The Catholic Church probably thought the stormiest waters were behind. With a charismatic, groovy Pope at the helm, the church has been sailing an unexpectedly friendly sea. As if, perhaps, everyone had forgotten that thing. You know, that thing: The tens of thousands of children broken by abuse suffered at the hands of clergy. The priests left unpunished. The official silence.
And then, suddenly, a bolt from the sky, which religious types might imbue with a certain significance. Or you could see it as a glimpse of justice arriving far too late. A blistering report issued last week by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child noted, "The Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted practices and policies which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators."
The language in the report is surprisingly blunt and fierce, as it should be. Victims, who suffered a double torment – abuse of their bodies by people who were meant to look after their souls – deserve a public reckoning at the very least, and ideally justice in a court setting. For too long the church has pretended this is an internal issue, a matter of ethics and doctrine and not of criminal justice, to be swept under a medieval carpet and never spoken of again. The UN committee notes that it took 14 years for Vatican representatives to answer its request to come and offer testimony.
A "code of silence" imposed on clergy has meant that transgressors were rarely brought to court, the report alleges. Astonishingly, it seems some of those priests still have contact with children.
The church, even at the high levels, has often refused to co-operate with judicial authorities. The committee calls for the church to share its vast wealth of data about the abuse scandals with law officials, and for a long-delayed action: "Immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities."
Will Pope Francis finally act on this, the church's great wound? Can he be as brave and radical as his PR suggests? I'd hope so. There's a funny thing that happens when lapsed Catholics get together, even the ones who are furious, even the ones who feel betrayed. The Pope's name comes up, and people smile sheepishly. Maybe he's the one who can put things right, they say. They see hope for the future in a man who is good and compassionate, who hugs lepers and sits down for a humble breakfast with young priests, who disdains fancy shoes and walks among the poor. He's spoken out against usury, which must have made the world's credit card companies really happy, and he's reached out a conciliatory hand to atheists and gays. He's a kind of Trojan Pope, trundled into St. Peter's by night to unleash his jolly-not-bloody brand of Catholicism.
But embracing the poor and speaking out against inequality are motherhood issues, easy points to score. If Francis were truly radical, he'd have done more by now to address the blackest stain on the church in modern history. True, he called the abuse scandal "the shame of the church," and he struck a commission in December to investigate the history of abuse. But the remit and composition of the commission are fuzzy – what is the scope of its powers? Are there any victims of abuse on it? The fact remains that the church has sheltered and protected abusers, and tried to shut its doors against outside critics. It needs to come clean about the extent of its sins. With repentance comes absolution, after all.
The signs haven't been good so far. The Vatican's envoy to the UN suggested that the report took an excessively "negative" approach to the church, and that its harsh tone reflected the influence of pro-gay ideologues and not, let's say, the truth. It's not exactly the same as "mea maxima culpa," is it?
It does seem that this is Pope Francis's moment to seize. He can talk all he wants about global social justice, casting his eye far and wide, but until he addresses the rot under his nose, the church will never heal. And all those adults who were once betrayed children will never get the justice they deserve.