National reports, claims against Fr. Rupnik dominate 2023 headlines about abuse

Advocates for zero tolerence of clergy sexual abuse including Tim Law, left, Denise Buchanan and Peter Isely attend a march with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and activists near the Vatican in Rome Sept. 27, 2023. (OSV News photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters)

(OSV News) – Efforts continued throughout 2023 to tackle clerical sex crimes in the Catholic Church, with church or state reports being published in several European countries and the case of Father Marko Rupnik making numerous waves of headlines.

"There are very basic principles in crisis management that the church is finally learning to implement," said Yago de la Cierva, communications professor who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and author of a book on crisis management for the church.

"One of them is: investigate what happened and report it to your stakeholders, they have the right to know, so prevention starts on truth," the crisis expert told OSV News. "But even more important is taking care of victims. Their first need is not economic compensation nor vengeance, but information about what happened and why."

In de la Cierva's native Spain, the bishops' conference pledged amends when a parliament-appointed commission, headed by ombudsman Ángel Gabilondo, reported that one in 10 citizens had suffered abuse as minors, around 1.13% said that the abuse occurred in the religious sphere and, of these, 0.6% said they have been sexually abused by a priest or religious.

However, many of the Gabilondo report's recommendations had already been adopted, the conference added, while media claims of 400,000 church-related victims were "false and unfounded."

"We express pain for the damage caused and reiterate our plea for forgiveness – we also wish to work together towards a comprehensive reparation for victims," the Madrid-based conference said in an Oct. 31 statement.

"While abuses committed in the church are a cause of pain, the extrapolations made from this report's data do not correspond to the truth or properly represent those priests and religious who loyally dedicate their lives to serving the Kingdom," the Spanish bishops said.

The expert stressed, however, that "the Spanish bishops didn't take the initiative in launching an investigation, as the Vatican suggested in February 2019, during the so-called abuse summit. Only when they saw the government doing it on its own did they finally decide to take action. But they arrived on the scene late, and lost the narrative battle," de la Cierva said. "Much better to be proactive," he emphasized.

This was the approach taken by bishops in neighboring Portugal as they reiterated safeguarding commitments, after an independent commission, headed by attorney Pedro Strecht, presented a 500-page report in February with 512 abuse testimonies.

However, Octávio Carmo, chief editor of the Portuguese church's Ecclesia information agency, criticized the Strecht Commission's reliance on anonymous testimonies and said only 17 of the 104 alleged clergy abusers named in its report were still working as priests.

Pope Francis met abuse victims privately in Portugal Aug. 2 during the church's World Youth Day festival, for which staffers and volunteers received training on abuse prevention.

During an evening liturgy, the pope said the church still needed "humble and ongoing purification," recognizing that anger over abuse had contributed to a "growing detachment from practice of the faith," after the Portuguese report said at least 4,815 minors were sexually abused by clergy – mostly priests – over seven decades.

A study in Switzerland, sponsored by the church, commissioned from Zurich University in 2021, and published in 2023, highlighted "systemic problems," noting that the country's six Catholic dioceses still showed varying degrees of "professionalization" in countering abuse.

A big European church still struggling with transparent investigation of abuse is that of Poland. The country's bishops confirmed March 14 they also would appoint a team to investigate clergy crimes.

"The wait for the commission is indeed quite long," Marcin Przeciszewski, director of Poland's Catholic Information Agency, or KAI, told OSV News. "But it is also worth understanding the main person responsible for it – Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, delegate of child protection of the Polish bishops. He is clearly preparing that commission patiently and – yes – slowly – but he does that in order to include different stakeholders, like religious orders, and get the real backing of the bishops' conference," he said.

Archbishop Polak, apologized for his church's past "naivete," after a report in the Rzeczpospolita daily suggested much higher rates of child abuse by Catholic clergy had occurred under communist rule than previously believed.

The October Synod in Rome also discussed the issue of abuse and its synthesis report acknowledged that "concrete gestures of penitence" were still needed to address "structural conditions that abetted abuse."

The report mentioned a problem many bishops faced, and because of it – failed to take action "in the difficult situation of having to reconcile the role of father with that of judge." It might be appropriate, the report noted, to assign "the judicial task to another body, to be specified canonically."

Church experts were busy investigating cases In Latin America in 2023, with the adjunct secretary of the Vatican's Dicastery for Doctrine of the Faith, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, paid a summer visit to Peru to investigate Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a lay society of apostolic life, following a parliamentary commission's report on its activities.

The Sodalitium's 1971 founder, Luis Fernando Figari, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 after accusations of systemic abuse against dozens of Sodalitium members. However, nothing had been done "to hold the abusers responsible," theologian Rocio Figueroa, a former member and abuse victim, told OSV News in July.

In neighboring Bolivia, 20 former abuse victims brought legal action Oct. 3 against the Jesuits for protecting pedophile clerics in order-run schools, following the posthumous publication of diary confessions by Spanish Jesuit Father Alfonso Pedrajas by the Spanish El Pais daily in the spring. The publication sparked accusations against other priests in Bolivia and an investigation pledge by the country's bishops, as well as a letter to the pope by Bolivian president Luis Arce, requesting access to Vatican files.

In the United States, a number of Catholic dioceses filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code during the year: the dioceses of Albany and Ogdensburg, New York, and Oakland and Santa Rosa, California, and the archdioceses of San Francisco and Baltimore. In December, the Diocese of Sacramento, California, announced it will file for bankruptcy by March.

In February, the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reached an $18 million settlement and pledged further actions for abuse survivors. It came three years after the diocese declared bankruptcy. In July, the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, reached a multimillion dollar settlement in its June 2020 bankruptcy case, in an effort to redress both current and potential abuse claims. On Nov. 27, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, proposed a $200 million settlement of 600 child sex abuse claims. Facing over 200 lawsuits alleging sex abuse filed since New York state lifted the statute of limitations on such cases, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 in Oct. 1, 2020.

What sparked probably the biggest outrage, however, in the Catholic world in 2023 regarding abuse, were claims against Slovene mosaic artist Fr. Marko Rupnik.

Fr. Rupnik was expelled from the Jesuit order June 9 because of his "stubborn refusal to observe the vow of obedience." The artist had been accused by several women of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuses that occurred over a 30-year period, according to media reports. He remained a priest after his dismissal from the Jesuits, and was received into the Diocese of Koper, Slovenia, at the end of August in response to his request.

"How distressing this must be for the religious sisters who were his victims," Antonia Sobocki, director of the British-based LOUDFence organization, told OSV News. "People are so tired of seeing the church and its moral authority sacrificed on the altar of the careers of such clerics."

On Oct. 27, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis was lifting the statute of limitations in order to investigate numerous accusations of sexual abuse by the priest.

"I am grateful to Pope Francis for reopening the case and letting a canonical judge examine the facts," de la Cierva said. "But punishing the guilty (if that's the case) is only a part of restoring justice. Even more important is to take care of the victims from the past and avoid new victims. And to do so, an investigation is better than a trial. Pope Francis himself mentioned that cases of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults need transparency, and canonical trials are the opposite of transparent," the crisis expert said.

In another development in the Rupnik situation, the Vatican announced Dec. 15 it had ordered that the Community of Loyola, a religious community of women founded in Slovenia with the assistance of the priest, be dissolved.

An abuse survivor told OSV News a "much stronger focus" was needed on victims. "It's important that speech is now becoming genuinely free as more people feel called to speak out," said Daniel Pittet, a university librarian and author of "Father, I forgive you."

"Beyond accepting that lies were told and mistakes made, it's essential to recognize how much people were hurt by the church, rather than concentrating solely on preventive and punitive measures," Pittet underlined.

De la Cierva added that "some people have said the Rupnik case is for Pope Francis what the case of Cardinal McCarrick was for John Paul. I am not sure about that, but at least they have one thing in common: the need for an external investigation. It's not a case of vengeance, but needing to know in order to learn for the future."


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