Bishops and Child Abuse

BishopAccountability.org has posted a list of 84 bishops who have been credibly charged with sexual abuse (here). This is over 1.5% of bishops worldwide. Bishops are far less likely to abuse children than priests. Only about 1% of priests get promoted to bishop, and they manage to screen out most of the abusers – suggesting that the Church knows much more about abusive priests than they admit.

But this only concerns bishops who themselves are abusers. This is a very small fraction of bishops who are negligent in handling the sexual abuse of their priests. There is no good data on this subject, and the Catholic Church has done almost nothing to identify and punish such bishops.

You may remember the case of Jerry Sandusky, a football coach at Penn State who was guilty of sexually abusing students. Recently, two senior administrators at Penn State were found guilty of child endangerment for failing to report Sandusky’s crimes to the authorities (here). Virtually no bishop has received comparable treatment. Bishops almost always have credible reports about abusive priests, and never initiate charges with the authorities. At best, they cooperate with the authorities after someone else brings charges. Very often they do not, and try to shield the offending priest, compounding their crime.

In a just world, one that did not discriminate in favor of the Catholic Church (and most other large religious organizations), a large percentage of bishops would be in jail. Recently, a French TV station produced a lengthy exposé of 25 bishops who protected abusive priests (here). Like the earlier exposé by the Boston Globe, such investigative reporting is extremely rare, despite the pervasive spread of clerical child abuse. The French Government has not acted, much as the U.S. Government failed to act.

You may have heard about the failure of the papal commission on child abuse. It lost credibility after the remaining victim in the commission, Marie Collins, left and complained of inaction and insufficient resources. She didn’t specify any financial requirements. I suspect they are probably trivial relative to what the Vatican spends on PR. But she complained that the commission couldn’t develop guidelines because it didn’t have access to a canon lawyer, and therefore couldn’t evaluate whether proposals were technically permissible in the byzantine world of the Church.

Pope Francis is almost never criticized. No one is willing to admit his toothless commission for child abuse was always just intended to buy time until the crisis blew over – even though this seemed obvious from the beginning. While some might claim that Pope Francis cannot find adequate funds for the commission, no one can seriously maintain that he could not have given the commission access to a canon lawyer. This is outrageous. Pope Francis has put off doing anything about the abuse crisis for four years. Without external prodding, the Church is unlikely to make more than cosmetic changes.

Christian zealots go to war over abortion. They are up in arms about transgender use of bathrooms. But they are largely indifferent to the sexual abuse of children. They need moral guidance.