Sex Abuse Problems Persist Inside The Roman Catholic Church
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today's report out of Pennsylvania is hardly the first detailing extensive allegations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. We have heard these stories at least since 2002 when The Boston Globe revealed a massive cover-up of sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. So why has the Catholic Church had such a hard time responding to this issue?
Well, here to consider that question is NPR's Tom Gjelten, who covers religion for us. And, Tom, I wonder what in particular jumped out at you just listening to the findings of this report.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, as you heard from Katie Meyer's report, I mean, to say this report is horrific is an understatement. I mean, it's so graphic - hundreds of priests raping children described in great detail. And the notion that these guys were considered men of God is just beyond belief. But they were.
GJELTEN: What got me was the attitude of the church and the bishops who oversaw these priests. Let me read just this little section from the report. (Reading) The abuse was occurring not only by its own people but on its own property. Children were raped in places of worship, in schools and in diocesan-owned vehicles. The bishops weren't just aware of what was going on. They were immersed in it, and they went to great lengths to keep it secret.
KELLY: Yeah, that was something that struck me listening there - this focus on church and bishop responsibility. Is that different than we have seen before?
GJELTEN: Well, yeah because I think often the abuse has been seen as something done by individual priests. That's how the church has generally responded to this. Back in 2002 after the Boston story broke, U.S. Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas and approved a package of reforms that called for punishing priests. But it really didn't address what to do about the bishops who supervised them. I spoke about this today with Terry McKiernan. He's the president and founder of an organization called Bishop Accountability. And in his view, this report today with its broad sweep really leaves the church in crisis.
TERRY MCKIERNAN: This is incredibly uncomfortable for the Catholic Church. It's always dealt with these problems as problems with the priests when it dealt with them at all. Now the whole system is on view.
GJELTEN: And remember, Mary Louise. This report comes just a month after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, in response to allegations that he had sexually abused minors and seminarians over several decades.
KELLY: Is it clear that church leaders recognize this as a crisis, I mean, including an up to the Vatican?
GJELTEN: Well, some certainly do. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston who Pope Francis appointed to lead a Commission for the Protection of Minors, says this scandal is threatening, quote, "the already weakened moral authority of the church." Here in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl in a recent interview said this is a grave moment for the church. Now, of course Cardinal Wuerl was named in that Pennsylvania report as having some responsibility for this cover-up, but he put out a statement late today, an angry statement accusing the Pennsylvania attorney general of deliberately misquoting him.
As for Pope Francis, three years ago, he approved the creation of a tribunal to judge bishops who were covering up sexual abuse. He appointed that Commission for the Protection of Minors, and he took action against bishops in Chile who were accused of covering abusive priests. But the tribunal never got organized. The commission's recommendations have largely been ignored. And in Chile, the authorities apparently weren't impressed by what the pope had done. Just today, they conducted a series of raids into church offices, looking for evidence they say the church did not turn over to them.
KELLY: Well, let me circle you back to the question I introduced you with, which was the why. Why has this been so hard for the church to deal with?
GJELTEN: Well, Mary Louise, the Catholic Church is 2,000 years old.
GJELTEN: And it identifies itself with tradition and permanence. I think change is just something that's really hard for the Catholic Church to deal with. Also remember; Catholic doctrine teaches that priests and bishops and cardinals and the pope are the representatives of Christ on Earth. So it's very hard I think for them to take action against them. This scandal is forcing the church to confront a reality it's not comfortable confronting.
KELLY: Context and history there from NPR's religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: Of course.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.