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Unravelling the global scandal of clergy sex abuse

New pieces have once again been added to the puzzle of the global scandal of clergy sex abuse and the Catholic Church's failures to respond and give justice to the victims.

The latest revelations were announced in Germany on January 20 when a law firm published the results of an independent investigation into cases of abuse that occurred between 1945-2019 in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

The Munich report also provides a lens for evaluating the Vatican's response to the abuse crisis in just the past 12 years – because it was only around 2010, with revelations of Church-related abuse coming out of Ireland and Germany, that Rome really began to take the issue seriously.

German Catholics are extremely upset with what the new report has shown in this regard and Georg Bier, a canon lawyer based in Freiburg, says this could be a real problem for Pope Francis.

"Francis always says that the Church must prosecute abuse and cover-ups as strictly as possible, but he is prepared to say in individual cases: 'It wasn't that bad, keep going.' With all due respect to the Holy Father, I consider this to be an inappropriate and unwise course of action," Bier wrote in an article published January 27 on the news and information site of the German Catholic Church.

"Anyone who says he has made mistakes and considers them so serious that he sees himself unable to continue exercising the office of bishop, does not have to be fired with insult and disgrace. But you can still say: Now a new beginning is necessary. You can do that with honor," Bier continued.

"But when it comes to the question of whether someone still feels up to the office, I think it is problematic to leave the decision to the pope," he said.

Lest anyone miss his point, Bier tried to spell it out even more clearly:

If a bishop says he can't do it anymore because he feels that the faithful no longer trust him, he shouldn't continue either – no matter what the pope thinks.

Clearly, this is not provided for by canon law. But we are at a point that this matter can no longer be regulated by canon law. I do not think that relying solely on obedience [to the pope] on such a question is a sufficient basis for staying in office.

The German canon lawyer was implicitly referring to the case of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who has been archbishop of Munich and Freising since 2007.

Birds of a feather

The 68-year-old cardinal -- who also holds major posts at the Vatican -- offered his resignation to the pope in June 2021, but Francis refused to accept it almost immediately and wrote Marx a letter, clearly intended for public consumption, to explain his reasons why.

There is also the case of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who has been archbishop of Cologne since 2014. The Vatican ordered the 65-year-old cardinal to take a "spiritual sabbatical" last September after it was discovered that he had seriously mismanaged abuse cases in the archdiocese.

But it was just a sabbatical. Woelki is scheduled to return to the archdiocese next month at the start of Lent.

Francis also refused to accept the resignation of another German prelate last September. That, too, was for mishandling abuse cases.

Instead, he asked Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg to merely take a "time out". The 55-year-old, like the others, remains in place.

There is no question that Pope Francis is the best chance the Catholic Church has to learn from this crisis and renew itself. He has set a different course from the point of view of law and procedures in cases of clergy accused of abuse or coverup.

But many Catholics in Germany and elsewhere believe that this situation requires a more profound kind of change.

How bad is it?

"Perhaps the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation".

That's the way the late Andrew Greeley -- the Chicago priest, sociologist and best-selling author -- described the Church sex abuse crisis in the Illinois Paperback Edition of Jason Berry's book Lead Us Not into Temptation (1992).

Berry broke the silence of clergy sex abuse in 1984 with a series of articles in the National Catholic Reporter. This was almost 20 years before the Boston Globe's highly-acclaimed "Spotlight" exposé.

I came to the same conclusion as Greeley, but only much later, after the wave of new revelations between 2010 (especially in Germany) and 2017-2018 (especially in Australia, Chile, France and the United States).

People can still debate, even now at the beginning of 2022, whether or not the abuse crisis is really the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced in the last five centuries.

But what is not up for debate, I think, is that this is less a revolt than a revolution – to paraphrase the Duke of Liancourt's words when he informed Louis XVI of the storming of the Bastille Prison in July 1789.

"But it's a revolt!" the French king is reported to have said. "No, sire, a revolution," the duke replied.

The story may be apocryphal, but it makes an important distinction.

Church and State

During the last two pontificates, there has been a most important development in the ecclesial and public awareness of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It is not just a problem in North America. It is a global phenomenon.

However, in some sense, the institutional Church still lulls itself into thinking there is an "American exception" to the scandal.

The abuse crisis in the United States has not challenged the order of relations between Church and State in the same way that we have seen in other countries around the world – Australia, Chile, France and Germany.

The unfolding of the abuse crisis in the United States has not created a new situation in the same way they did in other Churches.

For example, because of the separation between Church and State in the United States, there has not been a national, independent commission of investigation (like for example in Ireland, France or Australia and, in the next future, maybe also in Italy and Spain).

The cases in Europe, Chile and Australia offer a different picture.

Certain ways of handling the crisis in the United States – centered on the role of the media and the courtroom approach – have provided some in Rome with an undeserved alibi especially when it comes to what could and must be done in terms of theology, Church teaching, and the consequences on the structures of the Church.

On this front, the pace of change is too slow – to say the least – and the real surprise is the patience most lay people have shown towards Church leadership.

Revolt or Revolution?

Francis has taken the abuse crisis more seriously than his predecessors and most other bishops and Church leaders.

But looking especially at the German cases, many perceive that this pontificate puts little emphasis on the value and importance of structures and administration. This combines well with his distance from the Roman Curia and academic theology.

The pope is seen to be applying a double standard. For instance, he has forced bishops in Poland and Chile to resign for mishandling abuse while he has made some German bishops stay in office. This does not help build confidence in the way the Church operates.

Francis is right when he says that the emphasis on structural change (power in the Church, model of ordained ministry) can blind us to the need of spiritual renewal. But this can also happen the other way around.

The question is whether we see the Church's abuse crisis as something akin to a revolt, which is easier to control with ordinary means, or whether we view it as a revolution.

In order to restore peace after a revolution, a community needs spiritual renewal. But it also needs constitutional change. And by "constitutional change" here I do not mean changing the status Ecclesiae (what the Church is, in its essence), but some of the statuta Ecclesiae (laws of the Church that can and sometimes must be changed to preserve the status Ecclesiae).

Structural change and spiritual renewal

Twenty years on from the Boston Globe "Spotlight" revelations, we are well beyond the rift between those who see the abuse crisis as something real and those who harbor the illusion of a mass media conspiracy; between those who know it is a global problem and those who think it is just an American or European problem; between those who see it as a phenomenon tied to the ideology of Church power and those who blame only just a few "bad apples."

The rift now is between those who think that this crisis can be survived only with a constitutional approach, aimed at changing fundamentally some structures of the Church, and those who are still convinced that spiritual and cultural renewal, together with new systems of repression and punishment, will do.

One can disagree with some of the radical solutions that are being proposed in Germany's "Synodal Way", which holds its next assembly from February 3-5 in Frankfurt/Main.

But without the context of the scandals that have exploded in Germany since 2010, there is no understanding that the "Synodal Way" is taking the abuse crisis as a constitutional crisis that needs to be addressed with constitutional means.

The Church is not a political entity. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is its constitution and the salvation of souls is its supreme law. And without the ecclesial dimension of the faith, there is no Gospel.

The idea that the Gospel can still speak to the world today without structural changes in the Church is just the flipside of the naïve "no to the Church, yes to Jesus" approach.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

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