Reprinted from the Feb. 10 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Pope Francis last week publicly acknowledged for the first time a new clergy sexual abuse issue: The victims this time aren’t children but nuns. It’s a disturbing twist to the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the U.S. and globally for decades.
The pattern with most of those scandals, of course, has been one of priests who prey on children in their congregations, then get quietly shuffled off to a new town when the allegations come to the attention of church officials — who do whatever they can to prevent it from becoming public.
This pattern has reached all the way to the Vatican; Francis himself has been inappropriately dismissive of these cases in the past. So the pontiff’s openness in addressing this newest issue is an encouraging sign the church is learning, finally, that circling the wagons is the worst approach.
The clergy child-abuse cases that have come to light continue to haunt the victims, who often remained silent until adulthood, cowed by the stature of the church. It perhaps is understandable, then, that victimized nuns — who have dedicated their very lives to that institution and have accepted second-class status within its hierarchy — would be reluctant to come forward.
But lately, some have. An Associated Press investigation last year found cases of alleged sexual abuse against nuns by the clergy in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. It’s a trickle compared to the flood of child abuse victims coming forward, but it’s growing, inspired by the secular #MeToo movement as well as the progress the church has made — finally — in acknowledging the need to confront its shameful past.
Francis last year issued an unprecedented letter to the world’s Catholics acknowledging that the crimes against “the little ones” are real and that the church has been covering them up. That acknowledgement was a historic departure from previous practice.
But on this issue, the record has been uneven. Just last year — in what almost looked like a reflexive return to the bad old days of stonewall denial — Francis staunchly defended a Chilean bishop against charges of covering up child abuse by priests, suggesting it was a smear campaign. He later accepted the bishop’s resignation.
So it’s promising that on Tuesday, when reporters asked Francis about the issue of abused nuns, he was forthright: “There have been priests and also bishops who have done that,” he said, “and I believe that it may still be being done. It’s not a thing that, from the moment in which you realize it, it’s over. The thing goes forward like this.”
He added, importantly: “Must something more be done? Yes. Do we have the will? Yes.”
That must not be the end of the discussion. But it is the right beginning.