ROME—At a time when systematic child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests has scandalized the global church, it may seem like warning priests not to get naked with children would go without saying. But that’s clearly not the case in Chile, where there are more than 120 active investigations into clerical sex abuse and where all of the country’s bishops offered their resignations en masse to Pope Francis.
Because of such demonstrable problems, but obviously with little thought for appearances, Santiago Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati released detailed guidelines this week for local priests that suggests more than a few recurrent issues. Among them, priests should not “give hugs that are too tight, slap the buttocks, touch the area of the genitals or the breast, or recline or sleep with children or adolescents.”
The document also urges priests not to take pictures of children who are nude or in the shower, and not to “fight or play games that involve touching yourself in an inappropriate way.” The authors add that clergy should not to “give massages, hug from behind, kiss the mouth of children, adolescents, or vulnerable people” and to avoid all behaviors that can be “misinterpreted.”
The nine-page Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, which was released in Spanish on the archdiocese website and called “Guidelines Promoting Good Treatment and Healthy Pastoral Coexistence,” was immediately criticized by support groups for those who were abused by priests as tone-deaf and indicative of an utter lack of understanding when it comes to the root causes of clerical sex abuse and its widespread cover-up.
That the document was released at all in such a troubled place as Chile, underscores just how difficult it is to make local dioceses anywhere understand how important this issue is and how much work is left to be done. Wouldn’t priests already know not to take nude pictures of children or kiss them on the mouth?
The local archdiocese in Chile was surprised at the criticism, but eventually admitted that the document should have been written using different and conciliatory language that didn't suggest the actions described were just little peccadilloes that might be taken wrong. But the archdiocese maintained that the guidelines served as an important reminder at a crucial moment. “We’ve made a mistake and we’re going to fix it,” Auxiliary Santiago Bishop Cristian Roncagliolo told local Chilean news outlets. “A crime is a crime.”
“This is a bizarre and frightening document,” Anne Barrett Doyle of the online abuse database BishopAccountability.org told the Associated Press. “It reveals the dangerous mindset of the Chilean bishops.”
“Even in this era of supposed penitence and reform, they remain weirdly removed from healthy social norms of child protection,” she said. “The recommendations give us a window into the rationalizations of Cardinal Ezzati in particular. They show his apparent inability to be horrified at behavior that constitutes child molestation.”
That lack of empathy for the victims is one of the most troubling aspects of the clerical sex abuse epidemic. Francesco Zanardi, head of the Abuse Network in Italy, says that Latin American countries like Chile or European countries like Italy, where Catholic church influence is strong, are particularly reluctant to clamp down on the church because people tend to idolize clergy. A similar set of guidelines stating what should be the obvious was released in Italy last summer.
Similar directives are on the books in parishes throughout the world and are especially common in seminaries where priests in training are not always vetted for psychological disorders that lead to pedophilia and sexually abusive behavior.
Victims groups like the one run by Zanardi have consistently called for seminarians to be screened and a more rigorous vetting system put in place so potential abusers aren’t allowed into the priesthood. Time and again, priests accused of clerical sex abuse exhibited behavior within the first years as priests, which calls into question why such people are ordained in the first place. There currently are no standard criteria for accepting men into seminaries that deal specifically with these risks. Each country is left to construct its own criteria for vetting clergy.
In the United States, diocese often release “guidelines” and “suggestions” for how not to “be perceived” as abusing children. In Italy, the impetus is often put on the parishioners, with parent groups in Catholic schools simply advising new parents not to leave their kids alone with priests.
“It’s sort of a joke, but it’s not really that funny,” Marcella, a mother of three young boys who attend Pio Nonno Catholic School in Rome, told The Daily Beast. “But the kids all know to avoid being alone with any of the priests and that solves a lot of the problems.”
On Wednesday, Pope Francis convened a month-long synod of worldwide Catholic bishops in Rome. The meeting, called "Young People, The Faith, and Vocational Discernment” has raised eyebrows among many who believe that holding a global meeting on Catholic youth at a time when so many are victims, is another sign that the church just doesn’t get it and is instead upholding the status quo and doing business as usual.
The official meeting will not dedicate any sessions to clerical sex abuse, in part because another synod will be held in February 2019 dedicated entirely to the sordid topic. But many in attendance hope to raise the issue within their working groups and to use the occasion to call attention to a festering problem, especially in sessions relating to vocation and in recruiting those who are called to the priesthood.
There will also be several side events during the official synod, including gatherings dedicated to victims of clerical sex abuse from all over the world. Zanardi, who is holding a sit-in on Wednesday to call attention to the lack of attention to Italian clerical sex abuse, says they will never stop trying to shine a light on the problem. “We have been silenced for too long,” he says. “But the silence is getting louder and soon even the pope won’t be able to ignore the obvious any longer. Clerical abuse is the church’s fault, not the victim’s fault.”