A crucifix is pictured in Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice, France, Oct. 4, 2021. A new report on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France shows there have been 3,000 abusers since the 1950s. CNS photo/Eric Gaillard, Reuters

Editorial: Face the shame

  • October 14, 2021

Just in case any of us thought the abuse crisis in the Church has moved from a boil to a simmer, the report from an independent commission on sexual abuse in France has turned up the heat yet again — as it should.

As painful as the revelations are to the collective Catholic psyche, it is important that we keep exposing the tragic truth of the past, to face it head-on with both shame and sorrow. That is a mandate for all countries, of course. Canada has seen its own legacy of abuses exposed since the days of Mount Cashel. 

It is commendable that the Church in France established an independent study in 2018 (better late than never) that by all appearances has been exhaustive in its examination of cases over the last 70 years. The 2,400-plus pages in the report released Oct. 5 paint a distressing picture of a Church drenched in clericalism, in protecting its own and in failing to have mechanisms in place to deal with the accused and the victims.

The numbers are staggering: an estimated 216,000 children suffered abuse by priests since 1950; another 100,000 or more abused by lay employees of the Church. In total, between 2,900 and 3,200 priests are implicated, as well as other religious.

“The picture thus drawn reveals that the phenomenon of sexual violence in the Catholic Church from 1950 to the present day is massive,” the report’s summary states; “that it has decreased over time but is still present; that it is based on numerous clearly identified traits of a systemic nature.”

France is sometimes called the “eldest daughter of the Church,” with Catholicism deemed the country’s official religion after the conversion of King Clovis I in 496. That distinction only lasted until the French Revolution, but the Church rebounded to wield much influence for centuries.

Today, it is a much different scene. Less than half its citizens still identify as Catholic and many less attend church. How this report will impact the dwindling faithful in the country — and beyond — is unknown, but it’s clear these investigations must continue.

“Before proclaiming ‘it must never happen again’, the ‘it’ has to be recognized, acknowledged and described,” the authors of the report write. “Those responsible for ‘it’ need to be designated and, in as far as is possible, reparation for ‘its’ consequences need to be found. It is not enough for the Church to claim awareness, albeit too late in the day. Or to claim that the past is the past and that for today’s and tomorrow’s children and vulnerable persons the same mistakes will not be repeated.”

There are 45 recommendations in the report, addressing both the failures of the Church and justice for the victims. It is a must-do list for all who love the Church and fear for its future.

Pope Francis has not shied away from the harsh light of the abuse revelations, nor from the necessity of the Church to face some ugly truths. 

In reacting to the French report, he spoke for many: “I pray and we all pray together — to you Lord the glory, to us the shame. This is the time for shame.”

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