Survivors of Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse from Britain and Ireland said on Thursday they finally felt vindicated after “transformative” meetings with Pope Francis and leaders of the Comboni Missionary order.
The survivors were abused as teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, while studying to be missionary priests at a Comboni seminary in Yorkshire, northern England.
In 2014, the Comboni settled a civil claim brought on by 11 former pupils, but without admitting liability. The order’s leadership questioned the victims’ accounts and refused to meet with them.
That stance has changed, survivors said after a group of them held talks in Rome with top Comboni and English Catholic church figures, and had a 45-minute Vatican audience with the pope.
“We feel that we were not only heard, but believed by the Comboni leadership, something that has brought us a sense of calm. This has been a transformative experience for us, vindicating our search for justice and dialogue”, victims said.
In a joint statement with the survivors’ group, the Comboni Missionaries apologised for past abuses, said they were “truly sorry for the times we have not responded adequately”, and asked “once again for forgiveness”.
Clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandals have for decades rocked the nearly 1.38-billion-member Roman Catholic Church, undercutting its moral authority and taking a toll on membership and coffers.
In 10 years as pope, Francis has passed numerous reforms against sex abuse and cover up, and said in an interview with Reuters last year that progress on the issue, despite some resistance, was “irreversible“.
Bede Mullen, a spokesman for the Comboni Survivors Group, said the pope was instrumental to their cause, interceding directly with the head of the Comboni Missionaries after he first met with the victims in June 2022.
“The involvement of Francis has been crucial. Without his intervention we would not have progressed as we have,” Mullen told Reuters, adding that Francis “continues to have a watching brief of developments”.
The Catholic Church has overseen the world’s longest-lasting and most widespread campaign of institutional sexual abuse. Why is it that after sixteen centuries of documented evidence and decades of continuous international public exposure, new revelations of the scope and magnitude of the crisis continue to shock the public?
Manufacturing the Clerical Predator goes beyond the usual clichéd and tediously-repeated popular explanations offered for the abuse crisis by exploring the personal narrative and theoretical accounts of three Wisconsin former seminarians and priests detailing the transmission of the culture of clerical abuse across three generations. It supplies a fresh, unique, and urgently-needed approach to the question that has yet to be answered about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church: Why?
The number of Catholics and permanent deacons in the world rose in 2021, while the number of seminarians, priests, and men and women in religious orders declined, according to Vatican statistics.
At the end of 2021, the number of Catholics in the world reached 1.378 billion, up 1.3 percent from 1.36 billion Catholics at the end of 2020, according to the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics. By contrast, the world’s population increased by 1.6 percent over the same period.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a brief overview of the global numbers March 3.
While Catholics remained about 17.67 percent of the global population, their numbers grew in Africa by about 3.1 percent and in the Americas and Asia by about 1 percent each, said the summary, which was based on numbers reported Dec. 31, 2021.
The Americas have 48 percent of the world’s Catholics and Brazil is the country with the greatest number of Catholics in the world with almost 180 million people.
While the Americas have 48 percent of the world’s Catholics, it only has 29 percent of the world’s priests. Just a little over 20 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Europe, yet 39.3 percent of the world’s priests minister there.
The Vatican reported that 19.3 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Africa and are served by more than 12 percent of the world’s priests; 11 percent of Catholics live in Asia and are served by more than 17 percent of the world’s priests; and just 0.8 percent of the global Catholic population lives in Oceania where 1 percent of the world’s priests live.
The Catholic Church also had 5,340 bishops at the end of 2021, a slight decrease from 5,363 at the end of 2020. Globally, the average is 76 priests per bishop, it added.
The total number of diocesan and religious order priests decreased globally by 0.57 percent to 407,872, the Vatican office said. The specific decreases were 0.32 percent for diocesan priests and 1.1 percent for religious-order priests.
The statistical office noted a “serious” imbalance in the ratio of Catholics per priest in the Americas and Africa. Globally there is one priest for every 3,373 Catholics in the world. But the ratio is one priest for every 5,534 Catholics in the Americas and one priest for every 5,101 Catholics in Africa. There are 1,784 Catholics per priest in Europe, 2,137 Catholics per priest in Asia, and 2,437 Catholics per priest in Oceania.
The number of religious brothers decreased in 2021 to 49,774 — a drop of about 1.6 percent from 50,569 the previous year, the office said. The numbers went down in every region except Africa where it increased by 2.2 percent.
The total number of religious women, it said, was 608,958 at the end of 2021 — a decrease of 1.7 percent from 619,546 at the end of 2020.
The number of permanent deacons — 49,176 — saw a 1.1 percent increase over the previous year, with the majority of them serving in the Americas.
The number of seminarians decreased globally by 1.8 percent to 109,895. About 61 percent of them are seminarians for a diocese and 39 percent of them for a religious order.
The number of seminarians has been declining each year since 2013, the Vatican office said. The only increase by region for 2021 was in Africa with 0.6 percent and the sharpest decline in the number of seminarians was in North America and Europe with a 5.8 percent decrease each in 2021.
The national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests wants Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the bankruptcy proceedings launched this week by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa and perhaps Oakland as well.
The survivors’ group, known as SNAP, decided to act in the wake of the Oakland bishop’s announcement Thursday that he was “giving strong consideration” to filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That announcement came just four days after Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa submitted his own bankruptcy petition to the court.
It’s not clear exactly what role Bonta might play as the highest ranking state law enforcement officer. The bankruptcy case, filed Monday, is proceeding in federal bankruptcy court, outside his jurisdiction.
Vasa said the bankruptcy court and the U.S. Trustee assigned to the case will run their own thorough investigations in the course of processing the diocese’s case.
But SNAP is drafting a letter that Executive Director Zach Hiner said calls on Bonta “to explore any option at his disposal that would help discern whether or not these bankruptcies are happening in good faith.”
In particular the group objects to the fact that filing for bankruptcy halts hundreds of pending lawsuits filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse and, thus, prevents plaintiffs and their lawyers from questioning church officials and other witnesses about the manner in which abusive priests were assigned and supervised.
That conflicts with a provision in state law that allows for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to win triple damages in cases where defendants concealed or covered up sexual abuse, said Dand McNevin, SNAP treasurer and a leader in the Bay Area.
“ (Assembly Bill)-218 was to allow the survivor to explore and find those facts and then those facts become public, and in searching out these complicities they identify who did the covering up,” McNevin said. “It’s a really important part of transparency. This bankruptcy stuff shuts down the discovery process. It wipes out that transparency.”
Once a diocesan bankruptcy case is settled it also means any survivors who were not yet emotionally strong enough or ready to come forward with claims are permanently barred from seeking compensation for their suffering in the future, SNAP members said.
A study by Child USA reports the average age at the time of reporting child sex abuse is 52, well above the 40-year-old limit in current state law and one reason advocates are seeking elimination of a statute of limitations. (A new bill that would do just that, AB-452, was introduced in the State Assembly last month.)
That delayed reporting, said McNevin, means people abused in the past four decades, even those under age 40 when the bankruptcy settles, will be prohibited from filing a case.
Vasa said there has been a high degree of publicity around the clergy abuse scandal and what have now been two “look-back” windows allowing older cases to be filed.
He said there will be more as the bankruptcy proceeds and participants are “literally shaking all the trees” to find any additional survivors who want to offer “proofs of claim” that entitle them to part of the settlement fund.
In addition, most creditor committees organized for other, similar bankruptcies have set aside at least some funds for future claimants, as well, he said.
The Attorney General’s Office has previously demonstrated its interest in the Catholic clergy scandal in 2019 when then Attorney General Xavier Becerra subpoenaed records from six of 12 California dioceses, including Santa Rosa’s, to ensure allegations of sexual misconduct were being properly reported.
Vasa said then that the appropriate records were supplied. Many thought there might be a full report released similar to what had occurred in other states, like Pennsylvania, though none was.
“I would think whatever action the attorney general feels needs to be taken we will respond to the attorney general in the way we have responded before,” he said Friday.
At least 32 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States and its territories to have sought bankruptcy protection amid the clergy abuse scandal since 2004. Among them was the Diocese of Albany, New York, which filed Wednesday.
Most, like Santa Rosa, separately incorporated church parishes in advance in what plaintiff’s attorneys view as “a shell game” cynically designed to shelter assets from survivors seeking compensation, though bishops say it merely aligns their legal standing with church law and the reality of their financial independence.
Attorneys for survivors also have chastised the church for avoiding public exposure of wrongdoing through bankruptcy court, though the Santa Rosa Diocese, at least, says it turned over everything it had long ago.
Prominent researchers of accountability for clergy sexual abuse called on Pope Francis on Wednesday to release the names of bishops investigated by the Vatican since the implementation of 2019 rules that overhauled how the church responds to abuse accusations.
The watchdog group, BishopAccountability.org, criticized the pope at a news conference for failing to give a “full accounting” of the impact of the revised rules, which they called a landmark effort to combat abuse. The organization also released a list, based on news reports from around the world, of 40 bishops who have been investigated under the four-year-old law.
“The pope has repeatedly said he wants transparency, yet he is leaving the faithful in the dark,” Anne Barrett Doyle, the group’s co-director, told reporters Wednesday. “Survivors and Catholics in the pews not only need this information; they have a right to it.”
In a letter to Francis, the organization urged him to answer “the faithful’s yearning for accountability” by releasing a detailed list of church officials investigated for alleged abuse or for mishandling abuse claims that were brought to them. The rules, implemented in June 2019,devised a way for bishops to help police their own ranks, among other changes, and were the first significant step toward formalizing a process for investigating abuse allegations in the church.
U.S. advocates have pushed for decades for more transparency around sex abuse cases, contending that the church’s steps toward accountability — creating lists of accused clerics, spending millions to implement new child-protection protocols and toughening the Vatican’s punishments for abuse — have not gone far enough. This week, Maryland’s attorney general is expected to release a redacted version of a grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Advocates have particularly criticized a lack of robust accountability for bishops, who typically oversee dioceses. Of the 40 bishops on Bishop Accountability’s list of accused clerics, the group said fewer than half have been disciplined.
Barrett Doyle said her group was releasing a list because the Vatican had not published one. She urged Francis to release not only a full, international accounting of names of investigated bishops, but also the allegations against them and the status of each case.
“How many complicit bishops are still leading dioceses?” she asked. “How many religious orders are run by credibly accused predators?”
Bishop Accountability’s list included 13 U.S. bishops, all of whose names had been reported previously, who have been accused of committing abuse or of mishandling allegations brought to them. Two — Bishop Joseph Binzer of Cincinnati and Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minn. — resigned, and three have been cleared. The remaining cases are ongoing, or their outcomes are unknown.
Even when U.S. bishops have been penalized, Barrett Doyle said, the consequences have been too light. Binzer resigned in 2020 after failing to report misconduct allegations against a priest in his diocese, but he later became the pastor at two parishes. Hoeppner stepped down in 2021, after an investigation into allegations that he mishandled abuse cases, but was allowed to say a send-off Mass. Neither he nor Binzer lost their titles as bishops.
Francis has acknowledged in recent months that the church has not solved the abuse crisis. He told the Associated Press in January that the church still needed to be more transparent and that its leaders should talk more about abuse of vulnerable adults.
“It’s what I want,” he said. “And with transparency comes a very nice thing, which is shame. Shame is a grace.”
His signature anti-abuse measure, the 2019 law, has failed to have a significant impact, Barrett Doyle said. She criticized Francis for not requiring clerics notified of abuse to report the allegations to civil authorities and contended that the rules were set up to maintain the Vatican’s control over these cases.
“It is self-policing packaged as accountability,” Barrett Doyle said. “It is bishops watching bishops.”