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Catholic Church cannot police itself

Martin Gak
Martin Gak
January 29, 2022

A new report has outlined yet more abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. Its leaders cannot be trusted to deliver justice to victims; the government must step in, writes DW's Martin Gak.

Catholic priests walk in a church
With yet even more child abuse cases coming to light, calls for the Catholic Church and authorities to act are growing louderImage: Julie Sebadelha/ABACAPRESS/picture alliance

Twenty years have passed since the Boston Globe report on the sexual abuse of children by members of the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. The time since has only lengthened the catalogue of horrors, with untold numbers of cases of children abused at the hands of the church across the globe.

Year on year, the numbers have grown as victims have continued to demand redress — and the public has slowly become numb to the magnitude of the crimes. Sporadically, a new report, like the one from last week in Munich, erupts into public view and sheds more light on the scale of the abuse.

Gak Martin portrait
DW's Martin Gak

In Ireland, 9,000 dead children, who died in uncertain circumstances at the infamous mother-and-baby homes, were buried in unmarked graves. The widespread abuse of children in Catholic residential schools in Canada led to at least 6,000 deaths, many discovered in unmarked graves. In France, an independent study estimated last year that since 1945, members of the Catholic church have abused more than 300,000 children.

Conspiracy of silence

But it's not just the abuse itself that makes the history of sexual crimes against minors so profoundly disturbing. The church has shown, in its scandalously sluggish pace of reform, that it is unwilling to invite national authorities to investigate these crimes. Its institutional conspiracy of silence — the protection of the secrecy of confession, and the refusal to make files public or hand them over to authorities — now seem confirmed by the revelations of the Munich and Freising report, which implicated former Pope Benedict XVI, then known as Joseph Ratzinger, in four cases of abuse.

Officials within the Catholic Church aided and abetted crimes against children. What we know now is that the former pope knew of the abuse, helped with the relocation of at least one abuser, and then gave false information about it. The most brutal fact of them all is that this turned out to be the very same man who ultimately became responsible for the clarification, redress of past crimes, and prevention of future ones.

If the response of the church has been pathetically thin and inconsistent, it has still been successful in forestalling a clear political response from national authorities almost everywhere. In the face of these recurring tales of horror, the church has not been able to muster much more than expressions of contrition and various cosmetic changes on internal policy.

It is in this light that one must refer to the Spanish Episcopal Conference's refusal to create a commission to investigate cases of abuse, as well as its refusal to allow independent bodies to do so. In response to a report by newspaper El Pais detailing at least a thousand alleged cases of abuse, the president of the body, Cardinal Juan Jose Orella, predictably expressed "deep pain" for the victims and explained that each diocese would be in charge of "collecting the complaints and accompany the people who have suffered."

Political responsibility

Unwittingly, Cardinal Orella illustrates the very issue that the public and state institutions must face: Church leaders seem to believe that they still have the moral authority to police themselves. Indeed, now in Spain, in an unusual move defying the political might of the Spanish Catholic Church, a group of parliamentarians with the backing from the ruling center-left PSOE has put forth a project for the formation of a legislative commission to investigate sexual crimes allegedly committed by church members against children.

What the revelation in Munich shows is that it has been a failure when political institutions like governments, courts or police allow the church to investigate, judge and ultimately punish itself. Indeed, it has not only been a failure, but also a complete subversion of any reasonable concept of justice in a democratic state. More importantly, it's an egregious dereliction of civic and political duties.

It is important that we do not suppose that the question on the table is just about crimes committed long ago. Certainly, justice for former victims is important. But the more pressing matter is what the situation is in churches, offices and schools at this very hour. The time to rely on the goodwill of the church to safeguard those in its tutelage, or to offer a candid assessment of its own shortcomings, is long gone.

Editor's note: This piece was amended on January 31. In an earlier version the number of victims listed in the current report were compared to the number in a report from 2018. This comparison was taken out of context.