16 May 2019, The Tablet

Better, but still not good enough


Pope Francis has issued new rules closing some gaps in the way the Catholic Church handles clerical child abusers, and with those in authority who fail to deal with them satisfactorily. Bishops will be in future accountable to archbishops and both of them to Rome; religious orders must comply; secrecy may not be imposed on victims, who are therefore free to complain to the civil authorities; local secular laws on child protection must be obeyed. These rules are good as far as they go. But that is not nearly far enough.

The fundamental flaw in the Vatican’s approach is to treat sexual abuse of minors as a “delict” against the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, as though the evil in child abuse consists in the violation of priestly celibacy. It does not. That way leads to excuses and to reduced culpability on the grounds that paedophilia is compulsive. And it ignores the fact that some abuse has a sadistic element that may not directly involve genital activity. As the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales will have heard from victims at their meeting in Valladolid last week, the heart of the evil of child abuse is the emotional harm done to the abused child, that often leaves whole lives devastated.

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