Reporting scandal: Media coverage of abuse helps victims, church

VATICAN CITY – The embarrassment and scandal raised by each new report of a case of sex abuse in the church also has a positive effect of giving other victims the courage to come forward and increasing the church’s commitment to ending abuse, said experts meeting at the Vatican.

The Anglophone Conference, which began in the 1990s as an informal network of English-speaking bishops meeting to share strategies for fighting abuse, held its 10th formal meeting at the Vatican June 1-5.

The meeting began just two weeks after an independent Irish commission released a report saying there was pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment in most of Ireland’s residential care institutions for children from 1940 through the 1970s. The institutions were funded by the state but often run by Catholic religious orders.

St. Bridget Sister Angela Ryan, protection and prevention officer of Australia’s National Committee for Professional Standards, said, “The media and the scandal enable us to again invite people to come forward so that there can be healing.”

“We only can deal with it if people keep coming forward,” said Sister Ryan, whose office is sponsored jointly by the Australian bishops’ conference and religious orders in the country.

The victims and their stories are what will enable the Catholic Church to find ways to prevent abuse in the future, she said.

Judge Michael R. Merz, who is ending his term as chairman of the U.S. National Review Board, said, “If it had not been for the Boston Globe’s coverage (of the abuse scandal) in 2002, many people would not have come forward” in the United States.

“We are still getting hundreds of people coming forward each year,” mostly reporting abuse that occurred before 1990, he said.

Jackie McCaig, national coordinator for the protection of children and victims’ assistance in Scotland, said all the conference participants “are here because of children, because of a desire to put the welfare and safety of children first … and we must never forget that, no matter how difficult things get when there is a scandal.”

Jesuit Father Joe Mathias, secretary of the Indian bishops’ commission for clergy and religious, said that “priests and religious in India are a soft target for the media,” which is probably why the Irish abuse report got so much media play there.

Although an Indian government report in 2008 estimated that 57 percent of all Indian children had suffered some kind of physical or sexual abuse, he said reports of the clerical sexual abuse of minors have not reached the scale seen in other English-speaking countries.

Father Mathias said participating in the Anglophone Conference meetings has helped him find ways to convince the Indian bishops of the urgency of the problem, which they are addressing by putting child protection guidelines in place.

Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, said the meeting gave participants an opportunity to consult Vatican officials, meet with experts in the field of child protection and share progress and problems with other bishops’ conferences.

“We are all agreed that you need a comprehensive plan for prevention, support and healing,” he said.

The Anglophone Conference helps people working for the church find ways “to create an environment in which anyone who has been abused can come forward with confidence,” Bishop Cupich said.

While the meeting retains the title “anglophone” and the longstanding members are from North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, representatives are welcome from other bishops’ conferences. The 2009 meeting, for example, included participants from Ghana, Chile and Italy.

“It is a human issue, a human problem, although it is reported more in the English-speaking world, maybe because of a unique openness in communicating” about abuse, Bishop Cupich said.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who as promoter of justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handles the cases brought against abusive priests, also attended the meeting. Participants said he explained how the church’s understanding of the phenomenon and its programs to stop abuse are continually evolving.

For example, Bishop John Cunningham of Galloway, Scotland, said the Vatican recently had decided that any case of a priest downloading child pornography from the Internet would be a form of serious abuse that a bishop must report to the doctrinal congregation.

Bill Kilgallon, chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission of England and Wales, said most of the bishops’ conferences represented at the June meeting have “very strong structures in place at the parish, diocesan and national level” to protect children in the church’s care.

“For me, one of the most impressive things about being involved in this work is the amount of time people are willing to give to the church to make it a safe environment,” Kilgallon said.

Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, a longtime participant in the Anglophone Conference, said, “The positive fact is that people have come forward, that we have acknowledged this has been part of our history and are doing all we can to deal with the remnants of that and doing all that we can to make sure we have a new way of relating to one another in the church.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.