There is no greater issue in the Catholic Church today than that of child abuse. The Church’s credibility and future depend on how this problem is handled and solved.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing claims of sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by 301 priests makes for very painful reading. The accounts are truly horrific and display the pain and suffering experienced by victims. My thoughts are with all the victims, survivors and their loved ones. They have shown great courage by coming forward.

When examining the Church leadership’s response to child abuse cases it’s important to recognise that times have changed and what was acceptable decades ago is considered differently now. This does not excuse the mishandling of cases in the past but it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.

With this perspective in mind, I quote Cardinal Sean O’Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, who said: “The clock is ticking for the Church leadership to take action”. This is very true. The Church needs to take firm steps to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and make sure Church leaders take proper responsibility for whatever actions they take or fail to take. This needs to be done today without further delay.

There is a sense of urgency felt by many Catholics around the world, which I believe is the only hope the Church has to regain credibility in this field. This ought to be converted into a collective willpower for meaningful change in the governance overseeing abuse cases, which till a few moments ago seemed set in stone.

Bishops who knew about wrongdoing and failed to protect victims need to take responsibility and be held accountable for their decisions and actions. There is no option for them but to resign or be removed.

Better governance structures are needed within the Church. One option could be to have a new Review Board for evaluating stewardship in child protection issues handled by bishops or religious provincials.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report indicates that priests may not be best placed to take decisions in cases of abuse of children or vulnerable people by fellow priests. Therefore, such a review board needs to be manned by lay professionals and decisions should be informed by research.

The Episcopal Conference in Chile was the first to be held accountable, after Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s report earlier this year. After reading the Grand Jury report, it is clear that others in Pennsylvania should follow.

Bishops who knew about wrongdoing and failed to protect victims need to be held accountable

Abusers thrive in secrecy and darkness. It is extremely important that any failures to protect the vulnerable come to light. Laws and policies are essential to keep children safe but these are not enough; strict enforcement is also needed.

The Church needs a change in culture. A culture based on secrecy and self-preservation only serves perpetrators while doing a great injustice to the victims and survivors. Our collective aim should be to have a high level of trust wherever the Church is present.

Returning to the Grand Jury report, it is a fact that since 2002 the number of cases has significantly diminished if not almost disappeared. This was when the Church in America took proactive steps to safeguard children. This shows prevention works and the laity play a key role in this success. However, it is wrong to use this as a shield or excuse to protect the Church. A victim who suffered abuse 20 years ago is as important as one who is abused today. Abuse was no more acceptable then than it is now.

Among other things, the report recommends that in criminal cases of sexual child abuse the statute of limitations should be abolished. This is essential since research shows victims take a significant amount of time (often many years, even decades) to come forward and speak about the abuse they suffered.

I have read several commentaries which tar all priests with the same brush. This is highly inaccurate and untrue. The overwhelming majority of priests contribute to our communities and are sound moral leaders, although they’re often not publicly applauded for their work.

In his Letter to the People of God, Pope Francis identified clericalism as a deep-rooted problem in the Church. If clericalism means Church leaders around the world think clerics should be favoured or that saving the reputation of the Church at all costs is a virtue, then I agree this is a major concern.

The Church needs to revisit its own vision espoused in Vatican II, specifically in Lumen Gentium, which seeks much greater involvement of lay people, especially of women, in the Church, even in leadership posts.

Pope Francis stated that when one suffers we all suffer. Victims and survivors have a lot to teach us about the dynamics of abuse. Let us keep learning from their experiences and make our organisations safer for children and vulnerable people.

Andrew Azzopardi, a child protection specialist, is Head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission.


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