Catholics and child sexual abuse

By Dennis Gruending

Pope Benedict XVIIt’s been a bad month for Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic hierarchy, and by extension a bad month for Catholics in general. The church has been rocked by more allegations, many of them now proven, regarding past sexual assaults by priests on young boys and adolescents, and by news of subsequent cover-ups by bishops in Ireland and Germany. These revelations follow a torrent of similar cases in the U.S. in the past decade, others in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and France, and still others in Canada that surfaced mostly during the 1980s and 90s.

There are now allegations that Pope Benedict, when he was a powerful cardinal, refused to take action against Father Lawrence Murphy, an American priest who had sexually abused as many as 200 boys, many of them deaf, in Wisconsin over a period of 25 years. Father Murphy died, never seriously challenged and still a priest, in 1998. There are other allegations that Benedict, when he was the Archbishop of Munich in 1980, refused to discipline priest predator under his authority but rather had him reassigned. The Vatican, along with some cardinals, archbishops and bishops have gone into a mode of full damage control. On Good Friday, as the pope looked on during mass, a priest who is close to him compared recent criticisms of the church to the holocaust perpetrated upon Jewish people. He later offered a half-hearted apology in the face of withering criticism.  On Easter Sunday, again with the Benedict attending at the mass, a cardinal compared criticism of the pope as what he described as the malicious gossip of women. This week two senior cardinals appeared on Vatican Radio to talk about an anti-Catholic “hate” campaign targeting the pope because of his opposition to abortion and same sex marriage.

I worked for the bishops

The broad outline of events is available to anyone who watches the news or reads newspapers. I do not intend to pronounce on what Pope Benedict knew, and when, about various sexual predators when he was either an archbishop or a cardinal. I am confident that the truth will emerge. I do wish to add, however, some personal observations based upon four years in the early 1990s when I worked in the communications department for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

I had been fully engrossed in researching and writing a political book in 1989-90 and had not been following the news as carefully as usual. In preparation for my job interview with the CCCB in Ottawa, I spent a couple of days in a library reading both Catholic and secular newspapers and magazines. I encountered a variety of news stories regarding allegations of sexual assaults against young boys by the Christian Brothers at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland. I found only scant coverage in Catholic papers but there was much more of it in the mainstream media. It was later discovered that when allegations began to surface in the late 1980s, the provincial government, the police and the church had cooperated in a cover-up. Eventually nine lay brothers were convicted of sexually and physically abusing boys. A commission of inquiry criticized the archbishop for not taking action and he was later to resign. I remember thinking, What is it about Newfoundland that would allow a situation such as this to occur? A more insightful question would have been, What is it about the church that allows this to occur?

I got the job with the bishops and was confronted almost immediately by a controversy involving allegations of past abuse at church schools in the town of Alfred near Ottawa, and at Uxbridge near Toronto. Some of the victims set up a picket in front of the CCCB offices in Ottawa and also engaged in a peaceful protest at an annual general assembly of the bishops. Eventually, 700 former students came forward to allege abuse. Most decided to seek mediation rather than pursuing legal options. Then allegations emerged that Aboriginal children had been physically and in many cases sexually abused at residential schools where they had been forced to attend over many decades. Catholic and Protestant churches operated the schools in partnership with the Canadian government, which saw in them a method of forcibly removing children from their homes and assimilating them into the mainstream of Canadian society. The Catholic schools were usually operated by orders such as the Oblates or Jesuits and various orders of religious sisters.

Hierarchy in denial

I found that the bishops were in denial about the sexual crimes committed by clergy and seemed incapable of making prompt and transparent decisions. The hierarchy in Newfoundland refused for months to respond to media queries about Mount Cashel, which is an eternity in media terms. The church stonewalled and a public narrative was born from which it has never fully recovered. Many of the bishops feared, and in some cases loathed, the media. They were generally older men who had received a bookish classical education and they were especially uncomfortable with television. They were much more at home with their own Catholic publications, which in many cases were house organs rather than anything resembling independent media.

When we received calls at the CCCB from journalists regarding allegations or actual criminal charges related to sexual abuse, there was rarely anyone prepared to respond to them. The rationale was that the CCCB was not a head office for the Canadian church but rather an organization to help bishops do some of the things that were difficult to accomplish at the local level – such as writing and presenting briefs to government. Bishops, according to this line of reasoning, are appointed by the pope and answerable to him, not to other Canadian bishops. We were to refer calls back to the diocese or archdiocese in question. In the case of residential schools, we were to refer queries to the religious orders. Frustrated journalists would soon call back to say they had been rebuffed or ignored when they made those calls. I was frustrated, too, and since the buck appeared to stop in Rome rather than anywhere in Canada, I began to provide journalists with a telephone number for Pope John Paul’s press secretary, a Spaniard named Joachim Navarro-Valls.

I see certain parallels between the behaviour of the hierarchy in Canada then and that of the Vatican now. Among bishops and priests, loyalty to the institution is prized above all else, even the dictates of conscience. Canadian bishops, for example, seldom if ever spoke out publicly even if they believed that the Vatican was making a big mistake in its position on contraception, or on its stubborn resistance to allow use of inclusive language in the church. This unconditional loyalty to the institution made it difficult for the hierarchy to acknowledge the innocent victims of sexual abuse because it would have been perceived as an admission of weakness and guilt, and as such a betrayal of the church.

A new and dispiriting defence also began to take hold. According to this logic, it was only a small percentage of clerics who had engaged in sexual abuse – an argument that I believe to be true. Their number, it was said, was roughly comparable in percentage terms to that of people in other occupations yet priests and the church were being singled out for much harsher criticism than those other people. I found this a most unfortunate comparison for two reasons. It played into the easy tendency to see anti-Catholicism and persecution of the church in every criticism and question, another parallel to what has recently been emanating from Rome. Secondly, the church had, throughout history, claimed that its leaders were divinely inspired and that as an institution it was perfect and could not err. Indeed, that was old theology which did not square with a much more modest tone adopted by the world’s bishops at Vatican II in the 1960s. Most Catholics today are likely more comfortable with a church which is prepared to be humbler and to admit to its weaknesses.

From Pain to Hope

To its credit, the CCCB did overcome resistance and a variety of barriers to appoint a task force investigating a wide range of issues and problems related to sexual abuse by clergy. The subsequent report, called From Pain to Hope, was issued in 1992. It provided guidelines to assist dioceses in dealing with allegations and cases of abuse, looked at better methods of screening candidates to the priesthood for sexual maturity, and recommended better training and formation in seminaries. Significantly, the task force called upon church officials to respect civil laws and collaborate fully with civil authorities in sexual abuse inquiries. This is precisely what the church had not done in virtually all circumstances previously, whether in Canada, the U.S., Ireland or Germany — and what the Vatican still seems unprepared to do even now.

The CCCB, in partnership with religious orders that had been involved with residential schools, struck another task force on that issue. There was an agonizing reluctance on the part of bishops and religious orders to admit that the church had been engaged systematically in a culturally destructive project, not to mention the sexual abuse of vulnerable children. There was also a resistance to offering apologies, although they did come eventually. Yet when it came time to provide compensation to victims, Catholics dragged the process out long after other churches were ready to agree to terms.

More shoes to drop?

I left the CCCB in 1994 and do not know how faithful the Canadian church has been in following up on its protocols and promises. In observing subsequent scandals in the U.S. and Ireland, and now at the highest levels of the church in Rome, I am struck by how little has been learned by the international church from the earlier experience in Canada. I am surprised, as well, at how little real repentance there appears to in Rome for crimes that were committed against defenceless children.

It is true that most of the assaults that we are hearing about today happened years ago. In Canada the number of new cases has fallen off dramatically, but unsettling questions remain for the broader church. Recently, attention has focused on Ireland, one of the most traditionally Catholic countries of Europe. Will there soon be another shoe to drop in Asia, Africa, or Latin America? If so, can we trust church officials to respond with transparency and with the interest of victims uppermost in mind? Let’s hope so, but given the Vatican’s performance in the past few weeks we have at least some reason to be sceptical.

4 thoughts on “Catholics and child sexual abuse

  1. This is a timely post, particularly in light the the Globe & Mail’s revelations today (9 April)of more abuse in Canada and what might very well be criminal activity by a not inconsiderable part of the Canadian hierarchy. It seems to me there is a parallel here with Charles Taylor’s discussion of why the American founding fathers could proclaim “All men are created equal” while still owning slaves. They were so embedded in a patriarchal structure that they simply could not imagine anyone other than a white, property-owning male as a citizen deserving of rights. Similarly, the Catholic hierarchy lives in a world that is so patriarchal and immersed in in its own infallibility that they cannot imagine a member of their fraternity ever doing wrong.


  2. I remember the 1970’s and the 1980’s with Liberation Theology putting the South American Roman Catholic Church on the side of the poor. Catholic priests were fighting with the poor and oppressed of South America while Protestant missionaries were being flown around in United States helicopters to undermine them. Pope John II put an end to such activism by the priests. I read a book in 1989 (I cannot remember the name of it) about how pedophiles were moved around the United States. Just like in your experience, efforts were made to get the bishops and the Vatican to do something but with little success. All this leads me to conclude that the higher one goes in the Catholic Church the darker it gets and that there is no hope for change.


  3. I’m not part of the institutional/organized church, but I’m still interested in the thinking that goes on within it. It’s important for me to know that not all Catholics believe in fairy tales; that many have GROWN UP. On one side there’s the “Vatican” crowd, still quoting from the old catechism and from banal encyclicals; then there’s the “We are Church” crowd of Kung, Baum, etc. What EXTREMES within the same church! Poor Jesus of Nazareth. Would he identify with either crowd? He who said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” ??? (My consolation)


  4. Often, one hears comments that if Catholic priests were allowed to marry, the issue of sexual abuse would lessen. But sexual abuse is as much, or more, about power (infallibility) as is it about sex. Recent responses from the Vatican to all of this show that this is still about power, and, if so, what will change?


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