The movie Spotlight’s Best Picture win at the Academy Awards has brought renewed attention to the Catholic sex abuse scandals that broke in 2002. But while the Church’s failures are well-known, it is also true that the Catholic Church has made more progress than any other body on this issue.
There are several marks of progress: the removal and canonical punishment of clergy who commit sex abuse, especially high-level churchmen and leaders of religious movements; papal meetings with victims; reform of church law; and the creation of new church structures.
The Church has always been concerned about what canon law calls “the most serious crimes.” Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law and a 1922 instruction from the Vatican, sexual abuse of minors was treated as “the worst crime,” a “crimen pessimum,” which was to be reported to the Holy Office — later known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church moved to decentralize the judgment of these cases and to value the authority and judgment of local bishops.
In some cases, the canon law process was dismissed as anachronistic in favor of a so-called “pastoral approach.” This meant from 1962 to 2001 only a few cases of abuse — those in which the priest abused the Sacrament of Penance — would go to the Holy Office.
In 1983, the new code of Canon Law was issued. But the norms gave birth to complicated procedures that made it difficult to laicize abusive priests. Bishops were still tasked with filing charges against priests who committed sex abuse. These charges were handled by the Congregation for the Clergy. But some dioceses failed to report sexual abuse cases to Rome and neglected to take measures against priests. Often, dioceses merely transferred these priests.
In 2001, St. John Paul II issued legislation that transferred authority to investigate abuses cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which was headed at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope John Paul II expanded this congregation’s duties to address many more cases of clergy sexual abuse. As prefect, Ratzinger identified major failures in addressing sex abuse.
When Ratzinger became pope in 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI, he carried forward an approach based on justice and awareness of the Church’s shortcomings. His papacy gave enormous impetus to the fight against sex abuse by clergy.
According to data presented by the CDF to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in January 2014, Benedict XVI defrocked hundreds of priests for past sexual abuse from 2009-2012 alone.
In May 2005, Pope Benedict laicized Fr. Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for sexual abuse.
A year later, in May 2006, Benedict disciplined Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ. He condemned the priest to a life of penance removed from any public position.
In 2007, Benedict required the France-based Community of the Beatitudes to be re-founded, given that some of its members abused children. In 2011, the community would acknowledge the faults of some of its members, including its founder.
Four years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith completed its investigation of Fr. Fernando Karadima, a Chilean accused of molesting children. The civil case against him had been dismissed due to the age of the allegations. The CDF, however, declared the 84-year-old priest guilty.
Benedict XVI’s papacy included both global and local approaches to fighting sex abuse. In 2011, the CDF sent a letter to the world’s bishops’ conferences, asking them to adopt stringent guidelines to fight such abuse by May 2012.
The letter highlighted five key points: assistance to victims of sexual abuse; protection of minors; education of future priests and religious; how to respond to accusations against priests; and collaboration with civil authorities.
Meanwhile, Benedict XVI responded specifically to the Catholic bishops of Ireland, who went to Rome twice to speak with him about sex abuse. After these meetings, Benedict wrote a March 2010 pastoral letter to the country’s Catholics.
He particularly noted a “misguided tendency” against applying canonical punishments that arose due to misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council.
The Pope announced an apostolic visitation and provided criteria to tackle cases of abuse.
In March 2012, Benedict issued guidelines to prevent abuse of minors and to involve the faithful in abuse prevention. The document stressed full cooperation with civil authorities in reporting accusations. The document also required that archbishops ensure that any new cases of abuse be forwarded to civil authorities and to the CDF.
Pope Francis continued these efforts after his February 2013 election. The same month of his election, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland resigned from the Archbishopric of St. Andrews and Edinburgh after news coverage of charges that he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior towards priests. Francis evaluated the results of a Vatican inquiry of the cardinal’s action. He approved the cardinal’s resignation from the cardinalate in March 2015, an extremely rare event in Church history.
The Pope had a strong response to the case of Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, who served as apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic from 2008-2013. The nuncio resigned after accusations that he paid for sexual relations with minors. He was put on trial by the CDF and in July 2014, was found guilty of the accusations under Church law. The Vatican punished him with laicization, the strongest canonical penalty.
Though there is no extradition treaty between the Vatican and the Dominican Republic, Vatican officials expressed their willingness to hand over Wesolowski to civil authorities in the Dominican Republic. The nuncio died of natural causes in August 2015 while on house arrest. The Vatican’s criminal case against him was still ongoing at that time.
Pope Francis has also moved to create new church bodies to combat abuse. In December 2013 he established a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, following a recommendation of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
The Pope created a special group within the CDF to hear the cases of high-ranking clerics charged with the most serious crimes. He has also begun to study the possibility of introducing to canon law the crime of “abuse of office” for bishops who fail to fulfill their responsibilities to prosecute sex abuse.
In addition to disciplinary measures against abusers, the Church has also worked at the highest level to reach out to victims.
Benedict XVI met with abuse victims several times: during his 2008 visits to the U.S. and Australia, during his 2010 visits to Malta and the United Kingdom, and during his 2011 visit to Germany.
The meetings with victims had immediate effects. In the U.K., victims came forward with more reports of past abuse. Soon after the Pope visited Malta, he defrocked a Maltese priest convicted of sex abuse in a criminal trial. Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, then Promoter of Justice of the Holy See, said that Benedict pushed the Church of Malta and its investigative bodies to accelerate their work.
Pope Francis continues these efforts. He met sex abuse victims in July 2014 at the Vatican — the first such meeting within Vatican walls. He also met with victims in the United States during his September 2015 visit.