Transparency, accountability needed for church to heal from priest sex abuse scandals
FAIRFIELD — The Catholic Church can recover from the ongoing priest sex abuse scandals, but it will take work, and allowing all voices to be heard, speakers at a Sacred Heart University event said Wednesday.
A mix of college students and older adults were on hand for the conversation, that was led by several Sacred Heart professors and billed as a conversation “In the wake of recent revelations.”
While the scandals in Boston, highlighted in the 2015 movie, “Spotlight,” and the recent Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania were raised by the panelists, the Diocese of Bridgeport’s own cases were not brought up until a question from an audience member. Should the three Roman Catholic dioceses be investigated by the attorney general’s office?
“Part of the problem is that there is this separation,” Caitlin Merritt, a professor of Catholic Studies, said, with the church performing its own internal investigations, rather than allegations turned over for criminal investigations. “I think we do need to have criminal investigations wherever these allegations lie.”
Michael Higgins, professor of Catholic Thought, pointed out that the church in France is not experiencing the same issues because any abuse allegation is automatically turned over for government authorities to investigate.
“There are models we can look at,” he said.
Higgins said while the flood of reports on priest sex abuse can be distressing, he said the church has faced darker times and has reformed itself.
“The abuse of people in the church is not unique to our times,” Higgins said, adding that awareness of the scandals, and of cash settlements with victims, was led by the secular press. “We owe that secular world our thanks.”
Higgins said the power structure of the church did not allow for easy transparency, and the “clerical” culture, which puts priests on a different level, contributes to issues of transparency and accountability.
Merritt said the secrecy surrounding the abuse was done out of a false sense of self-preservation. But, she said, they aren’t preserving anything if they don’t build the structures necessary for transparency and accountability.
Another Catholic Studies professor, Jennifer Reek, said the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is “really quite shocking and horrific.”
She said the jury members wrote that they “need you to hear this and it is what is making things feel different this time.”
Bishops, she said, need to be held accountable, and that was one of the real crimes.
“They were never held accountable and it seems like there has been a real shift now,” Reek said. She said the church received a report in 1985 and was urged to address the situation. Instead, she said the priest who wrote the report was punished.
“I think this is a real turning point now,” Reek said. “It seems to me there’s something really different about this.”