In an unprecedented statement on Wednesday, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors appealed to Church leaders at the upcoming consistory and synod to prioritize “long overdue” reforms.
The commission lamented that the Church is still falling short of its duty to prevent abuse and to respond to allegations with transparency and accountability.
“[F]ive years after the 2019 Summit on the Protection of Minors that gathered Church leaders from all over the world, deep frustrations remain, especially among those seeking justice for the wrongs done to them,” the commission said in its Sept. 27 statement.
“No-one should have to beg for justice in the Church. The unacceptable resistance that remains points to a scandalous lack of resolve by many in the Church that is often compounded by a serious lack of resources.”
The commission, which was created by Pope Francis in 2014, warned of serious “flaws in procedures that leave victims wounded and in the dark both during and after cases have been decided.”
“Recent publicly reported cases point to tragically harmful deficiencies in the norms intended to punish abusers and hold accountable those whose duty is to address wrongdoing,” it said.
In its statement the commission asked that next month’s Synod on Synodality allow the topic of sexual abuse in the Church to be a focus, “not just for one or two days during your gathering, but…throughout the entire Synod process.”
“The reality of sexual abuse in our Church goes to the heart of the Synod’s agenda. It deals with who we are as a community of faith, founded on Jesus. It permeates discussions on leadership models, ministry roles, professional standards of behavior, and of being in right relationship with one another and all of creation,” it said.
The commission asked synod leaders to dedicate ample time to the testimony of victim-survivors.
“Indeed, many if not all of the Synod’s participants have their own experiences of confronting or dealing with sexual abuse in the Church which could become an explicit part of your deliberations,” it said.
Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church - as well as the hierarchy’s response to allegations of abuse - has been a subject of significant global attention since the explosive allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick came to light in 2018.
June 2018, the Archdiocese of New York announced that McCarrick had been removed from public ministry, at the instruction of Pope Francis, over credible allegations that he had sexually abused an altar server.
The next month, he resigned from the College of Cardinals. In the months that followed, numerous other allegations of sexual abuse and coercion were raised against him.
McCarrick was laicized after a Vatican administrative penal process in 2019, which found him guilty canonically of sexual crimes with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of “abuse of power.” He was also found by the Vatican to have solicited sexual contact within the sacrament of confession.
Also in 2018, an abuse scandal unfolded in Chile, leading every bishop in the country to submit their resignations following a meeting with Pope Francis.
The following year, Pope Francis held a global summit of episcopal conference leaders and later promulgated Vos estis lux mundi, which introduced new norms and penalties for episcopal misconduct.
However, victim-survivor groups have cautioned that the new protocols are still inadequate at responding to allegations, largely because they are not transparent enough to ensure real accountability.
Bishop Michael Hoeppner became the first U.S. bishop to be investigated under the Vos estis protocol, as well as the first to resign after the conclusion of an investigation.
Hoeppner was accused of pressuring an abuse victim to recant his allegation of abuse, and of other acts of administrative negligence.
The bishop resigned from leadership of the Crookston diocese in April 2021, after a Vos estis investigation of more than 18 months. He was later barred from priestly ministry in his former diocese as well.
Numerous other cases of alleged abuse and cover up have also been investigated under the norms of Vos estis, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Retired Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston was banned from public ministry and from residing in his former diocese after accusations of sexual harassment, assault, and coercion of priests and seminarians.
Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo retired in 2019, after a diocesan chancery employee leaked diocesan documents indicating the bishop had covered up allegations against Buffalo priests and had allowed them to remain in ministry.
Reports in Poland and France in recent years also found significant numbers of abuse allegations, over the course of several decades.
On Sept. 27, La Croix reported that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith had suspended French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard from public ministry outside of his home diocese. The retired cardinal had admitted last November to abusing a 14-year-old girl some 35 years prior.
In its statement, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors stressed the need for personal conversion of Church leaders in order to make real progress in combatting abuse.
The elevation of new cardinals at the upcoming consistory, the commission said, “is an opportune moment for reflection, repentance, and renewal of our unwavering commitment to safeguard and advocate for the most vulnerable, using all means possible.”
“We call upon all those in the Sacred College to remember victims and their families and to include as part of their oath of fidelity a commitment to remain steadfast in honoring those impacted by sexual abuse by uniting with them in the common pursuit of truth and justice. All bishops and religious superiors should echo this commitment.”
Only when Church leaders are serious about their dedication to transparency and accountability will real reform take place, the statement said.
“We are profoundly shaken by the immense pain, enduring suffering and revictimization experienced by so many, and we unequivocally condemn crimes and their impunity perpetrated against so many of our brothers and sisters,” the commission said. “We reaffirm our steadfast commitment to work to ensure, as much as possible, such heinous and reprehensible acts are eradicated from the Church.”