Vatican encourages priest misconduct with coverups

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

Last week, the Vatican stepped in on behalf of a high-ranking priest and diplomat in the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy. American authorities attempted to strip the priest of diplomatic immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography. The priest, who has not been officially named, will be brought back to the Holy See rather than facing charges in the United States.

This is not a new practice for diplomats in foreign countries. In 2013, the United States recalled a diplomat who killed a Kenyan in a car accident, allowing their diplomat to face any charges on U.S. soil rather than under Kenyan legislation. What the Vatican’s actions seem to indicate, however, is a continuation of the Catholic Church’s passive attitude towards charges of child sexual abuse amongst their priests.

Sexual abuse has been an issue in the Catholic Church for a long time. In the past, many cases have been covered up, have had charges dropped, or have simply not been reported. Sometimes the victims are too scared or ashamed to speak up, and often those who do come under fire for accusing priests of such crimes. In some cases, priests who are accused of sexual abuse are not truly reprimanded, but are simply moved to other parishes. Thomas O’Brien, former bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, admitted in May 2003 to sheltering at least 50 priests accused of sexual abuse by relocating them to other parishes across the state. It has become a worldwide epidemic. In 2014, Pope Francis stated that 2 percent of the nearly 441,000 Roman Catholic clerics worldwide are pedophiles, amounting to about 8,000 in total, although the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has said that the real number is much higher.

Unfortunately, sexual abuse and pedophilia is an issue in every community. The Catholic Church, however, seems to have a particularly high number of scandals and charges. Some point to the size of the Catholic population, nearly a quarter of the American population, while others refer to the fact that priests in the Catholic Church are required to be celibate, sometimes leading to secret or unsavory sexual encounters. Furthermore, the position of priests as holy men, exalted representations of Christ, can make it hard for devout members of a parish to see their priest as capable of such acts. The power imbalance between such revered community figures and children often prevents those children or their families from speaking up or demanding justice.

Pope Francis has spoken out about the horrors of sexual abuse and related crimes since the beginning of his papacy. He has created a reform commission to protect children, and initially planned to create a tribunal to try bishops for covering up abuse. However, in the time since he took the papacy, his tribunal plans have been heavily opposed, and the two abuse survivors that were appointed to his commission have resigned out of frustration. Furthermore, one of his top advisors, Cardinal George Pell, was charged with sexual assault in Australia a mere three months ago, making critics question Pope Francis’ capability to handle such charges and spot similar offenses in his highest-ranking officials.

The real issue in this case is not the recalling of the Vatican official. It is the worry that if given the chance to serve justice, the Holy See will not handle the crime appropriately, instead opting to cover it up or give it a softer punishment. While it is, to a certain extent, reasonable for the Vatican to want to take care of the official's justice on their own terms, there are few reasons to believe that this will happen based on the long and storied history of sweeping issues like these under the rug.

Pope Francis is trying to take a more direct stand against sexual abuse and pedophilia in the Church, and this is admirable. Maybe a way to demonstrate this change would be to let the priest in question face American courts, be stripped of his immunity and be tried for possession of child pornography. We need to know that the Catholic Church is no longer willing to defend those who put the health and wellbeing of children at risk. If the priest were tried in America for the crime he committed here, that would be a case that would be out in the open. It would be reassurance for followers across the world that these issues will not be swept aside anymore, but will be dealt with in the open.

However, the Vatican has already called back its priest. So now the consequences lie in the Holy See, where the current pope has talked a big game in regards to fighting this issue. Now is the time for Pope Francis to prove he means business when it comes to the proper punishment for perpetrators. Yes, prioritizing discussion of child pornography issues in the priesthood will certainly look bad for the Catholic Church. However, it will not look as bad as the Church refusing to address the issue, insisting on waiting and pretending while other children are taken advantage of at the hands of men who are supposed to be sources of comfort and wisdom.

In order to truly move forward after this terrible incident and recover from the all-to-familiar trend, the Vatican needs to face this head on, with strict punishment and a transparent prosecutorial process for potential future offenders. Until it does, there will continue to be priests who do not use their positions for good, and who take advantage of children in their communities while betraying the trust that those communities have given them.