His Holiness Pope Francis has drawn some criticism in recent months for his failure to speak out more forcefully on the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy or take meaningful action. This week, however, he did publicly announce that the Chuch is “working on” the sexual abuse and exploitation of nuns by male clergy.
The Pope's statement came during a visit to the Middle East, during which he met with Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, currently the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and considered to be the leader of the world's Sunni Muslims. According to a report from the BBC, His Holiness acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church has been aware of abuse of nuns by priests and even higher-ranking clergy and the problem is being addressed. “It's a path we've been on,” he told the BBC, mentioning how his predecessor, Pope Benedict, had “had the courage to dissolve a female congregation” due to sexual slavery of its members.
This acknowledgment comes in the wake of a public outcry last November by the International Union of Superiors General, a group representing Catholic women's orders around the world. In its statement, the organization condemned the “culture of silence and secrecy” that has kept victims from speaking out. Last week, the women's section of L'Osservatore Romano (“The Roman Observer”) printed an article blaming the Church's male-dominated power structure.
Meanwhile, Pope has said very little about the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Recently, he removed two cardinals who were members of his advisory council – an Australian who was convicted for the abuse of two choirboys, and a Chilean who is under investigation by authorities in Santiago for failing to report cases of abuse. However, beyond that, Pope Francis has stated that he will withhold judgment until the appeals process has run its course.
While the Vatican is apparently dragging its heels on holding pedophile priests accountable, secular and local Church authorities in the U.S. are moving forward aggressively. Last week, Roman Catholic leaders in Texas made public the names of nearly 300 members of the clergy who have been “credibly accused” since the early 1940s. Earlier this week, the Bishop of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, took similar action. Overseas, an 82-year-old American missionary in East Timor who stands accused of abusing young girls for several years has been defrocked and removed from his post in Oecusse.
Although it has only been visible for the past 20 years or so, the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been ongoing for centuries. The issue was first raised over one thousand years ago by the Benedictine monk St. Peter Damian in Liber Gomorrhianus (“The Book of Gomorrah”), a scathing treatise about the behavior of the clergy, specifically regarding sexual activities and abuses. However, the pontiff at the time, Pope Leo IX, was convinced that Damian had exaggerated and backed down from taking meaningful action.
It appears that very little has changed since the mid-11th Century. One can hope that, with local Church and secular authorities leading the way, the Vatican will at some point be forced to lower the proverbial boom on offenders and truly get its own house in order.