In the span of a few weeks, the Catholic Church has been dealt a triple whammy. Oscar awards for Spotlight, the eruption of a massive clergy abuse scandal in Pennsylvania, and Cardinal George Pell's testimony have brought child sexual abuse front and center into public consciousness again.
Spotlight Wins at the Oscars
The 2015 film Spotlight, starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters who unearthed child sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight director Tom McCarthy told PRI that he hopes the film will inspire new journalists to undertake "strong investigative journalism" on a local and national level.
To the delight of advocates who support clergy abuse victims, Spotlight won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 2016 Academy Awards. According to PIX 11 News, Fox 2 Now, and WHO 13 News, more clergy abuse victims and whistle blowers have sought out the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) since the Oscars.
A Clergy Abuse Scandal Erupts in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania was left shaken when the state Attorney General's office released a damning report accusing the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese of rampant child sexual abuse by clergy. The authors of the report described the document as an effort "not to slander a religion but expose the truth about the men who hijacked it for their own grotesque desires."
According to the investigating grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, hundreds of children were sexually abused by clergy in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Moreover, the report states that Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec failed to report predators to the police, choosing instead to protect the predators instead.
According to the report, special agents of the Office of the Attorney General found overwhelming "evidence of an institutional crisis" in the diocese' files in form of clergy abuse victim statements, letters from victims, and internal correspondence related to offending priests. The grand jury documented child sexual abuse by at least fifty priests and religious leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. The bishops' reported inaction resulted in impunity for predatory priests. Bishop Adamec in particular behaved in a callous manner when confronted with abuse in his diocese, according to the report.
"The [FBI's] Behavioral Assessment Unit characterized Bishop Joseph Adamec's approach to sexual child abuse as "laissez-faire." [Supervisory Special Agent] Isom and the group noted in particular that Adamec was mailed an anonymous letter stating that Joseph Bender had sexually abused children. When Adamec interviewed Father Bender he stated he hadn't done anything like that for 20 years. Adamec's bold effort to protect the children of the Diocese was to return Bender to ministry reasoning that if it had been serious the writer would have signed the letter.Adamec reportedly crafted a payout chart that he used to determine how much payout money would be given to clergy abuse victims, according to Pennlive. "Level 1 abuse", such as fondling over clothes, was assigned a diocese payout of $10,000 to $25,000. "Level 4 abuse", which included penetrative abuse, was assigned a payout of $50,000 to $175,000.
The FBI noted other incidents where even the accused priests were alarmed that Adamec wasn't taking notes when interviewing them regarding the allegations. Adamec's statement that he would "write down what he needed to remember" would have only furthered the accused's belief that the allegation alone must be insufficient or not important.
While the Grand Jury found it was not Bishop Joseph Adamec's practice to call the police when dealing with allegations of sexual child abuse, the FBI noted ... how little Adamec seemed to be concerned with the wellbeing of the children of his Diocese ..."
Adamec responded to the grand jury report with a statement claiming that "the Grand Jury was not provided with a full and balanced set of facts based on all the materials and information that were available ... As a result of this failure, the above Report contains criticism of Bishop Adamec that is unfounded." The statement insists that Adamec "always adhered to a standard process for investigating, evaluating, and addressing allegations of abuse." (Hat tip to Pennlive.)
After the release of the report, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese apologized. In a March 3rd statement, Bishop Mark Bartchak offered a 'heartfelt and sincere apology" to the victims, their loved ones, and the people of the diocese. Bartchak promised to publish a list of priests who had been subjects of "credible allegations" as well as their current status.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office launched a hotline for those who wanted to report more clergy abuse accusations. The hotline was immediately flooded with calls, according to the Associated Press and Pennlive.
In the wake of the scandal, SNAP director David Clohessy urged Pennsylvania's Catholic leaders to aggressively battle clergy abuse.
"We urge Catholic officials in central Pennsylvania to use church websites, parish bulletins and pulpit announcements to aggressively seek out anyone who may have seen, suspected or suffered crimes by these clerics and beg them to call police. This is the very least that church officials should do.Pennsylvania's current statute of limitations prevents many of the diocese's victims from seeking justice. Under Pennsylvania law, sexual abuse victims have until age 30 to sue and age 50 to seek criminal charges, reports CBS 21. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) lamented that so many cases of child sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese went unpunished because the statute of limitations expired. Like the authors of the grand jury report, PCAR advocated for the removal of the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases, calling the current statute "outdated and ineffective legislation".
All too often, when clergy sex crimes emerge, church staff pretend to be powerless. They are not. They have both the resources and the duty to spread the word and actively help police and prosecutors build a strong case against predatory preachers."
Australian Cardinal George Pell Testifies
Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was created in 2013 with a mission to investigate institutions that failed to protect children from sexual abuse or to respond appropriately to reports of abuse. Among the institutions investigated by the Royal Commission was the Diocese of Ballarat in Victoria.
Evidence shows that at least 130 claims of child sexual abuse have been made against the Ballarat diocese since 1980, with as many as 14 priests accused of abusing children, reports the Guardian. Those who testified before the Royal Commission accused Ballarat Diocese leaders of responding inappropriately to abuse reports, moving predatory priests from parish to parish, blaming and belittling victims, and trying to bribe at least one victim into silence.
Last month, former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns told the Royal Commission via video link that he was sorry for failing to halt the "problem with priests", according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Cardinal George Pell, who served as a consultor to former Bishop Mulkears, served in the Ballarat Diocese alongside some of the priests who were accused of abuse. (To boot, Pell himself is no stranger to abuse accusations.) Pell would later serve as Archbishop of Sydney and Archbishop of Melbourne before rising to the rank of cardinal.
After mounting pressure to testify and the release of a satirical song, Pell agreed to deliver testimony via video link to the Royal Commission. Fifteen survivors of clergy abuse flew to Rome to hear Pell's testimony at Hotel Quirinale, their travel expenses raised through crowdfunding, according to 9 News and the Age. The Guardian reported that a journalist was allegedly punched and a cameraman was shoved by security personnel when they tried to film Pell outside the Hotel Quirinale.
According to Al Jazeera, Pell also denied offering a bribe to a clergy abuse victim in exchange for the victim's silence. Pell also told the commission that rumors of clergy abuse he heard as early as the 1970s were not his responsibility to investigate. He was also inclined to believe priestly denials of abusive behavior. "I must say in those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Pell admitted feeling apathy toward Gerald Ridsdale's alleged abuse of children. "It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me ... I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated," he told the Royal Commission, according to the Guardian. Pell's lack of curiosity when confronted with possible abuse in the church forced columnist Andrew Bolt to conclude that he was either lying or "dangerously indifferent", reports the Guardian.
Pell admitted that clergy abuse is "indefensible", adding that "the church has made enormous mistakes", report the Guardian and Al Jazeera. It was a "disastrous coincidence" that so many predators were present in the Ballarat Diocese, he said, according to ABC News (Australia), and denied that they might have been placed together intentionally.
Pell's laughable claims that he could not remember details of important events and that he was kept in the dark by other clergy angered some observers. According to Reuters, the clergy abuse survivors who flew to Rome faxed a message to Pope Francis that read, "This is about children. Children who were abused and damaged in the past. ... We would like to request a meeting to discuss the commitment to the children of the past and children of the future, to implement systems so that this is never repeated again."
Pope Francis did not meet with the clergy abuse survivors. Upon their return to Australia, the group urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to support a national redress scheme for abuse survivors, according to the Guardian.
These three events show us that public awareness of clergy abuse has growing by leaps and bounds. Victims, entertainers, and authorities refuse to stay silent about clergy abuse, and are instead demanding accountability from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, for its part, can no longer deny the problem without revealing its own callousness and incompetence.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
The Guardian: We learned about George Pell's pain. But what about the children?
Sydney Morning Herald: Cardinal George Pell has to resign, or Pope Francis must act
Mother Jones: Hundreds of Children Allegedly Abused Over 40-Year Period in Pennsylvania Diocese, Grand Jury Determines
New York Times: Spotlight Oscar Warms Boston Globe, and Journalism