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After Two Decades, Abuse Crisis Has Humbled the Catholic Church


ROME—From when the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis erupted in 2002 until his death more than three years later,

St. John Paul II

never met with a victim of clerical sexual abuse.

In contrast,

Pope Francis

has met numerous times with abuse victims and their advocates since his election in 2013. He plans next year to meet with representatives of indigenous people from Canada who are protesting the historical abuse of children at church-run residential schools there.

Those meetings are a sign of how the Catholic hierarchy has transformed its response to abuse scandals, which have left the church poorer and less influential in the countries where they have emerged.

“The leadership of the church has come to recognize that the church has to take ownership and responsibility for what happened,” said

Francesco Cesareo,

president of Assumption University and former chairman of the National Review Board, which advises U.S. bishops on the prevention of abuse. There is now “a recognition that the church has to not only acknowledge, but also has to atone,” he said.

In 2002, after the Boston Globe newspaper began publishing reports about local clerical abuse and its coverup, prominent Vatican officials and cardinals from several countries made highly defensive public statements. They minimized the number of predatory priests and blamed the scandals on plaintiffs’ lawyers and hostile media.

By contrast, when an independent commission in France reported this year that priests, church employees and volunteers had sexually abused approximately 330,000 minors in the country since 1950, there were only abject apologies from Pope Francis and France’s bishops.

Pope Francis praying with French bishops in October for the victims of clerical sexual abuse.



Photo:

vatican media handout/Shutterstock

Pope Francis epitomizes that shift. In early 2018, he said that a Chilean bishop had been slandered when he was accused of covering up abuse. But later that year, he met with the accusers, and summoned Chile’s bishops to Rome and denounced “abuse of power” in their ranks. All 34 of the bishops submitted their resignations, of which the pope eventually accepted eight. The episode highlighted the spread of the abuse crisis, until then focused in Western countries, to Latin America.

“I don’t know what their interior dialogue is and whether they are truly humbled, but certainly that there’s been a dramatic shift in their public relations strategy, from denial or minimization to very compelling expressions of self-blame,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world.

Ms. Barrett Doyle said the church has made substantive changes in its response to the scandals, but not enough. It is still only in the U.S. that church law mandates “zero tolerance”: the automatic removal from ministry of a cleric who has been found guilty of one act of abusing a minor.

The pope in 2019 instituted a world-wide process for investigating bishops who abuse or cover up abuse by others. But activists criticized him for rejecting a model of lay oversight that the U.S. bishops had proposed, leaving the church hierarchy to police itself.

U.S. bishops have established child-protection measures that the Vatican has encouraged world-wide, and most of the accusations in America are now historical. Yet the crisis continues to take a toll on the church’s standing in the U.S. and beyond.

“The tragedy of abuse is bringing about a poorer and humbler church,” Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany, said last month. “We have lost credibility. People have lost confidence in the Church, in priests, in bishops.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany.



Photo:

Sebastian Gollnow/Zuma Press

According to church statistics, 9.1% of Catholics in Germany regularly attended Sunday Mass in 2019, down from 12.6% in 2010, when the German church was hit by a series of abuse scandals.

In the U.S. the percentage of Catholics who belonged to a parish declined to 58% from 76%—twice the rate of decline among Protestants—between 1998 and 2020, according to a Gallup survey.

A decline in organized religion was already under way in many Western countries, but the scandals have aggravated the problem. “We’ve lost people because of this,” said Suzanne Healy, a family therapist who currently chairs the U.S. Bishops’ National Review Board.

In 2019, 27% of U.S. Catholics surveyed said they had reduced their Mass attendance in response to the abuse crisis, according to the Pew Research Center.

In a 2021 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 31% of adult U.S. Catholics said the abuse crisis has made them embarrassed to identify themselves as Catholic.

Jimmy Pliska, of Scranton, Pa., is one of those who are seeking compensation from the church for sexual abuse that happened many years ago. If he accepts a settlement, he fears he may never know the truth about his alleged abuser. Photo: Alexander Hotz/WSJ (Video from 7/11/19)

Bishops’ pronouncements now command less respect from the public, said Philip Lawler, author of “The Faithful Departed,” a book about the abuse crisis in Boston. “It is just too easy for the cynics to say, ‘oh, you’re too busy defending rapists.’ And there is not a really good comeback to that.”

The crisis has had a heavy impact on church finances. From 2004 to 2020, Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. spent $4.3 billion on costs related to abuse allegations, mostly in payments to victims and attorneys’ fees, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thirty-one dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to Pennsylvania State University. Moreover, 26% of U.S. Catholics have reduced the amount of money they donate to their parish in response to abuse scandals, according to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center.

Some donors have shifted their contributions to independent Catholic nonprofits that do humanitarian work, says Kerry Alys Robinson, founding executive director of the Leadership Roundtable, a group founded to encourage more transparency and accountability in church administration.

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The crisis has exacerbated culture wars already under way within the church. Some conservatives have blamed the crisis on moral laxity and homosexuality among priests, since a large majority of reported victims have been adolescent boys.

Progressives have pointed instead to the need for overhauls of church teaching and practice. In Germany, at continuing meetings inspired by a study of historical clerical abuse, bishops and laypeople have been discussing whether the church should bless same-sex couples, remove the obligation of priestly celibacy, give more power to laypeople and ordain women to the clergy.

The crisis has led people to “question the fundamental truths of the church and whether or not those truths are actually immutable,” Mr. Cesareo said. “It will take a few generations before we can come out of this in a way that will allow the church to reassert its voice and place within society.”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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