Child Abuse, the Response of Senior Office Holders and the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church remains involved globally in allegations of non-recent child abuse with resignations, criminal trials and convictions occurring in Australia, Chile and France in recent months. The allegations involve ever more senior members of the Church in their respective countries.

There remains the issue of criminal trials for assaults on children directly. In Melbourne, Australia Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Secretary to the Economy, is presently the defendant in the first of two criminal trials for non-recent sexual abuse of children.   The precise charges are not known but it is understood that his lawyers applied to have two separate trials because the two sets of allegations are of a completely different nature and relate to two distinct periods in the 1970s and 1990s.  Cardinal Pell was respectively a priest in Melbourne and Archbishop of the city and denies all charges.   A number of other unknown charges were dismissed in a closed preliminary hearing in a Magistrate’s court.

However, the associated problem that has dogged the Roman Catholic Church (and other institutions) of senior members failing to report or concealing child sexual abuse has generated further recent difficulties for churches locally and the Vatican.

Also in Australia, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide has been found guilty of the criminal charge of knowing of the crimes of a paedophile priest. He had denied that two altar boys had told him, on separate occasions, that they had been sexually abused by a priest in the 1970s.   The abusive priest has subsequently been prosecuted, convicted and died in 2006.  It is understood that Archbishop Wilson is considering his legal options in relation to the conviction but is presently due to be sentenced in June.  He could receive a custodial sentence of up to two years.

In France Cardinal Barbarin, also Archbishop of Lyon, along with six other clerics including two bishops and the Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) are due to be tried in January 2019 on similar charges – the non-denunciation of a priest who has admitted to serial sexual abuse of children. The Cardinal denies the charges and is said to have believed the abusive priest to have been reformed when he met him approximately 20 years after the date of the victims’ allegations.  The Cardinal did not relieve him of his duties at that time but the diocese did eight years later.  The priest, Father Bernard Preynat, has been charged with sexual aggression of minors for a person in a position of authority.   The criminal trial will be the most prominent alleged clerical abuse case in France.

Whilst in Chile all 34 Roman Catholic bishops have tendered their resignations to the Pope following child sexual abuse allegations and apparent concealment of the same. Whether the resignations have been accepted is not yet clear.  The events that precipitated them arise out of a Vatican investigation which concluded there had been negligence on the part of the Chilean Church’s hierarchy in dealing with sexual abuse cases.  All 34 bishops were ordered to Rome to discuss the outcome of the investigation.  The preliminary indication from the Pope was that the removal of some bishops may be necessary but that would not be sufficient to resolve the abuse problem in Chile.

The focus of discontent had been the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno three years ago. He was alleged to have obstructed the investigation of Father Fernando Karadima, his former mentor.  Fr Karadima had been investigated by the Vatican and found to have been guilty of sexually abusing young boys in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was not criminally prosecuted in Chile due to the passage of time.  However, a judge that heard evidence from the survivors found their testimony truthful and reliable.

Bishop Barros has offered his resignation on a number of occasions previously and it has not been accepted. The Pope’s insistence on Bishop Barros’ innocence in relation to the allegations caused offence and controversy during the papal visit to Chile in January this year.

The final outcome of the present situation in relation to Chile has yet to be determined.

Pope Francis had established The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2015 with a remit to propose to him the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, in order that the church may do everything possible to ensure that crimes such as those which have occurred are no longer repeated. The Commission has had a mixed first three years with two members, both abuse survivors, resigning. One cited ‘stumbling blocks and hindrances’ obstructing the group’s purpose.   The Vatican has recently tried to reinvigorate the Commission, there is still clearly much work to be done.


Firth_S-24_print Authored by Sarah Firth, an Associate with BLM

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