Why the Catholic Church continues to have an abuse problem

On Behalf of | May 10, 2023 | Catholic Church

More survivors are having their day in court, as they come forward with stories of sexual abuse and deception by priests and other high-ranking officials within the Catholic Church. In response, several states eliminated statute of limitations surrounding sexual abuse claims over the years, allowing survivors to seek justice.

But while more stories emerge about a seemingly rampant sexual abuse problem within the Catholic Church, many wonder why the church has this problem and why it’s continued for so long.

The reasons aren’t always clear

Often, we hear about another state, city or country where a bishop resigns over accusations of abuse within their diocese. Every time we hear about it, it can feel puzzling, especially when the same story seems to repeat itself. But as these stories continue coming out, they seem to mention a typical pattern of negligence, which may explain why abuse keeps happening and how the church can cover it up:

The church has a culture that protects abusers

At one point, the church kept records of priests, bishops and other clergy accused of sexual abuse. When those accusations went public, they allegedly used the records to move abusers from one parish or school to another. Recently, a former bishop from Albany, New York, told The Guardian that the church hid abuse allegations across its dioceses to avoid a public relations nightmare and to protect the church’s reputation.

Its organizational structure makes reporting abuse difficult

Critics suggest the church has a rank-and-file hierarchy system with tightly enforced internal regulations, making it difficult to change things. Under church rules, priests must remain loyal to the authority figures above them, like bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Pope. For example, if a priest knew that a bishop was sexually abusing parishioners or other clergy, they would have no authority to report it. But at the same time, if a priest faces sexual abuse allegations, bishops and other high-ranking officials could use their authority to protect them. The church also has strict rules stating internal figures must handle abuse claims, not outside authorities.

Some progress is happening

While abuse continues, the church is taking small steps to hold the sexual predators within their ranks accountable. In 2023, Pope Francis solidified a section of cannon law, saying church leaders can be held liable for abuse within their dioceses. He also proclaimed abuse of vulnerable adults within the church is criminal behavior.

These changes represent some progress. However, much more needs to be done. The New York Times reported bishops still have considerable authority over abuse investigations, as they can still evaluate and decide which allegations are legitimate, including those against other bishops.

Abuse will likely remain prevalent until the church significantly modifies the current system. But when survivors find the courage to speak up, they can pursue justice and encourage others to follow in their footsteps.