The Catholic Church and its home-grown sex abuse

Text: Caroline Renaux

Picture: Reetta Muukkonen

A landmark inquiry recently revealed the extent of sex abuse and cover-up in the French Catholic Church. Unveiled with heartbreaking numbers, clerical sex abuse seems to be a centuries-old systemic crime, rooted in secrecy and lack of responsibility.

The plague of abuse

On the fifth of October, a nearly 2,500-page bombshell report was issued by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church. Among its conclusions, one estimation confirms the extensive amount of minors abused by the Catholic Church: in France, from 1950 to 2020, 216,000 children were subjected to abuse by priests, deacons, monks, and nuns. This staggering number climbs to 330,000 when lay preachers and people connected to the Church are included – such as teachers at Catholic schools, scout leaders, and camp counselors. All in all, they identified between 2,900 and 3,200 abusers within the French Catholic Church, which hints at a strikingly high ratio of victims per abuser. 

These revelations not only disclosed 70 years of abuse in France, but echoed a worldwide series of Catholic Church abuse scandals. If this publication is the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church, it is far from the first one. The Globe’s Spotlight report was the first inflection point, divulging in 2002 that more than 130 children were victims of the priest John Geoghan. In 2018, a grand jury in Pennsylvania compiled evidence against 301 priests from six Pennsylvania dioceses, accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children. Last year, the Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report brought to light how the Catholic Church in England had prioritized its own reputation over the well-being of victims, ignoring many of the 900 complaints it received during 45 years.

Is the Church really a safe space?

It might be hard to wrap your head around such large numbers, let alone this multitude of reports. I’ll spare you the other investigations regarding the Catholic Church in Ireland, Germany, Canada, Chile, Poland, Australia… that came to the same conclusions. Let’s name it for what it is: a global crisis, a centuries-old catastrophe, a systemic and deep-rooted crime. Why has the Catholic Church, as one of the world’s major moral authorities, been unable to resolve one of our time’s most ethically obvious problems?

An institutional cover-up

“This is a moment of shame”, Pope Francis said. Reacting to the recent report during his general audience, he added: “To the victims, I wish to express my sadness and my pain for the traumas they have endured and my shame, our shame, my shame that for so long the Church has been incapable of putting this at the center of its concerns, assuring them of my prayers.”

Indeed, for years, the Church has ignored and mishandled allegations, while providing abusers leniency, protection, and escape options. The cover-up was considerable: accused members were kept in ministry, transferred from parish to parish, turning a blind eye on the suffering of the victims. To protect its image, it repeatedly refused to collaborate with civil authorities during abuse investigations.

The Catholic Church’s seeming lack of urgency has disillusioned millions of believers. It resulted in an irreconcilable conflict between their religion, to which they remain committed, and the Catholic Church. Disclosures about the extent of the pervasive cover-up culture have damaged its reputation, and more importantly, exacerbated mistrust among survivors and parishioners. Is the Church really a safe space?

Although they often are treated as all-powerful, even men with a sacred calling are capable of abusing others. Could they be trusted to systematically report abuse and deal with the victims? Sadly, as the French commission highlighted, the immense power conferred by the sanctity of priesthood has led to a culture of deference. By associating a priest with Christ, imperfect human people have come to feel that they are above the law.

Rooting out the evil

On being elected in 2013, Pope Francis has mentioned Catholic Church abuse to be one of his biggest worldwide challenges. In 2019, he even released a historic canon law decree, instructing everyone in the Catholic Church to disclose sexual abuse and cover-ups to Church authorities. However, even though it isn’t treated with complete indifference anymore, the problem remains. The conclusions reached by the numerous reports should be, at least, an incentive to reform the Catholic Church culture and procedures.

The Catholic Church still faces massive cultural barriers to enacting a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse on minors. Among other things, it needs to acknowledge its institutional responsibility, require its bishops to report the crimes to civil authorities, remove the abusers from ministries and implement child-protection local policies. A cultural revolution, including greater transparency, accountability, and empathy, is required if a more healthy church is to emerge from these recent discoveries. It is to be hoped that the more the word is set free and the more justice is done, the fewer such crimes will occur within the Church. 

Nonetheless, what’s behind this systemic crime is also a structural rigidity. Dioceses, local areas of governance with minimal centralized authority, are free to choose however they want to handle abuse claims. This decentralized structure leads to an absence of consensus within the Church, ranging from no historical reckoning to public lists of accused priests. Thus the Catholic Church may not be able to rebuild trust with society in its current form. Instead, dioceses should work together under the guidance of the Holy See to report allegations, collaborate with civil authorities, provide Church members with adequate training and systematically check their criminal records. Some have also added the Church should rethink its long-standing norms, with radical changes to the priesthood, including the elimination of the requirement of celibacy and the seal of confession, and greater roles for women and laypeople in the hierarchy. Hopefully, these revelations will be the catalyst for extensive reform, in order to guarantee that the Church might be a safe home for everyone but abusers, rather than the contrary. 


  • The Oscar-winner movie Spotlight chronicles the true story of how the Boston Globe revealed the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
  • The documentary Tell No One addresses the Polish Catholic Church’s responsibility in hiding child sexual abuse.
  • Chris O’Leary’s podcast Sacrificed shares a survivor’s point of view on Catholic sex abuse crisis.


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