Will a new pontiff signify a better approach to child abuse?

Guest Blogger: Judy Courtin

yb26vnn2-1335341641Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina is the first Jesuit to be elected Pope. He is also the first South American to be Pontiff. Amongst other things, he is known for his social justice values and his inclusiveness. Another first is his choice of name, Francis I, after Francis of Assisi, the wealthy son of a merchant who gave away his earthly belongings to take up the causes for the poor.

The tasks facing Pope Francis are colossal and include the sex abuse crisis; falling numbers in the pews, especially in the west; homosexuality; same-sex marriage; contraception; women priests; embracing a more secular world, and, perhaps the toughest challenge of all, managing and persuading the powerful men of the Curia.

But the millions of Catholics and others calling for change within the church may be waiting for some time before any likely reforms trickle down from Francis to his flock. This is because we have a conservative, misogynistic and headstrong Catholic hierarchy pursuing centuries-old male doctrines. Such a medieval behemoth does not reconstruct itself overnight, despite the efforts and intentions of a reputable and reformist Pope.

In relation to the sex abuse scandal, there are possibly hundreds of thousands of children and vulnerable adults who have been raped, sexually assaulted, tortured and brutally physically assaulted by Catholic clergy around the world. These people and their families continue to suffer terribly with suicide, premature deaths and troubled and difficult lives.

In relation to the outgoing Pope, Francis must deal with the fact that Benedict had personal knowledge, most of it documented, of thousands of cases of clergy sex and other crimes, and that he allegedly covered up these crimes and protected and embraced his clergy offenders.

One of the problems for the new Pope is that such concealment, or silence, has been church law for hundreds of years, any breach of which threatens excommunication. Such a deeply embedded culture, or law, which conflicts markedly with the secular codes, will not be repealed without considerable angst and lengthy battles in the papal corridors of power.

Maintaining that silence about clergy child rape has served to prop up the church and inoculate its clerics from secular justice and punishment. At the same time, this worldwide and institutional silence has enabled, if not encouraged, the rapists to continue their evil.

To date, there has been steadfast resistance by the church to support victims, to fess up, to open up the archives and be accountable. This is in stark contrast to a church that is contrite.

So what should we expect of Pope Francis?

It is hoped that he will put victims and their families first and pursue a reformist agenda. But, as said earlier, this will not happen overnight as the Catholic Church, as well as being secretive, is also slow moving, self-serving and legalistic. Also, it is not in the church’s interests, in terms of its global power base and its assets worth billions of dollars, to come clean and to provide justice to victims.

Even though this new Pope comes with a social justice pedigree and commentary from Frank Brennan that his election is a ‘John XXIII-moment’, victims and survivors cannot afford to wait for the requisite changes if justice is to be delivered. It is for governments the world over to take immediate action and to excise themselves politically and economically from the burly hip of the church.

Governments must stand up to the church, just as the Australian government has done with its royal commission, and breathe new life into the requisite secular laws that will help bring about criminal prosecutions and accountability of the guilty ones.

Governments also need to reform the many laws that protect the church from suit, that hide its black money and protect this multibillion-dollar international business. It is with our secular laws that we must seek justice for victims.

Governments must display courage and conviction and draw an authentic and effective partition between the state and the church. Canon law is designed to protect the church and the holy men. Secular law, inter alia, is designed to protect the victims and children.

In the end, if there is government action or if the church reforms under Pope Francis, it will not have been initiated from within those two organisations. Rather, it will have been the lionhearted and valiant survivors and their families who forced such change.

They are the ones who have spoken out. They are the ones, through tragedy and loss and against all odds, who have displayed the necessary integrity and fortitude to bring about change.

It is hoped Pope Francis will follow their lead.

Judy Courtin is a lawyer who is completing a PhD in the Monash Faculty of Law on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She will be speaking on the topic at the Castan Centre annual conference on 26 July in Melbourne. A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times.

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