply “mistakes”, and by keeping him as a member of the Congregation of Bishops, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to realize the grave harm that the priests’ actions have caused, and the almost irreparable damage done to the Catholic Church. The result of the abuse carried out by thousands of priests around the globe has left people psychologically damaged, many of whom will probably never be able to overcome the consequences of these disgraceful incidents.

The credibility of the Catholic Church as an institution has been shattered by the extent of the abuses. Unless this is acknowledged, and those guilty of the abuse or their cover-up are properly investigated and punished, the Catholic Church will continue to lose believers in droves, and cease to be the place of spiritual comfort that people desperately need.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.