OPINION: Abuse laws come 40 years too late for Catholic Church


Giuseppe Lami/Pool via AP

Pope Francis celebrates Mass on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Sunday, June 6, 2021

After thousands of reported cases of sexual abuse, the Vatican has finally updated its canon laws for handling cases within the Church — standards which haven’t been touched since the 1980s.  The new canon laws, or a set of laws set by the Roman Catholic Church to be followed by members of the religion, sought to streamline and clarify how to deal with child sexual abuse. The biggest of these changes included requiring all priests and nuns to become mandated reporters, making grooming for sex or child pornography illegal, and enforcing punishment within the Church like defrocking.

Throughout all this time, the Catholic Church has spent over $400 billion in settlements to victims and their families. Over half of the nearly 40,000 priests in the U.S. have had at least one formal allegation of abuse against them. This wasn’t just one bad egg — this is an ongoing crisis. A crisis that has taken four decades to be addressed by the institution.

What’s worse is that this problem has run so rampant for so many years that everyone knows about it. People even often make jokes, in poor taste, about being altar boys or being alone with a priest. Still, nothing has been done until this past week.

“It is a bit simplistic to think of this as a singular problem that can be solved with a single statement from the Pope,” said Rev. Christopher Robinson, a Catholic priest and religious studies professor at DePaul. “This is a larger societal problem, as well.”

Robinson believes that this is a cultural issue as opposed to a Church-specific issue — and he’s right. Child abuse has been a big issue in other institutions as well, such as in Hollywood and corporate America with people like Roman Polanski or Jeffrey Epstein who were found guilty of statutory rape and child sex trafficking.

The Catholic Church is far from the only institution to have an issue with abuse. The issues within the Church merely add to an already ugly truth about our society’s tendency to abuse power — and like many of these institutions, they sat on it for too long.

“[The Church’s] failure to uphold even its most basic moral principles has driven away a vast number of rank and file Catholics,” said Thomas O’Brien, religious studies professor at DePaul. “I work with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and for these Catholics the truly critical part of the scandal wasn’t so much the sexual abuse itself — but the corrupt institutional response to the accusations.”

O’Brien adds that while the changes are good, the canon laws fail to impress modern Catholics — which was the intention of creating the new laws.

Pope Francis said in his letter alongside the law revisions that “It is necessary that these norms be closely related to social changes and the new needs of the People of God.”

But wanting to feel safe around authority figures is not new. The only social change that has happened is more people are learning of these crimes and the betraying cover-ups done by the Catholic Church. What’s new is that more people are demanding ethical and just behavior from higher institutions — not preventing sexual abuse.

The new laws also allow the Church to punish more instances of abuse internally rather than leaving it entirely to the authorities.

Minimizing the role of law enforcement in investigating these cases  is a step in the wrong direction. Without that extra accountability, and based on their track record, the Church is going to continue to escape without any repercussions.

Additionally, the updated laws mentioned that offenses like grooming for the purposes of child pornography will also be punishable. You read that right: It’s taken 40 years to say child pornography is illegal in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

They are also now requiring priests and nuns to act as mandated reporters — the same people in positions of power who either commit the most acts of abuse or have covered them up.

Furthermore, and coming at a point of hypocrisy for Pope Francis’ earlier statement of changing with the times, there are several pieces of canon law that have not changed. For instance, excommunication will only be reserved for the gravest cases of sexual abuse. However, it still remains as a direct consequence for abortion — no matter what the context may be.

For example, a continued law includes that “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”  Meaning, anyone who gets an abortion under any circumstances can be excommunicated from the Church.  However, “A person who gravely violates the obligation of residence which binds by reason of ecclesiastical office is to be punished by a just penalty, not excluding, after a warning, even privation from office,” or the obligation of residence involving priesthood after being accused of child abuse, according to the canon laws, will only potentially be excommunicated under circumstance of abuse, as opposed to abortion protocols.

Speaking of hypocrisy, this show of action  –or, a lack thereof –, goes directly against the core values of the Catholic faith.

“Rather than relying on its long and rich tradition of reconciliation and penance, the Church has lawyered up and relied on the machinations of civil law to protect itself,” O’Brien said. “In this way, the Church’s response often can be interpreted by survivors as cowardly, hypocritical and unfaithful to the best of its own tradition.”

DePaul senior Joshua Hernandez, who was raised in a Catholic household, agrees that the actions of the Church are contradictory.

“The fundamental beliefs in Catholicism believe that humans are fallible and that only God is free from sin, corruption or self-righteousness,” Hernandez said. “Yet as we practice, we see those very traits pervert the values and ideals the Church holds true, with nothing to be done but turning a blind eye and possibly a slap on the wrist.”

The changes are better than another 40 years of silence — but clearly there is an incredibly long way to go.

“I think they are [taking] a step in the right direction,” Hernandez said. “Although that may not sound like much on face value, when talking about an institution that has been known to have incredibly problematic views on progressive issues, this first step can open doors to new avenues and possible changes within the catholic Church.”

A step in the right direction it may be, but until these critical systematic issues are resolved, the abuse of power is liable to continue uninterrupted.

“When will the Church come forward, in sackcloth and ashes, and do penance before the people?” O’Brien said. “The answer, for now, seems to be never.”

If you’re hopeful for systemic change in the Catholic Church, I have one thing to say: Don’t hold your breath.