As expectations about the imminence of the pope’s visit to Malta, Francis is facing something of a crisis at home.

The sexual abuse scandal recently revealed in the French Church is utterly shocking and devastating for those directly and indirectly affected. As in many other countries, the scandal represents a deep-rooted challenge to French society.

Last June, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis was a worldwide ‘catastrophe’ and in response to the French revelations he described it as a ‘moment of shame’. 

This scandal is but the latest to characterise the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, which has been severely damaged over the past 20 years by sexual abuse crimes.

These crimes have routinely involved children. The details of these scandals have been horrific, with debilitating consequences for those abused and for their families.

They have caused immense trauma and have scarred the lives of hundreds of thousands of known victims in all parts of the world. They are now far beyond being a matter of ‘shame’ and have been revealed as systemic criminality, institutional indifference and a fundamental abuse of power.  

A report published last year in the UK noted that the Catholic Church received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sex abuse in England and Wales between 1970 and 2015, with more than 100 reported allegations a year since 2016. The Vatican has acknowledged reports on abuse cases in over 30 countries worldwide, including Malta.

Just last month, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cologne decided to take a ‘spiritual time out’ from his church duties after admitting to grave ‘errors’ in the handling of clerical sexual abuse.

The latest report from France underpins the argument that this cannot be characterised as a matter for the Church alone but must be tackled by society at large. These scandals cast a very dark shadow on deviant human sexual behaviour, especially when linked with status and power. Research over the past decade suggests that the figure for abuse of children by adults in the Catholic Church is roughly similar to that in the general adult population.

The sexual exploitation of children is without doubt a major crisis for the Catholic Church but also more broadly for society at large.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has taken a series of steps aimed at eliminating sexual abuse of minors by clerics. In 2019, Francis issued a groundbreaking decree making bishops fully accountable for sexual abuse or for covering it up. However, for victims and for many critics the decree fell far short of what is needed in that it only required clerics to report abuse to Church superiors but not to state authorities. 

Critics continue to insist that the Church has simply not done enough. They insist that all too often the Church had been at best indifferent to the abuses for years, preferring to protect itself rather than the victims, many of them from very vulnerable age groups.

As has been demonstrated in the French report, while the height of the abuse was recorded between 1950 and 1970, there had been an apparent resurgence in the early 1990s with a recognition that reports of abuse are increasing across countries in the developing world.

The first priority must be the victims of such abuse, hearing their voices and stories and providing effective support and care. Secondly, the Church needs to clamp down on those giving it a bad name.

Finally, society itself needs to confront this evil.

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