The church must welcome outside reformers or be forced to do so

The church must welcome outside reformers or be forced to do so
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The Catholic Church isn’t the only major institution to be fundamentally challenged by reports of widespread sexual abuse. But it stands alone for its complete failure to enact meaningful reform even though it has been working on the issue longer than most other organizations.

Since 2002, the Church has been operating under a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People requiring prompt responses to reports of abuse, strong cooperation with civic authorities, and punishment for offenders.


Yet in early August, we learned that a grand jury that had been meeting for 18 months to assess the scope of sexual abuse of children and teens over seven decades in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses found that priests are still abusing young people and their colleagues and superiors are still covering up for them. Descriptions of past abuse were so shocking that Pope Francis described them as “atrocities.”

While the public was still absorbing the news from the grand jury report, it learned that Pope Francis himself may have been told as far back as 2013 about the abuse of numerous young people and adult seminarians by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the Vatican’s highest ranking U.S. officials. Pope Francis ignored recommendations to discipline McCarrick, who didn’t resign from active clerical work until July of this year.

Not surprisingly, we’ve seen a new round of recommendations for reform ranging from the ordination of women to more rigorous screening of candidates for the priesthood and lifting the statute of limitations on prosecution of child sexual abuse. But they are doomed to fail at the level of change needed until the Church is willing to take two incredibly basic steps toward reform that it has thus far resisted.

The first is to institute an option for reporting abuse that is independent of Church hierarchy. This is the only way that survivors, as well as priests and others working from within, will be able to report incidents of sexual abuse not just in confidence, but with the confidence that they will not suffer reprisals.

One of the many shocking findings from Pennsylvania is that survivors who disclosed incidents of sexual abuse were more often than not the ones who church officials would investigate and punish. The patterns of cover-up were so systematic that FBI investigators who examined documents and interview transcripts described them as a “playbook for concealing the truth.”

There are precedents for making dramatic change in large institutions simply by introducing independent reporting options. In 2004, after years of media reports of widespread sexual assault occurring within each branch of the military, the Department of Defense created the Office of Sexual Assault and Response.

One of its first moves was to reform the reporting process. Until then, the military’s strict chain of command put many survivors in the position of having to report their assault to the person who had committed the offense, or to a close colleague of the offender.

Today, survivors can report a sexual assault directly to the Office of Sexual Assault and Response or to outsiders, including health-care providers and civilian law enforcement. Survivors are given the option of remaining anonymous and requesting that their report not be forwarded to their chain of command.

Within two years of overhauling the reporting process, reports of sexual assault from active duty military personnel dramatically increased. During the same period, surveys of service members have found that rates of sexual assault of active duty women have been cut in half and rates of sexual assault of active duty men have been cut by two-thirds.

These numbers only make sense if more survivors are choosing to report when they’ve experienced an assault. This is exactly what independent surveys of military personnel show.

Today, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office estimates that one in three service members who have been sexually assaulted report it while only one in 13 did so in 2006. Better reporting numbers have given the Office of Sexual Assault and Response much more accurate assessments of the true rates and risks of sexual assault. The office has used that information to design appropriate interventions to lessen those risks.

The second basic element of reform that the Catholic Church must now do is give outsiders access to the way it handles reports of abuse so that real reform can be implemented. These could be experts from the military’s Office of Sexual Assault and Response, prosecutors from state attorneys general offices, or legal experts specializing in restorative justice.

As it stands, the formal recommendation adopted in 2002 for Church officials to report abusive priests to secular authorities conflicts with deeply ingrained Church culture and doctrine. For centuries, the Church has dealt with misconduct by priests internally by enforcing canon law through canonical tribunals. The last 20 years have taught us that the Church must employ best practices in its handling of sexual abuse cases if they want what is best for survivors. At minimum, this means having more than one way for people to report sexual abuse and inviting experts in to help.

Thomas Doyle is a Catholic priest and expert in canon law who has testified in hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases. He has advocated within the Church since the early 1980s for reforms regarding the handling of reports of clergy sexual abuse. In a confidential 1985 report to the U.S. Conference of Bishops that wasn’t made public until 2001, Doyle warned that the Church could face as much as $1 billion in settlement costs related to civil complaints. (The website, which has maintained a comprehensive archive of all publicly available reports related to the clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States since 2003 estimates that the Church has now paid more than $3.2 billion.) In his testimony before the Philadelphia grand jury, Doyle observed that the only “meaningful change on child abuse has been largely generated by forces external to the church — mostly by media attention and grand jury reports.”

At this point, conversations about reform are meaningless until the Church permits outsiders to come inside to influence the process of cultural change. Meanwhile, every investigative authority in the country should do what Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro did: convene a grand jury or comparable group to investigate the full scope of the crisis in their state and share the results with the public.

Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. In the early 2000s, the organization launched an outreach and awareness campaign for male survivors after media coverage of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal prompted a spike in requests for services from male survivors.