This week, Pope Francis has summoned key Catholics to a summit in Rome to address clerical sexual abuse, the biggest crisis the Catholic Church has faced since the Reformation 500 years ago.
While Australia has been forced to deal with the problem more comprehensively than probably any other country, largely thanks to the Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, a far bigger problem appears to exist on Australia’s doorstep, among Asia’s hundreds of millions of Catholics.
Catholic clerics from the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa, have tried to push the specious argument that clerical and broader child sexual abuse is a “Western problem”.
Some argued that there are cultural differences across these continents. Of course this is true, but too often this fact has been used as a justification for leaving Catholics in these countries to deal — or not deal — with their own problems, without guidance from Rome.
The idea that clerical sex abuse is “a problem linked to any culture or geographic part of the world … is a myth that has to be dispelled,” according to Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s lead investigator into clerical sexual abuse, who also reviews appeals filed by priests laicized or otherwise disciplined in sexual abuse cases.
In recent weeks, Francis has shown he is increasingly willing to tackle the problem proactively.
This was triggered by the Vatican’s inept mishandling of a widespread crisis of abuse and cover-up in Chile. The investigation, headed up by Scicluna, resulted in all Chilean bishops’ tendering their resignation.
This was followed by escalating revelations and horror stories from inquiries in New York State and Pennsylvania, throwing the powerful US Church into turmoil.
On February 13, Pope Francis dismissed retired archbishop of Washington DC Theodore McCarrick from the elite College of Cardinals, also stripping him of his priesthood, or laicizing him.
Historically, such moves are extremely rare and McCarrick is the first man to be removed for sexual abuse from the elite group of priests who elect the pope.
On February 5, the pope publicly acknowledged a fresh front in the sex abuse scandal, one of the church’s worst-kept secrets: the widespread problem of abuse of nuns by priests from all ranks, including effectively forced abortions.
The problem has broken through the culture of denial and silence in the Catholic Church in India, a country with about 25 million Catholics.
In mid-2018, an unnamed nun came forward, going to police in the Indian Catholic heartland of southern Kerala state with her accusations of serial rape against Bishop Franco Mulakkal between 2014 and 2016.
She did this after her pleas to Indian church leaders to take action were ignored, underscoring the culture of denial and cover-up. It was not until police began investigating that the church responded with an apostolic administrator put in place to run the diocese while both authorities and the Vatican investigated. Yet even now, the nun is being urged by her superior to “change her mind”, illustrating cover-ups are not limited to male clergy.
But abuse of minors by priests and bishops in Asia is, of course, also a problem, several cases have come to light in India and also the Philippines, Asia’s most Catholic nation with about 80 million faithful.
Closer to home, clerical abuse has raised its ugly head in Timor-Leste where about 90% of people identify as Catholic.
An expose by local news website Tempotimor.com revealed the laicization of an American priest Richard Daschbach, 82, for sexually abusing underage girls in orphanages he has run for 27 years. But the fact he remains living near the facilities and has not yet been arrested shows just how strong the links are between church and state in the tiny nation.
Catholic clerics in a range of countries across Asia who spoke to Crikey on the condition of confidentiality said that these cases were just the tip of the iceberg.
As president of the Australian Bishops Conference, the Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge will represent Australian Catholics at the conference.
“For me over the years it’s been a journey from seeing abuse as a sin, to seeing it as a crime and then finally seeing it as a culture — by which I mean abuse and its cover-up were aggravated, and probably caused, by cultural elements in the Catholic Church,” he said in a video message from Rome this week.
“It took me a long time to see that and to see therefore the need for cultural change if we are to go to the root of the crisis and not just treat the symptoms.
“What’s more important … is that action follows from whatever happens here. Words are no longer enough. That’s something that we started learning long ago in Australia, and we have to keep on learning and re-learning …”
While victims here remain sceptical and their expectations of the Vatican summit remain low, the Australian Catholic Church could do worse than reaching out to the church hierarchies and abuse victims in Asia to help them deal with what is likely to be a long and painful journey.
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