The Vatican office responsible for prosecuting complaints of sexual abuse by the clergy has seen a record 1,000 cases reported worldwide this year, including countries that had not heard from before, suggesting that the worst may still come in a crisis that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church.
Almost two decades after the Vatican assumed responsibility for reviewing all cases of abuse, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is overwhelmed today, struggling with a skeleton staff that has not grown at a pace to meet the fourfold increase in the number of cases that arrived in 2019 compared to a decade ago.
"I know that cloning goes against Catholic teaching, but if I could clone my officials and have them work three shifts a day or work seven days a week," they could make the necessary progress, said Monsignor John Kennedy, head of the congregation. discipline section, which processes cases.
"We are effectively seeing a tsunami of cases at this time, particularly from countries we have never heard of (before)," Kennedy said, referring to the allegations of abuse that occurred over most of the years or decades. Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Italy and Poland have joined the US. UU. Among the countries with the majority of cases that reach the congregation, known as CDF.
Kennedy spoke with The Associated Press and allowed an AP photographer and video journalists to enter the internal cameras of the CDF, the first time in court history that visual media have access. Even the most secret Vatican institution now feels the need to show some transparency as the ecclesiastical hierarchy seeks to rebuild trust with grassroots Catholics who have become disillusioned with decades of clergy abuse and cover-up.
Pope Francis took a step to show greater transparency with his decision this week to abolish the so-called "pontifical secret,quot; that governs the prosecution of cases of abuse to increase cooperation with law enforcement.
But the struggles of the CDF remain and are emblematic of the general dysfunction of the internal legal system of the church, which depends on bishops and religious superiors, some without legal experience or qualified canon lawyers on staff, to investigate allegations of sexual abuse that Even the most experienced criminal prosecutors have difficulty analyzing. The system itself is based on an inherent conflict of interest, with a bishop who is asked to evaluate the claim of an alleged unknown victim against the word of a priest whom he considers a spiritual son.
Despite promises of "zero tolerance,quot; and accountability, the adoption of new laws and the creation of expert commissions, the Vatican is still struggling to solve the problem of predatory priests, a scourge that broke out publicly in Ireland and Australia in the 1990s., United States in 2002, parts of Europe from 2010 and Latin America last year.
"I suppose if I were not a priest and if I had a child who was mistreated, I would probably stop going to Mass," said Kennedy, who saw firsthand how the church in his native Ireland lost his credibility about the abuse scandal.
"I would probably stop having something to do with the church because I would say: & # 39; Well, if you can't take care of the children, well, why should I believe you? & # 39;"
But he said the Vatican was committed to combating abuse and only needed more time to prosecute the cases.
"We are going to analyze it forensically and ensure that the right result will be given," he said in an interview.
"It's not about recovering people, because faith is something very personal," he added. "But at least we give people the opportunity to say: & # 39; Well, maybe give the church a second chance to hear the message & # 39;".
Lack of punishment
Located in a mustard-colored palace just inside the gates of the Vatican, the CDF serves as a central prosecution center for abuse cases, as well as an appeals court for priests accused under the church's canon law, a legal system parallel to the application of the civil law that dispenses ecclesial justice.
In the past, when the CDF was known as the Holy Office or the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, such church punishments involved burns at the stake for heretics and the publication of lists of prohibited books that the faithful were forbidden to read.
Today, CDF justice tends more to order wandering priests to prayer, penance and the prohibition of celebrating mass in public. In fact, the worst punishment dictated by the canon law of the church, even for rapists of serial children, is essentially being fired or dismissed from the clerical state.
While priests sometimes consider dismissals to be equivalent to a death sentence, such seemingly minor sanctions for such heinous crimes have outraged victims, whose lives are always marked by their abuse. But recourse to ecclesiastical justice is sometimes all that the victims have, given that statutes of limitations for filing criminal charges or civil litigation have often happened long ago when the survivor accepts the trauma and decides to report the abuse to the authorities, generally to avoid further damage.
"I wanted to make sure that this priest does not have access to any children," said Paul Peloquin, a Catholic clinical psychologist and survivor of abuse who reported his abuser to the archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1990.
By then, church authorities had known for decades that Reverend Earl Bierman had groped the children, and had sent him to therapy. But his bishops put him back in the ministry, where he is believed to have abused more than 70 children. A Kentucky jury convicted him in 1993 and sentenced him to 20 years in prison, where he died in 2005.
Peloquin, however, never received a response to his initial complaint to his bishop.
"It just pissed me off," said Peloquin, who now advises victims from a faith-based perspective that emphasizes forgiveness in healing. "It seemed that they would have called me immediately and they said: & # 39; Let's listen to what you have to say & # 39;".
Due to cases like his, where the bishop ignored the victim, protected the pedophile and placed the reputation of the church above all else, the CDF under the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, persuaded the Pope in 2001 to the Pope John Paul II, elevated to holiness since his death, to centralize the process.
The objective was to take strong measures against the abusers and provide the bishops and religious superiors with the necessary guidance to punish the priests instead of moving them from one parish to another, where they could again abuse. At no time has the Vatican ordered superiors to denounce abusers before the police, although it has insisted that they cooperate with civil complaint laws.
The 2001 revision calls bishops and religious superiors who receive a complaint to conduct a preliminary investigation, which in the United States is often carried out with the help of a lay review board.
If the bishop finds that the claim has a true appearance, he sends the documentation to the CDF that tells him how to proceed: through a full canonical trial, a more expedited "administrative,quot; procedure, or something else, which includes the CDF He takes charge of the investigation.
During the following months and years, the bishop continues the investigation in consultation with the CDF.
Finally, the bishop comes to a verdict and a sanction, which may include the dismissal of the clerical state or "secularization."
If the priest accepts the penalty, the case ends there. If you appeal, the case reaches the CDF for a final decision.
From 2004 to 2014, approximately the years of Benedict's papacy with one year in each bookends, some 848 priests were expelled from around the world and another 2,572 were punished with lesser penalties, according to Vatican statistics.
The Vatican has not published updated statistics since then, but Benedict's approach to defrosting has become apparently unmatched by Francisco. The Jesuit Pope seems more influenced by the arguments that the church and society are better served if the abusers remain in the priesthood, even if they are outside active ministry with young people, so they are at least under the supervision of their superiors and not They can have access to children. in other jobs
Appeals are decided in a conference room with ivory damask walls on the first floor of the Palazzo Sant & # 39; Uffizio, the headquarters of the CDF a stone's throw from St. Peter's Square.
The room is dominated by a huge wooden crucifix on the wall that overlooks St. Peter's Basilica and, at each corner of the room, a closed-circuit television camera that looks at the staff of the CDF.
The cameras record the debates on DVD for the CDF's own archives and in case the Pope wants to see what happened.
It's a horrible job, reading case files full of text messages from priests preparing their victims, psychological evaluations of pedophiles and numbing letters from men and women who were raped as children and are finally coming to terms with their traumas.
"There are times when I am studying cases where I want to get up and shout, that I want to pack my things and leave the office and not return," Kennedy told Catholic journalists in the United States earlier this year.
Nearly 20 years after the CDF took responsibility for the cases, it has processed 6,000 cases of abuse, and at one point Francis regretted that he had an accumulation of 2,000. But the CDF must now face the globalization of the scandal that in 2001 seemed to be largely confined to the English-speaking world.
Today, the CDF has only 17 staff members, with the occasional help of other CDF staff, in addition to the superiors.
Kennedy said he planned to bring a Brazilian, Polish and bilingual American canonist to help compensate for the expected departures of current CDF staff and process cases in countries that are only now taking into account the abuse.
But there are still countries that the CDF has never heard from, a scenario that suggests "or that they are all holy or we still don't know anything about them," Kennedy told AP.
The implication is that the victims are still intimidated and the bishops continue to cover up the cases. A new Vatican law requires that all abuses and cover-ups be reported to church officials, but there is no automatic sanction if someone does not.
Not even in the US UU., Which has the strictest reporting mechanisms, is there any way to ensure that bishops send accusations to the CDF as needed.
"There has never been an independent review of diocesan compliance with that law," said Reverend James Connell, a canonical lawyer representing survivors of abuse.
Enter the library of the Pontifical Gregorian University, climb the spiral staircase to the legal stacks and you will find volume after volume of "Decisions Seu Sententiae,quot;, the legal decisions in Latin language of one of the main courts of the Holy See, the Rota Roman .
The volumes contain hundreds of decrees of petitions to annul Catholic marriages around the world: the paperwork stamped by the Vatican that Catholics must remarry in the church after divorcing.
But there is no such jurisprudence published for the other main court of the Vatican, the CDF. None of these failures are ever published. And that is because until last week, cases of abuse were covered by the highest form of confidentiality in the church, the so-called "pontifical secret."
John Paul decreed that abuse cases would be kept under such strict secrecy in 2001, and the defenders argued that it was the best way to protect the victim's privacy, the defendant's reputation and the integrity of the process.
Critics said the pontifical secret was used to keep the scandal hidden, prevent the police from acquiring internal documentation and silence the victims. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a scathing complaint of secrecy in 2014, and the victims complained for a long time about how they were traumatized:
Many were kept secret for decades by their abusers, only for the church to re-traumatize them by secretly imposing them when they finally found the courage to report the crime.
In announcing the abolition of the highest confidentiality in cases of abuse, the Vatican said the reform would facilitate cooperation with the civil police, since bishops will no longer be able to hide behind the pontifical secret to retain documents.
The argument was surprising, since it amounted to an explicit admission that the bishops had used the pontifical secret as an excuse to refuse cooperation when prosecutors, police or civil authorities demanded internal paperwork.
In more academic terms, the lack of published CDF jurisprudence means that no bishop or religious superior has jurisprudence to refer to when he receives a new accusation that one of his priests has raped a child: he cannot read how the Vatican or his brothers Bishops have handled a similar set of facts in the past, since none of the cases are published.
No seminarian studying canon law can cite case studies in preparing his thesis on how the Catholic Church has responded to the abuse scandal. No academic, journalist, victim or ordinary Catholic has a real idea of how the Catholic Church has judged these cases systematically.
The Rev. DG Astigueta, a Jesuit canonist in the Gregorian, has said that the institutional secret surrounding the abuse case impairs the development and practice of the church's own law.
"Canonical science not only grows and develops from a reflection of experts or the production of new laws, but also from jurisprudence, how to interpret the law by judges and lawyers," he said at a 2017 conference.
He asked for greater transparency on the part of the CDF so that today's canonical lawyers, especially those studying in Rome, can have easy access to case files and, therefore, have "a teaching based not only on theory but in practice. "
He is not alone. In recent years, universities affiliated with the Vatican in Rome have organized conferences on the search for a new balance between the need to protect the integrity of the investigation and, in particular, the needs of the victims.
Three of the official speakers at Francisco's great sexual abuse summit in February called for a reform of the pontifical secret, and the principal investigator of sexual crimes at the Vatican, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, was the main driver of the reform.
In another change to church law this year, Francisco decreed that victims cannot be silenced and that they have the right to know the results of their cases. But they still remain out of the process, after filing an initial complaint.
"They are that person who has been harmed. And it seems natural that they know what is being done in their absence," said Marie Collins, an Irish survivor who resigned from Francis' child protection commission. The frustration in part of what he said was the intransigence and obsession of the CDF with the secret.
And the time that cases do not benefit anyone, he added.
The CDF will soon publish a step-by-step guide for bishops and religious superiors to consult them so they can process the cases, and two investigators are working hard in Kennedy's office, entering the details of the case into a database so that The CDF can generate a statistical analysis of the cases it has processed in the last two decades.
Kennedy said he needs more funds to complete the project, and said that more transparency could be possible in the future.
"I think we will eventually reach the point of publishing jurisprudence, as the Roman Rota does," he said. The objective would be to write revealing names and details, but to show "the general parameters of what we do,quot;.