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The Vatican's Dirty Secret

An article delving into the sexual abuse crisis of the Roman Catholic Church


In today’s world, we are all too familiar with the #MeToo movement. It is a global icon of the empowerment of sexual abuse victims and their solidarity in the fight against sexual crimes. With the help of technological advancement and the rise of the Internet, this social movement has turned the tides on sexual predators everywhere except the Roman Catholic Church.

Yes, that’s right! Crimes don’t discriminate, and even the holiest places on earth are not void of it. So, why haven’t we heard of such cases from the Church until now? That’s due to years of widespread, systematic cover-up and negligence by higher-up religious leaders, making most cases go hushed and thus unknown.

As the world outside celebrated a new era of social change, the people on the other side of the covenant walls remained isolated and vulnerable. We’re talking about Nuns, altar boys and other young children within the church community who easily fall into the clutches of influential clergymen with malicious intent. What’s worse for victims is that speaking out and getting justice is almost impossible given the unique circumstances brought on by the Church’s environment.

The cornerstone of the Catholic Church is the power hierarchy, which allows the institution to preach Catholicism effectively at all levels. It starts with the Pope, moving on to the Archbishops and Bishops and lastly, the priests and deacons, which are priest’s aids; Nuns and altar boys. It is a rule that all are expected to unquestioningly follow the orders of their superiors, which God directs. Those in lower ranks have unyielding faith and trust in their superiors and fulfil their role in the Church through quiet servitude to the Holy Order. This leaves the previously mentioned victims especially a disempowered position than the average abuse victim.

However, enough is enough. The cries of victims have built up to a crescendo, and now their voices roar-louder than ever.

A History of Cases

Sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church dates back to as early as the 11th century. Since then, sexual crimes have long plagued the sacred halls of the Church, with young children and Nuns being the primary targets. However, the matter first received media attention in the 1980s when cases of molestation by priests were reported in the United States and Canada. It then grew in the 1990s, with new cases from Argentina, Australia and Poland. One of the more significant events included Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna, Austria, who stepped down over accusations of molesting young boys.

Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes

A scene in the 2015 movie ‘Spotlight’ revolving around the Boston Church’s infamous sex abuse exposé

However, the tipping point came in 2002. Journalists of the Boston Globe Newspaper published incriminating findings of child sex abuse at the hands of Boston Clergymen, which the local church officials had tried to suppress for decades. This revelation shook America, paving the way for intense media scrutiny of the Catholic Church. It opened the floodgate for thousands of silenced cases globally. Soon, it became clear that the Church was in crisis as almost every parish globally reported cases of sexual abuse. Here is one of the most recent revelations that has taken the international Roman Catholic community by storm.

Photo Credit: Thomas Coex, Pool via AP

Head of independent inquiry (left) hands copies of a report to Catholic Bishop (right), president of the Bishops' Conference of France (CEF), that reveal sexual abuse records in the French Church

An independent inquiry concluded that French Clergymen had abused over 200,000 children since 1950. These numbers may rise to 330,000 when including abuse by other members of the Church. It was estimated that there were about 2,900 to 3,200 paedophiles in the French Church over the last 70 years, and most of the victims were male youngsters aged 10 to 13 years. The findings also suggested that until the early 2000s, the Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference for years” to victims who spoke out, even knowingly putting children in touch with predators.

Factors That Led To The Crisis

1. The Flawed Canon Laws of the Church

The Canon Laws of the Roman Catholic Church are essentially the Church’s constitution; it lays fundamental legal principles on which the entire Church functions. Critics have long complained that the laws are outdated, and many legal loopholes allow perpetrators to exploit the system.

2. Secrecy of Criminal Investigation

The investigation process of sexual abuse reports in the Church is often cloaked in secrecy. Leading church officials are the only individuals who have the full details of the case, thus making a cover-up easy. This is because Bishops are inclined to protect their turf from scandal to maintain their reputations.

3. Lack of Objective Third Parties in an Investigation

Due to the above reasons, sexual abuse cases are never resolved. Thus, the best solution to this problem is for the Church to work with local law enforcement since the presence of objective third parties during investigations will prevent cover-ups. However, The Catholic Church is an independent institution with an in-house legal system, which applies to all members under Roman Catholic jurisdiction. It operates in silos from the international civil law system, and handing over offending clergymen to the ‘other side’ may be construed as an infringement on the Church’s sovereignty.

The Church’s Attempts At Cover-Up

How have some of these clergymen been able to evade punishment? Well, we’ve got the answer! Patrick J. Wall, a former priest and Benedictine Monk, has been working tirelessly since 2002 to resolve the Catholic Clergy sex abuse crisis. He found the Catholic Church has established a system to exfiltrate priests involved in scandals. Wall claims the Bishop of the local parish will geographically relocate identified perpetrators to another parish where that priest’s scandalous past was not known as a quick remedy to the situation. If that fails, the priest will be relocated to an overseas parish. This is the ‘Geographic Solution’, and it has been used by parishes globally. Thus, allowing for the exfiltration of 95 American pedophilic priests, as evidenced in a journalistic investigation.

Photo Credit: Con Chronis/AFP via Getty Images

Cardinal George Pell after confessing to knowledge of sexual abuse in Australian Churches

What’s more sinister is that journalists have uncovered that high ranking members of Vatican leadership have been embroiled in scandal cover-ups themselves. Out of 10 Cardinals of the Vatican (religious dignitaries appointed by the Pope), arguably the most potent clergymen in Catholic leadership, four have been accused of having concealed scandals of pedophilic priests. For example, Australian Cardinal George Pell openly admitted to the Australian Royal Commission of Sexual Abuses that he knew of sexual abuses of the local priest but did not denounce them to justice. Similarly, evidence shows Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz of Chile waited five years after the first victim of sexual abuse spoke out to take action against the predator.

Photo Credit: NA/Damian Dopacio

Father Julio César Grassi of Buenos Aires during his arrest

The most infamous case of cover-up was in the high profile ‘Father Grassi’- the biggest sexual abuse scandal in the Argentine Church. When Father Julio Grassi was arrested over reports of child sexual abuse, the Church did all in its power to make sure he was acquitted. Then, just before Grassi appeared for his appeal hearings, the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, submitted a counter inquiry to sway the court into acquitting Grassi of his charges. Cardinal Bergoglio is, in fact, the current Pope Francis.

Public Reaction To The Revelations

Photo Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia residents protesting against their local Archdiocese

Ever since the scandals of the Church unfolded, the public was outraged. Civilians began protesting for change, and there was more significant public pressure for legislative changes in the Church’s canon laws. As more perpetrators were brought to justice, victims finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This hope gave way for victims to start speaking out:

Photo Credit: Domenico Stinellis/AP

The editor of “Donne Chiesa Mondo”, a progressive Vatican magazine

Recently, a Vatican magazine was published titled: “Donne Chiesa Mondo”, Italian for "Women Church World". It details hundreds first-hand accounts from Nuns of exploitation. It highlighted that beyond sexual exploitation, powerful men in the Vatican use Nuns for their labour too. According to the magazine’s former editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, such exploitation occurs as high as the Vatican ministries. Women carry out secretarial work and don’t receive promotions. However, all the credit is taken by men. Thus, sending the message far within the Church that it is men’s right to take advantage of women- possibly feeding the sexual exploitation culture running rampant in the Church.

Another example of victims showing solidarity is the 'SNAP' global support group. 'SNAP' stands for the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests. Its members gather annually for a conference to meet other survivors in a safe environment where they can share their experiences, find community and gain emotional closure on their abuse.

Evaluation Of The Vatican’s Current Measures To Resolve Crisis

Amid this firestorm, all eyes turned on the Vatican and its leader, Pope Francis. The Pope has since tightened the code of canon laws to explicitly criminalise sexual abuse in the most significant move this centuries-old institution has seen in 4 decades. Here are some of them:

Legislation to counter abuse and cover-up by Priests and Bishops:

New Law: Removes much of the discretion that long allowed bishops and religious superiors to ignore or cover up abuse, making clear those in positions of authority will be held responsible if they fail to investigate or sanction predator priests appropriately.

Evaluation of effectiveness: The merits of this policy is that it makes influential clergymen who abuse their power to conceal sexual crimes be accountable for their actions which were seen to be lacking in older canon laws. This reduces the chances of sexual abuse reports silencing early on in the investigation process, significantly increasing the chances of justice being served. However, now all investigative procedures will be overseen by the Roman Catholic government, the Holy See. As the members of the Holy See are top religious leaders, there is a chance not all cases (especially the ones involving prominent clergymen) will be investigated thoroughly. This is because top religious leaders have an ulterior motive to preserve people’s faith in the Catholic religion, and a massive scandal will prevent leaders from achieving their goals. Overall, this policy is still largely effective, but there is still room for improvement.

Penalties for abuse by the Church’s laypeople:

New Law: Lay people can’t be defrocked. Penalties include losing their jobs, paying fines or being removed from their communities.

Evaluation of effectiveness: This policy is better than the previous situation (where no action was taken for abuse by laypeople). However, the penalties are not harsh enough to guarantee the complete curbing of abuse. Fines charged to offenders are still decided by the Church and might be of a relatively nominal sum given the Church’s stake in the matter.

Moreover, this policy still allows for the abuse of children/ other persons outside that specific Church community. The dismissed perpetrators are not handed to local law enforcement, allowing them to be unregistered sex offenders. This will enable them to easily re-apply for jobs in other parishes or job industries where they can continue to prey on other members of society. Thus, overall, this policy is ineffective as it doesn’t solve the problem at its root, instead relocates it elsewhere.


All in all, the Roman Catholic church still has a long way to go before it entirely eradicates the sexual abuse ‘endemic’ that has plagued its institution for centuries. Top Vatican leaders must acknowledge that sexual crimes are a global problem that requires global solidarity to overcome. This means the Church needs to change its views towards the international civil law system and see their effort of reaching out to the Church to solve cases collectively, not as a threat, but in goodwill and for the greater good of humanity. Only then can an effective collaboration between the Church and law enforcement be established, allowing for the altruistic reality Pope Francis aspires for to become a reality.


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