Tag Archives: Catholic Church

How the Catholic Church’s Hierarchy Makes It Difficult To Punish Sexual Abusers

A report released on Tuesday, July 18, found “a high degree of plausibility” that hundreds of boys at a prestigious Catholic boys’ choir in Germany were physically or sexually abused between 1945 and 1992. The choir was led at the time by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s elder brother, Georg Ratzinger.

Just over a week ago – on July 10 – Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, returned to his native Australia to face criminal charges related to sexual assault. While the specific allegations and names of the accusers have not been made public, Cardinal Pell maintains that he has been a victim of “character assassination.” His case will be decided by an Australian court.

These are not the first times the Catholic Church has been rocked by charges of sexual abuse. While reforms in the Catholic Church in the United States have made it mandatory for priests to report instances of sexual abuse, there still remains much work to be done in the Catholic Church worldwide.

From my perspective as a Catholic scholar of religion, one of the challenges in tackling this issue is the hierarchy of the church itself. It is still difficult to hold high-ranking clerics responsible, either for the misdeeds of their subordinates or for the crimes that they may have committed themselves.

Church structure

At the top of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is the pope. He is said to be the successor of the Apostle Peter, about whom Christ said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” For Catholics, the pope is that “rock” that gives the church a firm foundation. The pope is considered to speak infallibly, “without error,” under specific conditions concerning doctrine and morals. But he is not infallible when it comes to personal judgment such as whom he chooses to get advice from.

Pope Francis speaks with two cardinals at the Vatican. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Under the pope are bishops, who serve the pope as successors to the original 12 apostles who followed Jesus.

There are also cardinals, who are appointed by the pope, and only they can elect his successor. Cardinals also govern the church between papal elections. Cardinals rank higher than bishops, so not all bishops are cardinals. But now all cardinals are bishops, although in the past there have been exceptions. George Pell is both a bishop and a cardinal, as well as the third-ranking official at the Vatican.

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church resembles the military with its high level of administrative control. But the “church” in Catholic understanding is not just a bureaucratic body. It also is a sacred institution that is willed by God.

Priests and obedience

Male priests have the lowest rank in the formal hierarchy. When they are ordained, they take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to superiors. Usually priests are under the immediate authority of their local bishop, whose administrative area is called a “diocese.”

While priests in many countries are mandated both by the church and civil law to report sexual abuse to church commissions and legal authorities, there has been a culture of denial and secrecy that prevented allegations from being fully investigated. A 1962 Vatican document instructed bishops to observe the strictest secrecy in sexual abuse cases and to address sexual abuse, or “solicitation,” as an internal church matter, not as an offense that should be reported to local authorities.

Despite establishing a commission to look into the problem and address a backlog of cases, Pope Francis has still not established any protocol for handling sex abuse allegations for the Catholic Church as a whole. But the pope has set guidelines for removing bishops who have been “negligent” in addressing cases of abuse. Still, some commentators believe this is not enough.

Sexual abuse ignored

The fact is that there has been a long history of protecting highly placed Catholic leaders from charges of sexual abuse.

When reports surfaced in 1995 that Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer had molested monks and schoolboys, the sexual abuse was dismissed by Bishop Kurt Krenn as “boyish pranks.” There were also claims that victims were paid “hush money” to buy their silence. The allegations of sexual abuse against Cardinal Groer proved to be true.

In another case from the late 1940s, Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of a religious order, The Legionaries of Christ, was a sexual abuser multiple times over. When allegations against Maciel were initially raised, John Paul II ignored them. Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul II’s confident and later successor, remarked: “one can’t put on trial such a close friend of the pope.” Though Maciel was eventually disciplined by Ratzinger when he took over as Pope Benedict XVI, Maciel avoided prosecution until his death in 2008.

In the United States, Cardinal Bernard Law, who protected abuser priests in the Boston archdiocese during his 1984-2004 tenure, has also escaped prosecution. In fact, Law was effectively promoted to a prestigious position as head of one of Catholicism’s most famous churches, Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Challenges to reporting

In all these cases, the hierarchical structure of the church made it difficult to bring high-ranking figures to justice. When you give superiors nearly absolute obedience, the threshold for acting against them is high. By the same token, superiors can often protect offending priests.

A presumption of integrity goes with a high position in the Catholic Church. It is often difficult to believe that a bishop could commit or cover up a terrible crime such as rape or sexual abuse. Also, if the Catholic Church is a divine institution necessary for salvation, then there are those who will protect its reputation at all costs.

There is a tipping point, however. The key moment leading to the resignation of Cardinal Law was a letter, signed by 58 priests, asking him to resign.

Pell’s prosecution, a decisive moment

Cardinal George Pell leaves his house in Rome, Italy on June 29, 2017. Remo Casilli/Reuters

The compendium of Catholic beliefs, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” observes that the “sanctity” of the church is “real” but also “imperfect.” In other words, the church is composed of human beings who have their limitations. From this perspective, the problem is not hierarchy itself, but how people in high positions misuse their power.

While all Catholics are aware of the “humanness” of their church, the charges against Cardinal Pell are still traumatic for many Catholics who expect integrity in their leaders.

Cardinal Pell’s case marked yet another chapter in the Catholic Church’s struggle to address sexual abuse in its ranks. And now with this latest report concerning the choir school once led by the brother of the former Pope, the Catholic church clearly has much work to do in responding to allegations of sexual abuse.


The Hidden Side of Sex Offences

As a kid who spent three years in a Catholic boarding school I was exposed to an underworld of dark sex offenses without realising what was going on around me. When I think back on it now, it was quite scary…

In 1967, due to some family problems – a book of stories on it’s own – and with moving the family home from Sylvania to Kogarah, it was decided that instead of sending me to James Cook High School, I would be taken out of the public school system, and sent to a private school. Mind you, being the era it was, I didn’t have a lot of say in this decision.

As a late applicant – and Protestant – to Marist Brothers St Gregory’s Agricultural College at Campbelltown, I had to wait for all the Catholic applications to be processed first, to see if there were any vacancies available. I was to eventually spend three years there, attaining my School Certificate un 1969. There are two events that occurred in my time there that are quire disturbing, and probably part of the current investigations into child sexual abuse.

Being a boarding school, we all spent our mornings and nights in large open dormitories – just called dorms. Brother Brian was the Dorm Master of Dorn 2, and had an enclosed bedroom just off the entry to the dorm. He was also the Instructor for the school swimming team. As with most school swimming teams, we had our own swimming trunks – burgundy and blue – especially made. With the arrival of the swim trunks, along came their time for distribution. It took me a while to work out what was going on. As I lay in bed after lights-out, there would be a stream of kids on the swimming team individually visiting Brother Brian in his room at night. Evidently, Brother was giving the boys specialised fitting of their swim trunks, getting them to strip off, and try the trunks on to “ensure the correct fit”. Shortly after this event, Brother Brian mysteriously disappeared…transferred to somewhere or other i had just, unwittingly, observed my first instance if sexual abuse. In keeping with the era, no explanation was given, and the incident was never discussed.

Being a Protestant – Congregational – in a Catholic environment, and voluntarily not exempting myself from Mass , rosary, Station of the Cross. Retreats etc, eventually the religion rubbed off on me. Being raised in the simplicity of Protestantism, I found the rituals, devotions and customs of the Catholic church overwhelming, and in 1969 I converted.

Reverend Father Peter Comensoli was the Parish Priest of St John the Evangelist Church in Campbelltown, and St Gregory’s College Chaplain. As such, he baptized me in the college chapel, and in fact bestowed on me his Christian name Peter as my baptismal name, and later that year I was confirmed in the Parish Church in Campbelltown. Yet another name – Francis – to add to my collection. Father Comensoli spent a lot of time at the college, and was very friendly to all the boys.

So you can only imagine my total lack of surprise, when watching the hews many, many tears later, and seeing Father Cominsole being arrested for molesting his altar boys.

Both incidents made me realise just how close I could have been to being a victim of sexual abuse myself!


Please – if you have been a victim of sexual abuse, or know of instances of sexual abuse please report it to authorities.

Tim Alderman (C) 2014