Sex abuse by priests has turned into a scandal for the Catholic Church. Modern communication is putting pressure on the church to take action.

There’s an old saying in Rome that the Vatican “thinks in centuries.”

In the tiny city-state governing the world’s largest church, this cautious approach is often seen as the key to how Catholicism has survived from the late Roman Empire to the present day.

The problem for the Vatican, though, is that its faithful flock increasingly lives in the present day, where cable television and social media measure time in minutes and seconds. They react far more quickly and critically than Catholics ever did before.

This mismatch between Vatican time and hectic modernity has worsened in recent months as the scandal of priests sexually abusing minors has turned from a moral stain on the Church to probably the greatest challenge Rome has faced since the Reformation.

Activists from both the “progressive” and the “traditionalist” wings of the Church are demanding oversight over the bishops who manage the Church ’s dioceses worldwide and questioning how the traditionally secretive Vatican runs its affairs.

Government officials are increasingly calling for independent reviews of Church records relating to priests who abused youths and to bishops who covered up for them.

Pope Francis, the Argentinian Jesuit who at first won widespread approval for his pithy quips and grandfatherly leadership, now seems overtaken by events.

Activists and authorities no longer trust the Catholic Church hierarchy to solve the problem.

The scandal of Catholic priests molesting youths — mostly teenage boys in religious institutions — has been in the headlines since the 1990s. The Boston Globe’s 2002 series on abuse, which was turned into the Oscar-winning 2015 film “Spotlight,” made it known worldwide.

What the Vatican initially dismissed as local scandals has since been shown to be more widespread as cases are increasingly reported from countries beyond the United States and Ireland.

What’s new is that both Catholic activists and justice authorities no longer trust the Church hierarchy to solve the problem.

Francis has long had a blind spot about the abuse issue. This drawback reached crisis proportions in January when he visited Chile and strongly defended bishops openly accused of covering up for predator priests under their authority.

When this sparked an uproar among Chilean Catholics, the pope sent the Vatican’s top abuse investigator to review the crisis. What he reported back was so serious that Francis had to admit he had made mistakes.

In May, the pope called the Chilean bishops to Rome, where the meeting ended with an unprecedented step — all of them submitted their resignations. The Vatican has accepted a handful of them so far.

In June, U.S. Catholics were shocked to learn that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the popular former archbishop of Washington, DC and a senior U.S. cleric, had been accused of sexually abusing an altar boy in the early 1970s and removed from active ministry.

Reports said McCarrick, while a bishop in New Jersey, used to invite seminarians to his beach house and have one of them share his bed. No assaults were reported, but the behavior was scandalous.

What made it more disturbing was the fact that McCarrick’s behavior was known among other clerics in the United States and at least one priest had urged the Vatican not to promote him.

Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in late July and ordered him to “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion.”

The Church showed a complete disdain for victims.

The McCarrick case raised embarrassing questions about who covered up for him at the Vatican.

Given how high he rose in the hierarchy, suspicion leads from senior Vatican cardinals all the way to the late Pope John Paul II. A full and open inquiry could badly tarnish the reputation of the Polish-born pope, who is revered by conservative Catholics as “John Paul the Great,” and implicate several of his top aides.

As the McCarrick scandal was still unfolding, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report in mid-August saying more than 1,000 children had been sexually abused over seven decades by more than 300 priests in the state.

“As the grand jury found, the Church showed a complete disdain for victims,” the state’s attorney general said.

One of the bishops named in the report was Donald Wuerl, who was in Pittsburgh then and later succeeded McCarrick in Washington. Like his predecessor, Wuerl was made a cardinal, enjoyed a good reputation and had important contacts at the Vatican.

Wuerl tried to defend himself, but it wasn’t long before he had to step down as well.

The severity of the Pennsylvania report prompted federal investigators to announce their own investigation of the sexual abuse crisis in the state, a sign they suspected the hierarchy was hiding more abuse cases in its files.

Attorneys general in five states and Washington D.C. followed suit, saying they would launch their own probes as well.

By late October, federal investigators informed all Catholic bishops in the country they must not “destroy, discard, dispose of, delete or alter” documents related to sexual abuse because officials planned to look into “possible violations of federal laws.”

American-style political tactics and a scandal

Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador in the United States, added the next twist to the scandal in late August when he made the issue part of a growing challenge to Pope Francis by conservative prelates who oppose his cautious efforts to reform the Church .

In an open letter, he accused Francis and his closest advisors of ignoring the warnings about McCarrick and called on the pontiff to step down. He blamed homosexual clerics for the crisis, and conservative Church leaders and bloggers voiced their support for the dissident archbishop.

Viganò’s accusations were partly valid and partly exaggerated. Francis declined to comment at first, but the Vatican eventually refuted some of the points the letters made.

In September, a group of wealthy U.S. Catholics introduced American-style political tactics into the equation by launching a “Red Hat Report” project to vet all cardinals due to vote in the closed-door conclave that some day will elect the next pope.

“Had we had the Red Hat Report, we may not have had Pope Francis,” it said in introductory material that showed where this group stood.

A wave of abuse allegations

While the Chilean and U.S. cases dominated the year’s Catholic headlines, negative news came from other countries as well.

A Church report in September on clerical sexual abuse in Germany showed that 3,677 children and adolescents had been abused by 1,670 priests between 1946 and 2014.

Also that month, the film “Kler” (The Clergy) became a box office hit in traditionally Catholic Poland, drawing in more than three million viewers with its portrayal of the Church as hypocritical and corrupt. A wave of abuse allegations against priests followed.

In India, a bishop was arrested after being accused of repeatedly raping a nun.

In France, a bishop was put on trial for not denouncing an abusive priest, and a cardinal was due in court in January on the same charges. The French Church announced an independent commission into its own past.

Australian bishops said they would produce their own report by mid-2019.

Can the Church take decisive action?

Amid all this news, a long-prepared Vatican meeting of bishops from around the world in October to discuss issues concerning Catholic youth went ahead under the shadow of these other issues.

At times, the meeting — known as a synod — seemed to be more about the abuse crisis, openness to gay Catholics or a larger role for women in the Church than strictly about problems young believers face.

The pope has promoted synods as a way to expand consultation within the worldwide Church, but these month-long meetings traditionally require a year or two of preparation.

That time frame is proving increasingly unwieldy, especially when mounting problems such as the abuse crisis can turn attention away from the chosen topic.

As the pressure mounted, Francis took the unusual step in September of summoning the heads of all national bishops conferences to Rome for a meeting on sexual abuse. But the meeting will not be until late February, by which time further twists in this story can emerge.

When all these cardinals and archbishops gather in Rome, the televised images of Vatican pageantry will only add to expectations that the Catholic Church will finally take decisive action to solve this crisis.

But it is not clear that the hierarchy knows how to do that.


  1. How have modern communication tools complicated the Vatican’s efforts to come to grips with its current crisis?
  2. If you were Pope, what would you do?
  3. Do you see any relationship between the scandals rocking the Catholic Church and the #MeToo movement?

Tom Heneghan was a correspondent, bureau chief, regional news editor and global religion editor during his 40 years at Reuters, with postings in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. He covered the Soviet-Afghan war, two papal elections and Germany’s reunification, which he analyzed in his book “Unchained Eagle: Germany After The Wall”. Based in Paris, he now writes regularly for The Tablet in London and Religion News Service in Washington.

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