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RC bishops in Europe react to abuse crisis

22 October 2021

French report urges reform of Church’s sexual ethics


Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg at the altar last month. The Pope declined his resignation offer

Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg at the altar last month. The Pope declined his resignation offer

AS THE Roman Catholic Church’s synodal process gets under way worldwide, questions are being asked in Europe about the current campaign against clerical sex abuse, and the methods and motives associated with it.

In France, the report of an Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) caused consternation in early October by revealing the extent of sex crimes (NewsLeader Comment, 8 October), and sparked new controversy over the sustainability of traditional practices, from clerical celibacy to the seal of the confessional. The 2500-page document, co-ordinated by a former civil servant, Jean-Marc Sauvé, estimated that 330,000 children had been abused in France since 1950 by 3200 priests, RC teachers, and church staff.

Its 45 recommendations included a reform of the Church’s sexual ethics, the ordination of married men, and new rules to enable priests to inform police of sexual offences divulged in the confessional.

The Pope described the CIASE report as a “moment of shame” after its publication on 5 October, however, and discussed its findings during Vatican talks on Monday with the French Prime Minister, Jean Castex.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Rennes, the Most Revd Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, who chairs the Bishops’ Conference, was called in, at President Macron’s direction, to retract a “clumsy” radio statement that confessional secrecy should be considered “stronger than the laws of the Republic”.

“The scale of violence and sexual assault on minors revealed by this report requires the Church to re-examine its practices,” the Archbishop conceded after meeting the Interior Minister, Gerard Darmanin.

The Catholic media in France have questioned the abuse statistics in M. Sauvé’s report, which documented only a few thousand confirmed cases. Although questionnaires were sent by CIASE to more than 240,000 people, a year ago, only 28,010 usable questionnaires were returned, from which data were then projected over the general population, using medical algorithms, to obtain the figure of 330,000.

This exceeded M. Sauvé’s previous estimates, as well as comparable surveys, such one undertaken in Germany in 2018. It suggested that the average French church abuser had molested more than 100 children — a finding that some consider implausible.

“The Sauvé report is very clear about the great difficulty of comparing different sources,” the French Catholic La Croix daily commented last week. “This may be why its overwhelming data are raising doubts in some Catholic circles.”

Procedures for tackling abuse were set out by Rome in 2011, requiring Bishops’ Conference guidelines and specialist anti-abuse centres in co-operation with Vatican dicasteries.

They were updated in a 2019 papal motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, which called for a “continuous and profound conversion of hearts”, but also reiterated that clergy under investigation should enjoy “the presumption of innocence” and have a right to defend themselves.

While dozens of clergy abusers have now been convicted, bishops have also been sanctioned for neglecting or covering up their crimes. In Poland, ten mostly retired bishops have been sanctioned for ignoring abuse, and several others are being investigated, including Cardinal Stanislaw Jan Dziwisz, the 82-year-old former secretary of Pope John Paul II.

Several bishops had questioned this aspect of the Vatican’s handling of abuse, the Bishops’ Conference president, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, told Poland’s Catholic Information Agency. “We are willing to implement the Vatican document if it truly serves the good of the Church and especially the good of paedophilia victims,” Archbishop Gadecki explained after an ad limina visit to Rome.

“But some have highlighted the disproportionate, lasting penalties being imposed on bishops, when paedophile criminals can leave prison after five years and begin life again with a clean sheet. . . We’re talking about the civil death of an accused hierarch who isn’t a paedophile, who’s removed from office, falls into infamy, and is effectively annihilated by the media.”

Vatican officials, including Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, have promised to consider the Polish Church’s complaints when Vos Estis Lux Mundi is reviewed next spring.

There are signs that the Pope himself may be having second thoughts about the treatment of bishops. In September, he agreed to allow Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, of Cologne, long targeted by liberal groups, to take a break from his archdiocese (News, 1 October), but concluded that Cardinal Woelki and his auxiliaries, although responsible for mistakes, were not guilty of any cover-up.

The Pope also refused to accept the resignations of the Archbishop of Hamburg, the Most Revd Stefan Hesse, who was accused of mishandling abuse allegations in an independent report; and the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, last June.

For now, however, the abuse crisis looks set to fuel recriminations during the new synodal process devoted to “communion, participation, and mission”, which will run until a Synod of Bishops convenes in Rome in October 2023.

Faced with a hostile media and militant laity, most RC bishops remain reluctant to question any findings on abuse, fearing that this could look like denial or indifference.

The Church throughout Europe continues to suffer the consequences. Declared church membership is still falling in Germany and Austria, while baptisms, weddings, and service attendance slump around the continent. In Spain, where abuse scandals have been persistent, September data showed Catholic affiliations at their lowest ever: four out of ten citizens, and 60 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds, label themselves as atheists or non-believers.

The Polish Church, after providing up to one third of all RC vocations in Europe until a decade ago, reported a 20-per-cent fall in seminary admissions this month. Four of its 41 dioceses and 19 male religious orders have no recruits. The figures are the lowest since the Second World War.

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