By the Editorial Board
For too long, the Catholic Church ignored and even hid the problem of sexual abuse by its clergy. Pope Francis, to his credit, has instituted reforms that are more far-reaching than his predecessors’. But a disturbing article in The Post by Chico Harlan and Alain Uaykani suggests that the church still has a long way to go in protecting children from predatory clerics and the bishops who enable them — particularly in less developed countries, far from the glare of effective judiciaries and unstinting journalism. There, as the authors write, “the scale of abuse remains both a mystery and a cause for trepidation.”
In one case they describe, a teenage nun-in-training said she had been raped by a priest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an incident that resulted in no serious discipline for the accused assailant owing to what an array of sources described to an elaborate coverup orchestrated by the local bishop, Nicolas Djomo. In the end, a so-called investigation, conducted under the bishop’s auspices and presented to the Vatican, concluded that the allegation was unsubstantiated. The investigators, incredibly, did not even bother to interview the young girl who said she had been raped.
The details of the allegation are chilling, but no less chilling than the successful efforts to sweep it under the rug and ensure that no real accountability was possible, according to The Post’s detailed reporting. In that respect, the pattern of impunity as practiced by the Catholic hierarchy, once so well entrenched in wealthy countries in North America and Europe before the Vatican’s reforms, seems little changed or improved in developing countries where the church remains all but untouchable — and often settles allegations of abuse by means of private payoffs.
Chief among the structural problems is the role played by bishops in so many aspects of church governance, including investigating and disciplining abusive priests. The reforms established by Francis leave accountability almost exclusively in the hands of bishops, who report directly to the pope. Oversight, to the extent it exists, rests in the hands of more senior, or metropolitan bishops, generally based in major urban areas.
That oversight has been exercised only sparingly in Western countries, and scarcely at all in developing nations, where the church is often beyond the law’s meager reach. Unchecked, bishops in those countries generally function as detectives, judges and juries in their dioceses — the same ineffective structure that allowed sexual predation to flourish elsewhere for decades.
In the absence of an effective mechanism to investigate abuse and protect victims, the Vatican must rethink its approach. If that involves establishing its own structure, in Rome, to intervene in fact-finding and discipline where no other credible means exist, then so be it. Without such further reforms, there will be no end to a scandal that has caused the Catholic Church such disrepute, cost it untold billions of dollars, and left so many innocent victims in its wake.
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