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.
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.”
Catholic leaders are pushing back against efforts to alter state laws that exempt clergy from reporting child abuse they hear about during the sacrament of confession, arguing the changes will force priests to choose between the law and their faith.
Advocates for abuse survivors insist the changes are necessary, noting instances where abuse by a parishioner or even a cleric continued despite a priest learning about it during confession.
“It’s almost as though it is a pass for priests,” said Michael McDonnell, spokesperson for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We hope politicians in every state would be encouraged to produce some legislation that would further safeguard children from any unnecessary damage.”
The debate comes as lawmakers in at least three states — Vermont, Delaware and Washington — consider removing an exemption in mandatory reporter laws for what is often described as “clergy-penitent privilege.”
Similar to attorney-client privilege, it protects information discussed in a confidential pastoral conversation from being used in court, even if the information concerns child sex abuse.
Catholic authorities in each locality are lobbying to keep the carve-outs in place.
“Requiring clergy members to report child abuse learned during a penitential communication would infringe First Amendment rights of all Catholics in the state of Vermont, not just clergy,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington said in recent testimony before members of the Vermont state Senate.
The Diocese of Wilmington, in Delaware, in a statement published earlier this month described the seal of confession as “nonnegotiable.” The statement said breaking the seal of confession would “incur an automatic excommunication that could only be pardoned by the Pope himself.”
The sanctity of clergy-penitent privilege in the United States, which applies to Catholics as well as other religious groups, dates back to at least 1813, when the Court of General Sessions of the City of New York declined to force a priest to testify. It was later affirmed by then-U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who insisted in a 1980 ruling that clergy-penitent privilege recognizes a “human need” for confidential conversations with a religious leader.
But more recently the principle has been challenged. In 2016 in a case in Louisiana, a 14-year-old said she had told her priest during confession that she was being abused by another parishioner. The priest allegedly didn’t report the abuse and encouraged the minor to move past it — even as the parishioner continued the abuse. When the minor’s family eventually sued, the diocese defended the priest, arguing he was exempted from reporting and could not be compelled to testify.
More recently, an Arizona judged ruled in August 2022 that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could not refuse to answer questions or turn over documents in a child abuse case under the state’s clergy-penitent privilege.
Former Liberty University Law School professor Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian has challenged faith leaders to rethink their own approach to such statutes.
“What should ultimately determine whether a pastor voluntarily reports abuse is the life and safety of a precious child made in the image of God,” Tchividjian, who founded the group Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment before leaving it in 2019 to pursue abusers full time, wrote in a 2014 Religion News Service editorial.
There is precedent for removing the carve-out for confession in U.S. state-level mandated reporter laws. According to a 2019 analysis produced by the Children’s Bureau, in the 29 states and U.S. territories where clergy are considered mandated reporters, 24 exempt them if information is learned during pastoral conversations. In the other five, two states (New Hampshire and West Virginia) and Guam deny clergy-penitent privilege in cases of child abuse or neglect. Two other states (Connecticut and Mississippi) do not address the privilege in their reporting laws.
Sixteen other jurisdictions implicitly include clergy as mandated reporters under statutes that apply to “any person.” At least four other states in this category — North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas — deny clergy-penitent privilege in the case of child sex abuse or neglect, according to the Children’s Bureau analysis.
A statement from the Washington State Catholic Conference noted clergy have a duty to report child abuse but are mandatory reporters “everywhere else but the confessional.”
“When priests and bishops learn about child abuse, they can and should report it to the authorities. But when someone reveals their sins to God in confession, that is a sacred matter that priests must never disclose,” read the WSCC’s statement.
But for McDonnell and other advocates for abuse survivors, the government’s primary concern should lie elsewhere.
“The mandating of clergy to disclose abuse is truly a modest step that is going to help curb child abuse,” McDonnell said. “It’s sad that in 2023 we have to negotiate laws to protect the most vulnerable.”