Speak No Evil: Vatican Refuses To Talk About Sex Abuse

The pope’s special commission to root out sex abuse in the church goes from bad to worse as one monsignor tells new bishops they’re under no obligation to report abuse to police.

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

ROME — One might think that a commission designed to rid the Catholic Church of its predator priests and try to heal decades of suffering by sex abuse victims might actually be involved in, well, doing just that.

On the contrary, it would seem that Pope Francis’s special Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that he created in 2014 is not exactly getting its hands dirty when it comes to actually teaching bishops how to deal with the problems it has been tasked to deal with.

Writing in The Boston Globe’s Crux website, Vatican expert John Allen points an accusatory finger at the commission, led by a prominent Boston cardinal.

“What’s the point of creating a commission to promote best practices, and putting one of the Church’s most credible leaders on the abuse issue, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in charge of it, and yet not having it address the new leaders who will have to implement those practices?” Allen asks on the heels of the commission’s third meeting in Rome, which wrapped up last weekend.

During the conference, as Allen first reported, a French monsignor with controversial views on homosexuality argued that bishops should have no obligation to report abuse of minors and that the onus should fall on victims and their families.

To be fair, the church does have a training program that has been in place for 15 years for new bishops to learn about theology and therapy for perverted priests. Allen says around 30 percent of the prelates worldwide have taken the course, which is a fairly high number considering how large the Catholic church is and how far into the margins many of its parishes are.

The problem, though, is that the training course in place is not being updated or in any way improved by the presence of the special commission, which, one might think, would consider teaching new bishops how to spot and handle abuse a top priority.

It’s not clear whether there is just a lapse when it comes to integrating commissions and groups that actually do the work, or if it is because of a more intentional oversight. Before the commission started its meetings last week, they secretly gathered at the Santa Marta Domus, where Pope Francis lives, to watch the Academy Award-nominated movie Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s stellar reporting on exposing the sex abuse scandal in the Boston diocese.

The news of the “unofficial screening” came out when Peter Saunders, one of two child sex abuse survivors on the commission, told the Los Angeles Times that he also wished Pope Francis might see it so he truly understood the full extent of the cover-up in dioceses like Boston.

“The film is extremely worrying about the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church, and I think it would be a good moment for the pope to see it,” Saunders said. The pope did not attend, and the next day, Saunders was asked to take a leave of absence from the commission.

“It was decided” that Saunders would take a leave of absence to “consider how he might best support the commission’s work,” the Vatican said in announcing the move. Saunders held his own press conference and told reporters that he wouldn’t step down until and unless Francis himself asked him.

Saunders had been increasingly frustrated with the commission’s slow pace, telling the media that their work was futile. “The last meeting in October was a non-event,” he said. “I was told that Rome was not built in a day—but the problem is that it takes seconds to rape a child.”

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Other survivors have expressed similar concerns. “The Pope’s abuse panel will issue recommendations. The Pope will adopt them. And nothing will improve. Why? Because there will be no enforcement,” says David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, called SNAP. “Why? Because the church hierarchy is an entitled, rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy. No new protocols or policies or procedures will radically undo a centuries-old self-serving structure that rewards clerics who keep a tight lid on child sex crimes and cover-ups.”

Clohessy says the clear answer to this crisis remains outside of the church hierarchy “with victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers speaking up and with police, prosecutors and secular authorities stepping up.”

But if the Vatican’s own special commission can’t even get a word in to help solve the problem, it seems an impossible dream that anyone else might have better luck.