When a crime occurs, it is the collective responsibility of society, the Church and the state to ensure justice
The media, both secular and religious, are perhaps tired of exposing and reporting the clerical sex abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church in Europe, the Americas, Australia and parts of Asia for decades.
Priests being accused, arrested or punished for their sinful and criminal acts relating to abuse of children and vulnerable people are no longer special news items. Except for the affected (or shocked) community and families of the victims, such cases receive less public attention today.
But the cover-ups and complicity in such crimes by high-ranking church officials including bishops and cardinals are still media hotcakes.
Thus, the Vatican’s strong punitive actions against Polish Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz of Wroclaw on Nov. 6, and publication of the report of the Vatican’s inquiry on the rise and fall of American ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his sexual abuse of boys and young men on Nov. 10, are causes of significant media and public attention.
Pope Francis has banned Cardinal Gulbinowicz from public ministries, public appearances and the use of a bishop’s insignia. He also cannot be buried in the archdiocesan cathedral after his death. The Vatican didn’t give details of accusations against the 97-year-old cardinal, but he has been told to pay compensation to a charity foundation set up by Polish bishops to help victims of sexual abuse.
Ex-cardinal McCarrick, 90, was stripped of his rank in 2018 and laicized in 2019 after the Vatican inquiry found allegations of sex abuse of young men against him as a priest and a bishop as “credible and substantiated.”
The defrocking of two cardinals shows how far the crime of abuse has crept into the Church, from the lowest to the highest rank.
Abuse scandals in Europe and America are old stories, but the churches there have learned great lessons despite bracing for irreparable damage, financially and morally.
For instance, officials vowed to uphold the Polish Church’s commitment to tackle the abuse crisis and apologized. Father Rafal Kowalski, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Wroclaw, called the development a “a sign that things are not swept under the carpet in the Church and that there is no reduced tariff for anyone” while speaking to US-based Crux Now. “People were hurt, and this is the moment to tell them — we’re sorry.”
An impending crisis
In Asia, where Catholics are a minority in most places except the Philippines and Timor-Leste, sex abuse scandals have been prevalent, though relatively lower in number than in Europe, America and Australia.
Priests and bishops have been accused, laicized and arrested for complicity and cover-ups for sexual abuses in countries including the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Japan, Bangladesh and Timor-Leste over the years.
Despite such actions, most Asian churches are still far away from confronting an impending and insidious crisis. That is mostly because the church hierarchy is still in denial that serious problems persist that need to be fixed for healing.
Japanese bishops are an exception. In a detailed report published in April, the bishops issued the results of an investigation into sex abuse from as early as the 1950s.
The corrective paths taken in Europe, the Americas and Japan have not been followed accordingly in most Asian churches despite Pope Francis’ repeated calls for zero tolerance of sexual abuse.
Perhaps many church leaders are still struggling to grasp the difference between the Church’s notion of sin and the legal parameters of crime and punishment.
In November 2011, the Office of the Clergy of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) held a closed-door meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, to address growing concerns in Asia over sexual abuse within the Church.
The media were banned by the organizers, who refused to comment on the outcome, but the meeting reportedly intended to formulate specific guidelines to deal with abuse. What happened next is still unknown.
In February 2019, the world’s Catholic bishops and senior leaders met in Rome on Pope Francis’ invitation to discuss clerical sex abuse and find ways to deal with it properly.
An observer noted that Western bishops dealt with the issue of abuse candidly, but Asian bishops skirted the issue “in a typically stoic manner.” She noted that in a press conference the bishops of Asia and Africa stated that sex abuse was not their problem.
It is hard to believe any drastic change from the stance is possible in just over one year, and it remains to be seen if the Vatican’s stringent actions against two top cardinals will make any considerable wave of change in Asia.
If not, the question may arise whether or not the Asian churches, with a centuries-old heritage of Christian faith in many countries, have really grown up spiritually and matured enough to face a global crisis head on.
All crimes are sin
The Church exists on relationships — between God and people, and people to people, whether through liturgy, missionary activities and social services.
These vital relationships are hurt and broken when a sin is committed. Sin is not just offense and revolt against God, but “Sin is an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1849)
We should not forget that all sin may not be crimes but all crimes are sin. A sin is committed when we resort to thoughts and actions against “the divine law,” but a crime is prescribed by laws of the land on earth.
The Church might forgive sins through confession and repentance, but when a crime occurs it is the collective responsibility of society, the Church and the state to ensure justice.
Too often the church hierarchy fails to internalize the difference between a sin and a crime and doesn’t act accordingly. That’s why we see in many places the hierarchy sides with abusers, not victims, and the policy of silence persists.
Pope Francis has been a strong global advocate of mercy since he became the bishop of Rome. He could easily forgive two elderly cardinals charged with sex abuse, but he didn’t.
The Jesuit pope is also a man of justice and has been rightfully backing up his words with actions. In 2017, he called for “all-out battle against the abuse of minors” as he abolished the age-old rule of pontifical secrecy that allowed cover-ups of abuse cases. He opened ways for reporting suspicion of sexual abuse to civil authorities.
We can only hope and pray that church leaders in Asia take their cue from the pope and follow in his footsteps before the abuse crisis gets any worse and it is too late to act.