The Sept. 2, 2018 edition of the Catholic Register, Canada’s oldest English-language Catholic publication, featured a stark cover photo of Pope Francis praying alone before a church altar, his back turned to the camera. The headline read: “We abandoned them.” It was a direct quote from Francis’ letter responding to the late-August report by a Pennsylvania grand jury alleging 301 priests abused more than 1,000 children at six dioceses. Church officials, including bishops, hid these crimes for decades, the grand jury found. “We showed no care for the little ones,” the Pope admitted in his letter.
Canadian Catholic Church officials echoed Francis’ sentiments. Another story in the Register quotes Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, who leads Canada’s largest diocese, as saying Catholics are “rightly enraged” by the scandal, while Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller describes the revelations as a case of “profound evil.”
An unsigned editorial, meanwhile, argues that “[e]xisting protocols to deal with bad bishops are not only inadequate, they have contributed to the church’s current shame. Something much better is needed – now.”
The Register devoted no fewer than 15 articles, opinion columns and editorial cartoons to sex abuse in the church that week. Reading through it all, it’s impossible to shake the sense of guilt and shame, the anger of Catholic leaders and parishioners alike, and even a feeling of tragic inevitability, as if weary Catholics are unsurprised by the latest report of widespread sexual abuse, and unconvinced it will be the last.
“The scandal is not that evil is revealed, painful as that is,” Cardinal Collins is quoted as saying in the Register, “the real scandal is when evil festers in the darkness.”
“Dark” is an appropriate way to describe the active covering-up of and/or wilful blindness toward religious leaders abusing children. In New York, one of the most prestigious Jewish schools in the world, the Ramaz Academy, is currently facing its own child abuse scandal after a school-commissioned report released earlier last month found that Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who ran Ramaz for a half-century, was aware of sexual misconduct by educators affiliated with the school. Rabbi Lookstein apparently told investigators he “could have handled the situation better,” regarding one of the cases of abuse. “The season of repentance asks of us to acknowledge our wrongdoings, reflect upon our missteps in judgment, and resolve to being a better person going forward,” the chairman of the school’s board added.
The call to communal repentance for sexual abuse is echoed in this week’s CJN by Guila Benchimol, an expert on sexual violence in religious communities. Reviewing the case of Stephen Schacter, who taught at two Toronto Jewish schools, Eitz Chaim and Robbins Hebrew Academy, and is now facing sexual assault, sexual interference, sexual exploitation and gross indecency charges (he’s already been found guilty of possessing child pornography), she calls for a public reckoning with the ways in which the Jewish community has permitted and enabled abuse.
“Struggling with our mistakes is about more than creating a better way forward,” she writes, “we need to understand how our past led us to where we are today and make a firm commitment that specifies how we will behave differently.”