A culture of cover-up in the Catholic Church
From the clerical sexual abuse to the systematic cover-up: does the Catholic Church create a culture where abusers can hide?
The scandal surrounding one of Germany’s most prominent church leaders continues to grow. Facing abuse cover-up accusations, the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Woelki, also refused to publish an abuse report he had commissioned himself. The cardinal remains silent despite mounting criticism. The failure to take responsibility for sexual abuse cases has proven to be a systematic problem within the Catholic Church.
Cover-ups in Cologne: just the tip of the iceberg
The cardinal is being accused of concealing sexual abuse carried out by another priest. Under the Canon Law, the Vatican must be informed of reports of such allegations. Even though the diocese paid compensation to the victim in recognition of his suffering, both Woelki’s predecessor and Woelki decided not to take action against the perpetrator. Besides, Woelki withheld release of a report on abuse committed by members of his diocese between 1975 and 2018, saying the research has “methodological deficiencies.”
Despite the outrage surrounding Woelki, sexual abuse cover-ups are not something new in the Catholic Church. A recent inquiry into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Berlin between 1946 and 2019 speaks of a systematic and structural problem within the Catholic Church that facilitated sexual abuse and impeded the investigations.
Behind every perpetrator, there stands a protector
Another inquiry commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference reported that about 25% of canonical proceedings concerning sexual abuse ended with no sanction at all, whereas most of the accused faced “light sanctions,” such as transfers. It added that the institutional cover-up has been practised more frequently and intensively in the Catholic Church than other institutions, such as in schools.  This has not just happened in Germany, but in other countries as well. An investigation team from Lyon found that 25 bishops from France, including the former Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Barbarin, covered up for 32 priests with sexual abuse allegations. Despite the legal obligation to report in France, the French Catholic Church has argued that bishops could not be held responsible for the actions of their priests.
A culture where abusers could hide
In late 2020, an IICSA report concluded the Catholic Church in England and Wales had repeatedly prioritised its reputation over the welfare of victims. It added that the Church failed to support victims and survivors while taking positive action to protect alleged perpetrators, including moving them to different parishes. Inquiries concerning the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse can also be found in the US, such as in the Archdiocese of Boston and Pennsylvania.
At the end of 2019, the Vatican abolished the secrecy policy, allowing secular law enforcement in abuse inquiry, and raised the age of the victim for child pornography. Despite this, the Catholic Church has been criticised for failing to show their commitment to take action, since they are being accused of more and more cover-ups in sexual abuse scandals. A very recent investigation concluded that the Vatican has kept the concerning documents secret for ages and once gave tips on how to cover up abuse in the case of the Dutch priest Werenfried van Straaten.
There have been no comments from the Holy See on the accusations in this case and numerous other abuse cases. Meanwhile, victims and critics argue that the Catholic Church needs a change in its culture and its institution, saying a systematic problem requires a systematic solution.
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