The Vatican Hotline Outrage

The Catholic Church’s move to open a hotline to report sex abuse has infuriated victims who say it’s another ploy to keep the church’s darkest secrets under lock and key.

03.31.10 12:15 AM ET

The Roman Catholic Church is the last place victims of predator priests should turn to. That, according to victims, is how the church got into this mess in the first place. And it’s why victims’ groups are outraged by a new church-sponsored hotline for victims to report alleged crimes.

“Victims should tell loved ones and police first,” said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. “Calling the church should be a last resort.”

The church does not agree. On Tuesday, days after SNAP inaugurated a new support group for church abuse victims in Pope Benedict’s home country of Germany, a local bishop there, Stephan Ackermann, announced the creation of the hotline.

“Reports of abuse should go to the independent professionals in law enforcement, not the biased, self-serving staff in chancery offices.”

As the world’s Catholics celebrate the solemn Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday this weekend, the mother church in Rome is strategizing a complex defense to combat both the growing number of alleged victim accusations and a slew of new sex abuse lawsuits against the Vatican itself.

At the heart of the controversy is not the crime itself, pedophilia, but the cover-up by church officials. Hundreds of Catholics across Europe and the United States who claim to have been abused by priests as children have come forward in the last few months, each with a similar story. When they or their families told church officials about the sexual abuse, they either were accused of lying or they were asked to sign an agreement not to go to the civil authorities.

Leaders of SNAP warn that the hotline is not a useful outlet for victims and survivors of abuse. Instead they say it is a new layer of self-protective bureaucracy for the church to hide behind. “We urge victims to not call this phone number, for their sake and the sake of others,” the organizers of SNAP announced in a global press release. “Reports of abuse should go to the independent professionals in law enforcement, not the biased, self-serving staff in chancery offices.”

But that is rarely how it works. In nearly every case of abuse, victims and their families have felt unable or unwilling to tell anyone outside the church. And when they did, local law enforcement officials were often complicit with the church and dissuaded the victims from pressing criminal charges. Even when priests did confess to the abuse or were found guilty by internal church investigations, the local diocese often paid off the victims to avoid criminal prosecution. Very few priests ever serve prison time for child abuse, even when they admit to the crimes. The Vatican policy has always hinged on silence by both the victims and abusers. Predator priests were often removed from pastoral duties, at least temporarily, and either put on sabbatical or sent to counseling until they repented and rehabilitated. Often they were returned to new parishes with no warning to the local authorities that they were known sex offenders.

Now all that may be changing. In Ireland, Australia, and several U.S. states, victims are filing class action lawsuits against local police authorities for not protecting them or, for the first time ever in a case in Kentucky, against the Vatican itself in an attempt to hold the higher church accountable for its policies condoning the cover-up. If that case goes to court, the pope could be called as a witness or, more likely and ultimately more useful, internal church documents referring to reports of child abuse could theoretically be subpoenaed.

The Vatican seems to be preparing for a fight. The Associated Press discovered key legal documents that outline the Vatican’s defense. The most important elements that will serve to protect the pope from prosecution and will likely keep him from being forced to resign are nothing more than loopholes. As head of state, the pope enjoys immunity and cannot be prosecuted. And abusive priests and those involved in cover-ups within the local dioceses are not employees of the Vatican, and as such must be prosecuted independently. The Vatican, which for so many years has worked to protect the priests at all costs, now has little choice but to distance itself from the offenders to survive this growing scandal.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.