— Its cover-up is causing many good people to lose faith and trust in the institutional Church
By Father Shay Cullen
The shocking truth about clerical sexual abuse of minors and women religious was revealed in research by Missio Aachen released in 2020. The pressures on women religious never to complain are immense. They are told by priests that suffering in silence is a great virtue.
Complaining of abuse invites retaliation and even expulsion from their congregation, the research reveals. These are secret crimes now being exposed around the world to the shame and embarrassment of the members of the institutional Church.
The abuse will end and the victims and survivors shall be free only when the truth is revealed, accountability is fixed and justice is done by convicting and punishing the abusers.
It seems that priests, called representatives of God once ordained, have a special entitlement to abuse minors and women religious, and enjoy impunity from accountability. That concept is now changing and a few abusive priests are being held accountable. However, putting them on trial is meeting strong resistance from some bishops and priests who protect clerical abusers.
Some Church authorities believe they and their priests are above the law of the state and some even flout the instructions of Pope Francis to report abuse. Denial and the covering-up of crimes by protecting the abusers is common practice, according to women religious who responded to the research questionnaire.
The research by Missio, a reliable, renowned, trustworthy international German Church-based organization, has gathered much evidence from women religious in Asia and Africa. Based on a professionally designed questionnaire that was circulated to women’s and men’s religious congregations and institutions, the results are disturbing and enlightening.
“It is not possible to speak openly about exploitation, oppression, sexual assault, etc. without having to fear acts of reprisal”
The short questionnaire had six core questions and a cover letter. It was designed “to give the respondents the maximum space to describe their experiences as well as their personal view in their own words.”
Missio received 101 completed questionnaires. “From the 101 completed questionnaires, 91 percent were completed by women, mostly by sisters belonging to a religious order and nine percent by men, all diocesan priests or priests belonging to a religious order.”
The majority of the respondents gave the issue of abuse of women religious a very high level of importance. When asked what the Church was doing to address the issue the overall answer was: “Not much was being done.”
In summary, the respondents reported the reasons for this inaction by Church authorities because of a culture of denial, a sense of entitlement and a policy to conceal crimes and cover-up.
Some respondents said speaking out against abuse is taboo. One respondent said, “it is not possible to speak openly about exploitation, oppression, sexual assault, etc. without having to fear acts of reprisal or reputational damage.”
Others said the “efforts to consider cases of abuse within the Church [e.g. to carry out a study on the subject], are thwarted.”
Another group said “priests [that abuse women religious] are not sanctioned but assigned to another parish.”
Another convent of nuns said that “after the abuse in a religious convent, we sent a letter to all the authorities concerned, no authority signaled or sent an acknowledgment of receipt.”
Others said “the local Church is not ready to speak up openly as it would be a scandal; rather they even try to dissuade those who have the courage to do so.”
Yet another said “experiences of violation and exploitation that women religious encounter in their lives is not acknowledged as abuse.”
“How can the abuse of children and women religious be ignored, covered up and tolerated on a massive scale?”
Besides, it works to the advantage of local Church authorities to keep women religious where they are because they remain “a silent and silenced lot.”
The vast majority of clergy are upright, good, spiritual and dedicated priests and brothers helping the unfortunate members of society especially where government fails the people. However, they mostly remain silent perhaps because they fear retaliation by their superior or bishop if they report clerical abuse.
How can the abuse of children and women religious be ignored, covered up and tolerated on a massive scale in the Church? How can it not be branded as a hypnotic institution failing to protect the most vulnerable of all?
This is changing with civil authorities bringing abusive clergy to trial and convicting them. In Cagayan in the northern Philippines, a Catholic priest put behind bars for child rape and sexual assault, and allegedly using video voyeurism to blackmail a 15-year-old child victim is a first. He admits the acts but says it was consensual, despite the alleged blackmail.
This criminal abuse and its cover-up are causing many good people to lose faith and trust in the institutional hierarchical Church and thousands have abandoned attending Mass and the sacraments.
When the sexual abuse of children and women religious causes people, especially children, to lose faith in Jesus himself, that is a grave and abominable sin.
Revelations and investigations into clerical abuse by civil authorities in dioceses in several countries showed that thousands of children have been abused by priests.
The Gospel teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is clear — that anyone who abuses a child and turns them away from trusting in him must be held accountable by tying a millstone around his neck and that person be thrown into the deep sea.
Make no mistake, Jesus saw child abuse as a heinous crime. (Matthew 18: 6-7, Mark 9:42, Luke17:2)
The bishops seem to ignore these strong Gospel teachings of Jesus. Doing so is a denial of Jesus himself. He said to accept one of these little ones is to accept him. The opposite can also be true. Abusing one child is to abuse Jesus.
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