In this article we consider the impact that the recent sexual abuse scandals will have on the Catholic Church, and suggest the possible solution of including women in clerical leadership positions.
Sexual abuse scandals
Over the past couple of decades, there has been increasing awareness of the Catholic Church’s sexual indiscretions. Starting with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and their 2002 report on the 130 rape victims of former priest John J. Geoghan, there has since been an international attempt at investigating these crimes.
Just this September, an independent inquiry revealed that there were about 216 000 victims of sexual abuse carried out by the French Catholic Church from 1950 to 2020. Australia has also uncovered similar abuse. In 2017, the Royal Commission tasked with investigating institutional child sexual abuse reported that 7% of priests were accused of abusing children in the 1950 to 2010 period. Germany found that 1 670 clergymen had sexually abused 3 677 minors between 1946 and 2014. Mexico, the Philippines, and Poland have also had similar investigations. Shockingly, Ireland’s Catholic institutions are estimated to have tallied around 15 000 victims just between 1970 and 1990 alone.
Interestingly, two-thirds of the world’s Catholic population live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And so, while statistics on these regions are more difficult to come by, it is still crucial that we look at statistics outside of these Western spaces. In South Africa, 35 cases of abuse involving priests have been reported to the Church since 2003. Only seven of these 35 cases were, however, brought to the police. More broadly, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has received over 40 complaints of abuse over the past 14 years. While the abuse in Europe, Australia, and America has largely targeted young boys, these complaints made in Southern Africa are largely brought forward by teenage girls. Despite this difference in victims targeted, both regions face endemic abuse perpetrated by clergymen.
How has the Vatican responded?
When looking at the Vatican’s response, we must also consider the change in leadership that it has undergone. The late Pope Benedict XVI implemented reforms but was unsuccessful in holding bishops guilty of cover-ups accountable. In 2013, we saw the election of Pope Francis. On the face of it, this represented a tonal shift towards the denouncing of this behaviour. In 2018, he publicly condemned the sexual abuse committed by the clergy and acknowledged the role that the Church played in covering up the crimes. Just this year, he helped update canon law to explicitly criminalise the sexual abuse of adults and children.
Pope Francis has, however, made some blunders. He dismissed accusations that Chilean bishop Juan Barros was complicit in cover-ups as slander back in 2018. He later admitted to regretting the statement. In September of this year, he refused to accept the resignations of a number of German bishops who were found guilty of mismanaging sexual abuse cases through an investigation conducted by the Church itself. Ultimately, there has been inadequate action in holding perpetrators amongst the clergy accountable. Moreover, the Vatican has failed to take a consistently hard stance towards its sexual abusers. Failure to do so can be interpreted as endorsement of the abuse, or as the Church placing greater value on its abusive clergy than on their victims.
Implication: How will the Vatican’s reputation be impacted?
What effect will this have on Catholics around the world? If this kind of attitude continues, it is quite feasible that the world’s Catholic institutions will begin to lose credibility as parents become increasingly fearful of leaving their children under the clergy’s supervision. This trend of leaving the Church has already been noted in Germany. In 2019, 272 771 Germans left the Church in the wake of the 2018 report on sexual abuse within the Church. With increased investigations and subsequent reports, parents will have more information than ever before, and be further encouraged to make the same decision.
However, this attitude is dependent on the level of acceptance any given society has of openly discussing issues of sexual abuse. As discussed earlier, Africa holds a large portion of the world’s Catholic population. And so, it is important to consider the African reality. Generally speaking, clerics tend to consider the issue of sexual abuse as too sensitive for public dissemination in Africa. This has contributed to the above-mentioned problem of a lack of statistics concerning assault across the Continent. But more than that, it means that many cases of sexual assault go unreported and that cover-ups are rife. There is also talk amongst former priests and seminarians that women and Catholic sisters are typically victims of abuse. Ultimately, it is difficult to quantify the level of abuse within the Catholic churches of Africa due to the stigma attached to reporting and discussing the incidents. Taking this into account, it seems that the Catholic Church does not foresee a loss of global influence due to its transgressions in the immediate future in this region.
While we have discussed how the Catholic Church stands to retain its global influence, it is important to consider what needs to be done to improve its image and reputation regardless. An interesting solution to this problem has come out of Fulda, Germany.
Here, a Catholic women’s movement, Maria 2.0, has called for equality and a rather radical change in the Church’s leadership. One of 65 branches across Germany, the movement aims to include the ordination of women, to recognise LGBTQ+ relationships, to abolish compulsory clergy celibacy, and to prompt adequate investigations into sexual violence allegations. However, Maria 2.0 does not wish to stop here. Its members are seeking to modernise the Church and are calling for power to be shared equally: in other words, opening up the roles of bishop and priest to women. Some members have gone as far as suggesting appointing a woman as Pope.
Is the future female?
Women have increasingly been allowed into traditionally male spaces. While the pace of this progression, or even presence of it at all, has varied from region to region, and from country to country, it is undeniable that women are entering spaces that they were previously barred from entering. This then leaves us with a crucial question: Will women ever become Priests, Bishops, and Popes?
I think it is only a matter of time. While it is extremely unlikely that the next Pope elected will be a woman, it is not an inconceivable thought that a woman will hold this position some day. As the world moves forward, it is only logical that the Catholic Church will adapt with it. It is true that the Church will most likely take a bit longer to catch up, but change is inevitable. No institution can persist and live on without adapting to the changes society undergoes. The only question left then is as follows: Will the inclusion of women in clerical leadership roles prevent abuse?
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.