Four ways to tackle systemic abuse in the Catholic Church


Photo Illustration by George Frey.

Saly Seye

Just last month, a two-year investigation into sexual molestation in the Catholic Church yielded harrowing revelations. In the almost 900-page report released by a grand jury, details of rape, abuse and torture implicated almost 300 priests and revealed more than 1,000 victims in six of eight Pennsylvania dioceses. Furthermore, the report showed a systemic pattern of bishops covering up and minimizing the trauma inflicted on children since the 1940s.
Since then, a flurry of smaller yet equally serious accusations have further muddied the Church’s already damaged reputation. Allegations of everything from nuns murdering orphan children to both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict’s awareness of abusive clergy members are coming to light in the era of #MeToo, highlighting a dire need for reform.
The Church is no stranger to abuse scandals. At the turn of the century, a similarly explosive 2002 report from the Boston Globe shocked the masses when it uncovered hundreds of childhood abuse cases previously kept under wraps. Though it resulted in Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation, priests continue to molest kids across the world and face no consequences. Since the Boston Globe’s collection of more than 600 stories, media attention on Church abuse scandals has grown almost exponentially. Despite more media coverage, the vast majority of victims may never see their assailant face trial, let alone a day in jail.
Children as young as three are losing their innocence at the hands of the very people they’re looking up to. Adults grapple with anything from substance abuse to depression, never getting past the horrors they couldn’t tell anyone in their youth. In the age of #MeToo, where people find strength in revealing stories of sexual violence, it’s unacceptable to let those who enable abusers go unpunished. Even though it originates from inside the Church, solutions to this complex problem exist in lawmakers, in the general public and with both federal and state governments.
Lift the statute of limitations for sex crimes
A major obstacle to prosecuting abusive priests lies in the criminal justice system. In almost every state exists different laws, but a statute of limitations for felony sex crimes remains in most states. Unfortunately, this gets in the way of prosecuting almost every sexual abuse case involving the Church.
Currently, Pennsylvania law allows accusers to file criminal charges until they reach the age of 50 and to seek civil damages until they turn 30. Though they have some of the best laws in terms of aiding victims, the idea that there’s a right time or a time limit for someone to come to terms with their abuse is flawed. Pennsylvania’s grand jury report spans several decades, a long enough time that many can no longer file charges.
State law says they’re too old to file charges and get justice for what they’ve gone through. It says they’ve waited too long to come to terms with the trauma which, statistically, very likely caused them to abuse alcohol or drugs, to experience trouble forming meaningful relationships, or to struggle with other mental health problems.
Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told Time,I did not remember my abuse or some of it for 30 years.” Sufferers of rape and sexual abuse often wait years to disclose due to anything from shame to fear. They have trouble coming to terms in their own minds with the abuse, let alone reporting it to an authority or even saying it out loud to a friend or family member.
The law has no place telling anyone who’s suffered molestation how long they have to make peace with what’s happened to them.
Statutes of limitations also, quite literally, provide abusers with a get out of jail free card. A number of survivors named in the Pennsylvania report are in late middle age, many of their abusers having lived full lives with no punishment for their crimes. We cannot let predators roam free while hundreds, possibly thousands of victims become nothing but a statistic, left powerless in the hands of the law.  
Demand more states to launch investigations
Abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church are well-documented around the world. From Australia to Germany to Ireland, these scandals all look about the same: credibly accused priests moved from parish to parish in order to avoid scandal. The Church has shown repeatedly it will sacrifice children’s security for a lack of bad publicity.
It’s time for the rest of America to follow in Boston and Pennsylvania’s footsteps: the rest of the country must do everything in its power to investigate and identify predatory priests. Not every state can subpoena its dioceses, and it’s unclear just how many documents hold crucial information.
But, where there’s a will there’s a way: state attorneys general can coordinate with local prosecutors, file civil suits, compel grand juries and investigate top church officials accused of covering up abuse. Investigating the Church may very well take years: there’s no telling the full extent of this problem. Persuading attorneys general to open investigations or find loopholes, however, takes power in numbers. One or two people simply will not suffice. To properly pressure any sitting any attorney general into making a bold move like investigating one of the biggest religious institutions in history, their constituents must blow up phones, send emails and maybe even demonstrate.
Not every state is as willing to voluntarily open up an investigation as Pennsylvania, but the fact stands: abuse allegations are implicating priests across the country, and it’s worth finding out who’s protecting them.
Hold any clergy member who covers up abuse accountable
Childhood sexual abuse thrives in silence. It flourishes in darkness. Failing to require full transparency from the Church, especially with widespread abuse epidemic, lets its members continue to keep credibly accused assailants employed near children. In combating this crisis, one cannot neglect those who’ve enabled it at every level of power. As cases of widespread abuse have popped up in country after country, the pope’s silence in this dire crisis becomes more deafening with each case.
In 2014, Pope Francis implemented the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Since then it’s accomplished little, top officials even saying it isn’t their job to investigate abuse. Made up of about 16 members, this committee sits at the top of the Church’s hierarchy, all the way in the Vatican. President Sean O’Malley said in a statement to Vatican News that the “commission’s starting point is not to investigate abuses; [its] starting point is to prevent abuses.”
This vague language ironically describes perfectly what they fail to do; besides providing some 80,000 documents in an Ireland scandal it has made next to zero progress towards actually preventing future abuse cases.
To make matters worse, they are accountable to only the pope himself and receive no oversight outside the Church. Evidence from the Pennsylvania case indicates the Vatican knew about not only abuse but about the cover-ups by bishops. The truth is, victims cannot trust that the Vatican alone will handle abuse cases with integrity and honesty.
The time came long ago for the Church to introduce and embrace oversight. Independent bodies should work alongside, but not within, this institution to look at cases of abusive clergy members.Additionally, an independent body should change the way the Church deals with bad publicity: Gone must be the days where it vilifies survivors’ groups instead of getting rid of bad officials.
Listen to survivors
Possibly some of the most powerful voices in this epidemic come from those most gravely affected by it. Whether survivors of sexual abuse call for reform, legal action or federal investigations, their input deserves the utmost weight and consideration. They, after all, are the very people who’ve been most violated by the system in its current state. Several victims’ organizations have formed since the late 1980s and early 1990s, Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) becoming a prominent group.
Started by a victim in 1989, SNAP regularly holds conferences, releases information on less-publicized instances of priest abuse and supports bills that help combat abuse crises. Having faced ostracization, slander and pushback from the Church, they remain relentless in their mission to not only help survivors, but prevent more cases. Regardless of how they choose to go about advocating for an end of systemic abuse, the public is morally obligated to make victims heard and respected. They have advocated for themselves long before it’s gained media attention; it’s time we amplify their wishes and stand with them rather than ignoring them, speaking over them, or standing by while other groups try to silence them.
For decades, possibly centuries, the Church has engaged in what is essentially organized crime. Complacency, in a country where 72 million identify as Catholic, allows these horrific crimes to stay hidden. Just about everyone can play a part in fixing this crisis, no matter their political standing: power, after all, lies with the people. At the end of the day, if ordinary citizens don’t show they care, nobody with any authority can do anything. Even the easiest actions can go the longest way: volunteering with or donating to survivors’ groups, keeping up with the news, and calling senators. Catholic or not, Christian or not, no one should do what the Church has for so long: look the other way.          
For more information on survivors, visit For updates on the crisis, visit