In 2003, when the first wave of sexual abuse by the clergy in the United States was at its critical point, a Latin American priest visiting New York told me: “We in Latin America read the news about the sexual abuse scandals in the Church in the United States but we can’t understand how such a thing could happen.”
For him – as for many commentators at that time – this was just an American problem.
A few years later, the epidemic of sexual abuse scandals hit Ireland and Australia. Some experts offered then another explanation – the sexual abuse epidemic was an Anglo-Saxon problem.
The new theory ignored cases of abuse in the last century like that of Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement. Other famous cases in Latin America include Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, founder of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), a lay Catholic movement, and Fernando Karadima. After years of accusations, Karadima was defrocked by Pope Francis last September.
Karadima’s case was the prelude of the Chilean church’s crisis that exploded last year and resulted in a meeting at the Vatican where all the bishops of Chile presented their resignation to the Holy Father.
Last September, a study revealed that at least 1,670 members of the clergy and lay workers in the church in Germany had been accused of sexual abuse between 1946 and 2014. Six days later, an investigation revealed that 20 out of 39 Dutch cardinals, along with bishops and their auxiliaries “covered up sexual abuse,” for more than 65 years. Italy and India had their share of scandalous revelations too during the same year.
It became clear that the sexual abuse scandal was neither an American, nor an Anglo-Saxon problem. It became clear too in America that it was not a “Catholic problem” as scandals in Hollywood, Protestant denominations and the sports world came to light.
But in certain areas of the Catholic blogosphere, a new criticism was leveled against the church in America. According to some commentators, the American approach to the crisis, as set forth in the Dallas Charter, was not the right response. They argued that the measurements didn’t go to the root of the problem – that the actual change had to take place in the formation of seminarians and in the heart of the priests.
That criticism arose from a false dichotomy. As with any crime, sexual abuse should be fought with a proper formation, of course, but also with standards of conduct, rules and proper deterrents.
For all the manipulation in the secular press to damage the Church, the Pennsylvania grand jury report published last summer showed that the Dallas Charter is working. The successive publication of members of the clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct reaffirmed the same notion.
At the end of the meeting for “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” held at the Vatican during the last weekend of February, Pope Francis outlined eight strategies to fight sexual abuse. One of them was: “Strengthening and reviewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences, reaffirming the need for ‘rules.’”
You could say that we are going to have a Dallas Charter for the rest of the world.
The Church in America is far from perfect and the crisis is not over, but by facing the crisis and implementing a comprehensive set of rules to end the scourge of sexual abuse, the American Church has done an immense service to the Church universal.