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Editorial: Failing grades

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  • June 6, 2019

It turns out that recent measures in Canada and abroad to protect minors, punish abuser priests and discipline bishops who cover up these crimes are one of the Church’s best-kept secrets.

At least, that’s a conclusion to be drawn from a recent poll indicating that, while Canadians overwhelmingly know of the sex abuse scandals, they remain widely oblivious to ongoing efforts to fix the mess.

According to a poll by Angus Reid Institute, 78 per cent of Canadians believe the Church has done a poor or very poor job of addressing the scandal. Even practising Catholics, the group most likely to be aware of various reforms, are underwhelmed by the Church response, with 52 per cent issuing a failing grade.

Pope Francis fares somewhat better, but he’s hardly getting a standing ovation. 

Overall, 60 per cent of Canadians rate his efforts to address clerical abuse as poor or very poor. Even among practising Catholics, those most likely to know of his many denunciations of abuser priests and with his emergency meeting of bishops in February to address the crisis, the Pope’s disapproval rating on the abuse file is a significant 31 per cent. 

Part of this may be a timing issue. The poll was taken in May, days before the Pope announced new laws intended to safeguard minors, prosecute abuser priests and end a culture of silence that has caused so much harm. 

These stiff new measures include provisions that obligate bishops to promptly investigate abuse allegations, protect whistleblowers and never permit a coverup by Church hierarchy. For the first time, the worldwide Church has formal laws that are standardized and have actual teeth.

So it’s conceivable the poll numbers could have been kinder to the Church had the Angus Reid survey occurred after Pope Francis published his decree. But given the Canadian experience, that’s no sure bet. 

Over the past 27 years, Canada’s bishops have released three major documents intended to safeguard minors and deal with abuser priests. The most recent, published last summer, might be the most comprehensive set of guidelines ever issued by a bishops’ conference. It was praised in the Vatican and its demands for accountability and transparency were mirrored in the Pope’s recent document. Yet, Canadians largely seem deaf and blind to these efforts.

Just 27 per cent of Canadians believe the hierarchy in Canada has done enough, compared to 71 per cent who are either unsure or who say the reforms are ineffective. When it comes to transparency and coverup, only 23 per cent of Canada’s practising Catholics believe the Church has become as open and upfront as possible. In other words, skepticism abounds.

It took decades for the Church to confront sex abuse. It appears now it must find ways to ensure its efforts to repair the damage do not become as big a secret.

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