A Mafia-like “omertà” on sexual abuse in the Catholic hierarchy?

March 12, 2010
sex abuse protest

Protest against the clergy child sex abuse scandal in Boston outside Cardinal Bernard Law's Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on Mother's Day, May 12, 2002/Jim Bourg

The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano has published an interesting article saying the Catholic Church might have avoided some of the clerical sex abuse scandals it now has if more women were in decision-making positions. The Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia says that women “would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past often covered with silence the denunciation of these misdeeds.” The word she used for “secrecy” is omertà, the  Italian term for “code of silence” well known to anyone who’s seen the Godfather movies or read about how the Mafia works.

Scaraffia writes that Pope John Paul said women should be given posts of equal importance as men and that Pope Benedict has written to bishops promoting collaboration between men and women in the Church. She then writes, in a rather academic style:

“The problem is that this important theoretical development has not been followed with equal clarity by a transformation in women’s participation in the life of the Church. Their participation, although significantly enlarged, has remained mostly outside the decision-making spheres and areas of cultural processing. One can understand, then, that the pressure of the excluded —  who are often shut out for no justified reason — can be felt, even if quietly. It is not just a matter of social justice or equal opportunities. The Church risks failing to develop energies and contributions that are often of primary importance.


L'Osservatore Romano, 11 March 2010 -- Scaraffia's article is at the top right.

One example suffices: In the painful and shameful situation where harassment and sexual abuse by clergymen of young people entrusted to them is coming to light, we can hypothesize that an increased female presence, and not only at lower levels, would have been able to rip the veil of male secrecy that in the past often covered the denunciation of  misdeeds. In fact, women — both religious and secular — are naturally more inclined to defend the young in cases of sexual abuse, avoiding the serious damage these guilty attitudes have done to the Church.”

One can argue whether women in some leadership positions would act much differently from men. Some, like Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, can make one sceptical about that. But if women had been part of the decision-making process when abusive priests were shuffled around from one post to another, there surely would have been some who — like the Boston mothers in the photo above — would have shamed the bishops with that simple question, “What would your mothers think?”

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In a press release from the Holy See on March 9, 2010, “concerning cases of the sexual abuse of minors in ecclesiastical institutions,” Director Fr. Federico Lombardi parrots out the church’s predictable responses to the widening problems of sexual abuse, particularly that of minor children. vis/dinamiche/a0_en.htm

The institutional Roman Catholic church has reacted to the continuing sexual abuse debacle neither rapidly nor decisively, contrary to what Lombardi states. The Vatican has attempted to distance itself from what has happened in country after country, first categorizing it as an “American problem,” then as a “homosexual problem.”

What was done by church leadership in the United States, for example, it was forced to do by the pressure of public opinion after records, files and correspondence were forced into the public venue in 2002 by Judge Constance M. Sweeney, a very brave, grounded and principled Catholic woman in Boston, Massachusetts.

The church’s response continues to be re-active rather than pro-active while minimizing the systemic and endemic abuse of power and authority which has enabled and exacerbated it on the one hand while covering it up whenever and wherever possible on the other.

The “wide-ranging context” is that in countries from the United States, Canada, Australia and Ireland to Austria, the Netherlands and Germany church authorities have repeatedly and consistently disregarded their own moral and Canon laws as well as the existing laws of the countries in which these horrific crimes against humanity occurred.

Lombardi does not mention nor does he admit to the well documented widespread cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by bishops and other church officials in many countries like the United States, which makes the church’s sexual abuse problems particularly egregious. If church authorities had done the morally right thing initially how many children would have escaped being sexually abused by a particular priest?

When are people of good will going to say, enough!

When are state legislators going to change the laws so that justice can be pursued for the thousands upon thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse who have been unable to access let alone obtain justice?

In most states and probably in most countries existing criminal as well as civil laws give more protection to sexual predators and their enablers then they do to victims of childhood sexual abuse – by anyone. This is deplorable and should not be.

The removal of all statutes of limitation in regard to the sexual abuse of children is the single, most effective way to hold predators and enabling institutions accountable before the law.

The state of Delaware in the United States is one of a very few states in the U.S. which have removed all criminal and civil statutes of limitation in regard to the sexual abuse of children – by anyone. It also legislated a two year civil window for previously time barred cases, again, by anyone. That window closed in July of 2009.

In a civil suit, unlike a criminal suit, the burden of proof that any sexual abuse took place is on the plaintiff. The burden is not on the accused individual or institution to prove innocence, at least not in the United States.

Every victim of childhood sexual abuse should have a right to the pursuit of justice at the very least!

If Delaware can do it other states and other countries should be able to do it and hold sexual predators and any enabling institutions responsible, especially those institutions which chose to ignore their own internal laws.

I was privileged to testify before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees in support of the 2007 Child Victims Law in Delaware.

No rules and no laws of any religious organization or denomination should be allowed to trump the laws of a civilized society where the protection of children is concerned.

The Roman Catholic Church should be held to the highest standard as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a Convention that by any objective standard it has grossly violated for decades.

Isn’t it time to formalize those violations as the crimes against humanity they truly are?

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims’ Advocate
New Castle, Delaware, USA

Posted by SMPTURLISH | Report as abusive

the level of sexual abuse among pedophile priests who
are one of the most trusted social figures for children
and who then act to protect each other is absolutely unforgivable, these are very sick people

there are countless cases where children have been abused and even murdered to keep them and their families quiet in order to conceal the crimes

the male dominated “old boys club” church
fear women in church roles because women are
intelligent and would act maternally to protect children because that is natural, it is that simple

this is why the “old boys” fear the women clergy
because they fear exposure and the truth about themselves

its time to shut the “old boys club” down and protect
children from unnecessary abuse and save all people from
the churches darkest hour of power and evil

god is good but people who abuse children and lie and pretend not to and protect each other are not

a full formal investigation is required into this army of darkness in order bright it into the light of truth
of justice

Posted by cfnebear | Report as abusive

This is the reason women have been excluded from the hierarchy.

The world will be a better place when everyone accepts religion for the sick nonsense it really is.

Posted by UncleNed-222 | Report as abusive

Its about time for the secular states to protect the most vunerable of their citizens from the nest of perverts shielded by the international machinations of the Roman catholic church.

The good Sister Turlish (above) is spot on with her condemnation of the church’s behavior. She is wrong on one point, however. May I repectfully suggest to her that this organization has been a haven for criminality for centuries, not merely decades. Best wishes to her in her quest for earthly justice in addition to the Devine retribution that will eventually fall.

Posted by netdoc44 | Report as abusive

Having celebit people in the church is simply asking for trouble.

But worst of all is that the Catholic hierarchy act as though the real problem is how minimise the damage rather than feel genuinely sorry or willing to fix the problem.

In Australia the Catholic hierarchy are as just as likely to cover up and keep paedophile priests rather then expose them and tell the police. Victims are simply problems to be managed, not people who need to be apologised to and compensated.

In Australia it was even hard to know if the Church thought paedophilia was really a terrible thing, only just a little bit bad and an annoyance.

It is made worse by some Conservative Opposition politicians in Australia who want to stand up for the Catholic Church and belittle paedophile victims. To the Australian Liberal Party it seems paedophilia is not as bad as people make out and the Church has not been at any fault.

It is time to come clean, reveal all and also change the rules that state all priests must be married before taking up positions.

Posted by Kina | Report as abusive

Once again it’s do as I say not as I do!

Posted by osito3 | Report as abusive

Even though I am a gay person and no longer a member of the Catholic Church, what would be the point? I find most of the comments about church sexual abuse a little phony. I think the issue of pedophilia is very specifically targeted at the money of the church more than the practices of a few priests. The hypocrisy about his issue approaches that of charges against “witchcraft”. The prize for making these charges against the Catholic Church is – the accuser might get bundles of cash.

Some women seem to treat themselves to the notion that all women are good and all men are bad. They think they are always somehow superior moral creatures and that they could not possibly harm a child. I know personally of several people who have had abusive mothers. One who was severely strung out on drugs and abandoned her child to its own filth in its crib and another of a friend who was molested by his parent’s housekeeper who pulled up her skirts to show him her private parts while he was still a toddler. She asked him to “touch the spider”.

My own mother remembered a story of a nun who had a nervous breakdown one day when she asked the entire class of the Catholic girls high School my mother attended, to write out the names of all the insane asylums in the US. That woman didn’t return to class the next day. I recall personally suggesting to one nun in a CCD class I was trying to teach (I was having second thought about the prospects of a happy gay life) and had very little experience in sexuality at all except for a date with a girl during the High School prom. And I may have caused her to quit the program because I asked her why people expect an eternal life? They are usually never worried about what they missed before they were born. She didn’t come back to run the program. And I quit too.

The old school nuns could be very cranky, cruel, vicious and very frustrated women just like these pedophile priests are supposed to be. I am sure these pages could be flooded with stories along these lines. That was before the days Masters and Johnson and Dr, Ruth.

It never seems to be mentioned that most child abuse occurs in the home. At least 95% of it is among family members and relatives. So I have read. A label like “crimes against humanity” is appealing but do you really want to target the rest of those who sexually abuse children? Who will you ask to pay for the damages?

The Catholic Church is always targeted but none of the other religious denominations ever seem to be mentioned. I find it impossible to believe that only Priests have been pedophiles. I once asked a roommate in college – who I thought was interested in living with me – a big failure to communicate BTW – and he told me that he had been molested by a counselor at a Boy Scout camp and was not interested. The Boys scouts are practically a gay cliché. So are the Mormons. What does one make of extra marital relations among members of protestant denominations? Aren’t they also as likely to be abusive of their own children and the rest of the population?

I know someone is looking for money in this issue more than they are looking to child welfare. They give no credit to all the religious people in either the Catholic Church or others denominations who take their vows seriously.

The people who naively think celibacy, and I was taught that meant priests never marry – never have offspring and I have since learned that married priests before the time of Gregory “the Great” (VIII?) wanted to prevent priests, bishops and Abbots from regarding any church property that may have been their charge as property they could pass down to their own offspring. Monks take vows of chastity – no use of the plumbing whatsoever. There may have been another thought on the mind of Gregory whatever – that married priests would be inclined to insist that their children marry only the children of other priest. The Catholic Church would have created a caste system within its own ranks very like the ancient Hebrew model.

But I can’t argue that it isn’t right to take advantage of children. That’s what adults do to themselves, most of the time. Sometimes they do it even when they are married to each other.

BTW – the Catholic Church is not alone in having strict rules about Chastity – celibacy etc. Buddhists also have monks and nuns. Some follows of the Hindu religious also practice complete abstinence.

Are people seriously pushing the idea that happiness can only happen in marriage?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive