By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
In an exceptionally rare but welcomed move, Pope Francis (pictured) has defrocked a Chilean priest convicted of sexually assaulting children.
It’s the toughest penalty available to the Pope – with the exception of ex-communication, and a sign the Church may finally be taking a stronger stance against clergymen who abuse their positions by preying on minors, or covering-up the crimes of their colleagues.
The story so far
The priest at the centre of the scandal, Reverend Fernando Karadima, was found guilty of a range of sexual offences against children in 2011.
But it wasn’t until Pope Francis initiated an investigation earlier this year that he began to fully understand that Karadima was just the tip of the iceberg.
The investigation delivered a 2,300-page report, concluding there was a “culture of abuse” and pattern of inaction and concealment in in the Chilean Catholic Church.
The report accused church leaders of failing to investigate credible allegations — even destroying documents to conceal them — and transferring priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes.
As Pope Francis discovered the extent of the problem, he summoned all Chilean Bishops to Rome and asked 30 members of the clergy to offer their resignations. Seven of them are reported to have complied so far.
Last week, Pope Francis condemned Karadima to a life of “prayer and penance” and defrocked the priest. This means Karadima can still attend Church and partake in communion, but is no longer recognised as a former clergyman of the Church.
As public outcry about child sexual abuse within the Chilean Catholic church mounted, public prosecutors raided church offices and confiscated files, compiling evidence that has led to the opening of dozens of criminal investigations.
In a statement to media, Pope Francis said he has ‘zero tolerance’ for abuse. The world is now watching as he considers the Church’s position in other countries too.
Closer to home, the repercussions for the Catholic Church of systemic child sexual abuse are only just beginning.
Last year, the Royal Commission found 4,444 separate allegations of abuse against the Catholic Church, with an alleged 1,880 perpetrators, of which 572 are priests.
Following a special criminal investigation, high ranking official Cardinal George Pell, who was working within the Vatican, was charged with multiple historical child sex offences. He is now in Melbourne and is expected to stand trial later this year.
Adelaide Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson, believed to be the highest ranking Catholic in the world to be convicted of concealing child sex offences, resigned from the Church after being sentenced to twelve months of home detention earlier this year.
But while Australian law enforcers may finally be able to get tough on individual priests who have committed sex offences or been complicit in covering them up, the Vatican has been slow to acknowledge what’s been occurring in Australia.
Tax exempt and immune from civil liability
There are widespread calls for the Australian Church to do more to acknowledge and support victims. Despite being reportedly worth a staggering $30 billion, the Church continues to fight compensating victims of sexual abuse.
Under Australian law, the Church is not only exempt from paying taxes but is an entity that cannot be sued, which means victims of abuse are left to pursue compensation through the Church’s ‘redress’ schemes, which have been relentlessly criticised as difficult to access and woefully inadequate.
Refusal to report child sexual abuse
Another cause for concern in Australia is that many Catholic Priests are adamant they will defy new any laws which may require them to report information received about child sexual abuse in past, present or future confessions.
And while South Australia expects to pass such laws later this month, the NSW government has made clear that it does not intend to follow the Royal Commission’s recommendation to lift the ‘seal of confession’ and make it compulsory to report such abuse.
The refusal has led to accusations that the government is prioritising the protection of priests and Catholic Church above child safety.
Around the World
Pope Francis has also been recently confronted with the results of a leaked study from Germany, which found that clerics had abused thousands of children over a 70-year period.
The document, commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, suggested that 1,670 clerics and priests had sexually abused 3,677 minors, mostly males, between 1946 and 2014. It also found that, in many cases, evidence of abuse had been destroyed or manipulated by clergy.
In the United States, a Grand Jury indicted 301 priests in Pennsylvania for sexually abusing minors, and in a recent tour of Ireland, the Pope met with survivors who had suffered child sexual abuse at the hands of the Church.
It has become abundantly apparent that child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is a global problem, one which needs to be urgently addressed.