Mixed reaction today to the news headline in The Telegraph newspaper saying the Vatican defrocked 400 priests over the last couple of years for molesting children. On the one side, there were cheers from those who felt the Vatican wasn’t doing nearly enough to deal with the sexual abuse of children crisis within the Roman Catholic Church while others said it was merely the top of the iceberg and that much more needs to be done.
The news came via documents released at a hearing in Geneva being held by the United Nations' Committee on the Rights of the Child. Two senior officials from the Vatican, the governing body of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church were testifying in detail for the first time before the UHCHR. They were asked some tough questions but according to the reports out of Geneva, they were reasonably forthright in their responses – something that’s new for the secrecy-obsessed Holy See.
More than a few people are hoping that this represents a major change in Vatican policy under the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinian prelate who was elected to lead the Roman Catholic church almost a year ago. Pope Francis, as he calls himself, has pledged massive change in many areas, including dealing with the Church’s sordid history of priests and bishops physically and sexually abusing children of all ages. This apparent openness may be the beginning of that change.
Certainly the secrecy and abuse of power related to the sexual abuse crisis is why so many Roman Catholics left the Church and the practice of their faith. It has been said that nearly every diocese in Canada was affected in some way by the crisis. For many people, the stunning revelations surrounding the Christian Brothers’ Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John’s was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Across Canada and into the USA, hundreds of millions of dollars were paid in an attempt to put some financial salve on wounds that money will never heal. Many said the victims were exploited twice – first by the clergy perpetuating the abuse and second by the lawyers who made millions of dollars in fees from the lawsuits.
Vatican expert reporter John Allen said, “[T]he sex abuse crisis is where two powerful narratives about Catholicism collide. One is that the church is a secretive institution devoted above all to protecting its own interests, so that claims of turning over a new leaf are viewed through a lens of suspicion; the other is that Francis is a reforming pope genuinely committed to the poor and the vulnerable, and people seem hungry to believe that he'll do the right thing.”
What no one doubts is that these hearings in Geneva present the Vatican with an opportunity to show that change is happening. In the past, the tradition was to close the big doors at St. Peter’s Basilica and retreat away from public view and criticism. The mantra was always that the Church knows/knew best. If anything, today’s testimony showed that while some of that attitude still prevails among the swishing soutanes in the Vatican, there would appear to be a recognition that increasingly the Vatican is being called to task. And none too soon. The jury is still out.