Zero tolerance clergy abuse
Title: The Pope’s Declaration on Clergy Abuse: A Step in the Right Direction or a Band-aid on A Much Deeper Wound?
Author: Mark M. Bello
Publication: The Legal Examiner
The stories are similar, remarkably consistent. The survivors suffer the similar, yet unique, pain. The predators come from many walks of life and different occupations. They may be priests, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and actors. Their journey to justice is long and emotional because accountability is slow—our criminal justice system and our constitution have built-in protections for those accused, but none for their victims.
As for the Catholic Church, predator priests and those who cover-up their crimes are, far too often, out of reach, until recently. In December 2019, Pope Francis gave clergy abuse victims hope when he declared that the rule of pontifical secrecy no longer applied to the sexual abuse of minors. This rule creates an obligation to keep sensitive information regarding the Catholic Church’s governance strictly confidential. When applied to clergy-sex abuse cases, it has enabled church officials to withhold vital information, cover up criminal activity, and avoid reporting allegations of abuse to legal authorities. As a result, many clergy abuse victims were unable to obtain justice against the Catholic Church.
While the Pope’s declaration is a much overdue move in the right direction, victim-survivors face other obstacles in their pursuit of justice. For example, it is not clear whether Pope Francis’s ruling applies to those seeking information regarding what church officials knew about particular instances of abuse. Can victims discover whether others have made similar accusations? Can they obtain details of internal church investigations?
Furthermore, the pontifical secret is only one avenue the clergy have used to shield evidence of criminal behavior. The seal of the confessional prevents priests from sharing information received during confessions. This protection also extends to conversations in which clergy provide solace, comfort, or aid. Clergy members have consistently refused to testify, at any stage of litigation, regarding these protected communications. Additionally, while documents and testimony can be shared with civil law enforcement officials, they may not be made public.