“Let there be light.” With these few words, God began the patient work of creation, introducing order into the dark and formless void, introducing the forces necessary for the flourishing of life (Genesis 1:1-3). In these darkest days of the year, when inhabitants of the northern hemisphere await the return of light, we recall the coming of Christ—the light shining in the darkness for all of humankind (John 1:4-9). And throughout world, the global Catholic community awaits the day when the light of Christ might once again shine on the face of the church with credibility.
Speaking at Notre Dame University in November, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, leader of the Vatican office for the investigation of clergy sexual abuse, warned American Catholics to “be prepared for another wave of traumatic narrative.” The full story, he suggests, in particular the story of bishops who are themselves perpetrators or have covered up the full extent of abuse in their dioceses, has not yet come to light. More recently, reflecting on his own experience of confronting the reality of abuse, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph von Schönborn, acknowledged how the toxic culture of clericalism often enabled abusers to escape justice, as they hid behind “closed systems” and “closed institutions,” including the secret procedures of ecclesiastical tribunals.
This week it was announced that Pope Francis has ended the practice of the “pontifical secret,” a set of rules requiring strict confidentiality concerning the proceedings of ecclesiastical investigations and trials of members of the clergy for sexual offenses. This measure, coupled with new requirements to report all alleged abuse to civil authorities, is a harbinger of a new spirit of collaboration and openness.
The reality of sexual abuse first caught the attention of Canadian Catholics in the 1970s when complaints emerged concerning the Mount Cashel Boys’ Home run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The 1989 Royal Commission and the Winter Commission, an independent enquiry established by the Archdiocese of St. John’s, uncovered the full extent of rampant physical and sexual abuse. Both secular and church authorities had failed abysmally to protect vulnerable child victims. Their misguided coverup prioritized instead the defense of the institution and the religious order. Archbishop Alphonsus Penney apologized to victims and offered his resignation. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Canadians learned of the sad chapter of abuse in a government-sponsored system of residential schools for first nations children managed by church organizations, including 50 Catholic “entities”—religious institutes and 17 dioceses.
In the wake of the Mount Cashel scandal, the Canadian Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops was among the first episcopal conferences to establish a set of national guidelines for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse in From Pain to Hope, in 1992. These were updated by a new set of orientations in 2007 and replaced in 2018, by a more expansive set of guidelines, “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse.” Canadian bishops count themselves as “pioneers” in the effort to adopt a more just, victim-centered approach to the crisis.
Still, each bishop is responsible to implement these policies and procedures in his diocese. In the absence of any structure of public accountability, one might wonder whether they remain the workings of a closed system. Advisory commissions are appointed by the bishops and report back to them. Even the new procedures introduced by Pope Francis in the past year envision the investigation of bishops by other bishops—metropolitans and nuncios, whose lines of accountability run upward to Vatican officials—with no requirement to report to the people they serve.
The restoration of trust between the people on the pews and their pastors will require much greater transparency and accountability. A number of Canadian bishops are working proactively to rebuild this trust by conducting parish-based and diocesan-wide listening sessions or inviting independent audits of diocesan files and procedures. Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver has now published the names of nine priests publicly charged or convicted of abuse after an audit of cases dating back to 1950. The diocese actually identified 36 perpetrators in all, yet claims that privacy laws prevent the publication of the full list. The Archdiocese of Montreal and surrounding dioceses have invited a retired judge to conduct an extensive external audit of diocesan archives going back to 1950. Other dioceses across Canada are undertaking similar studies and weighing whether and how to publish the results. Such efforts are significant steps in the direction of increased transparency.
If the shepherds of the church really want to earn back the trust of the faithful and restore credibility with the wider community, such measures cannot be a one-off. They must be accompanied by the establishment of new checks and balances. Otherwise, they risk being seen as the noble gestures of a benevolent leader, or worse, as little more than the latest communication strategy aimed at controlling the flow of information and minimizing damage to the institution. Regular audits and systems of reporting must become a permanent feature of Catholic diocesan life—as they are in all public institutions and corporations today.
No serious Christian need fear genuine transparency—literally, allowing the light to shine through. Ours is a story, remembered in this season with great fanfare, of how a people who walked in darkness has seen a great light. He came not in triumph, but in great humility. The light of an honest accounting is essential if we are to grasp the full scope of the crisis and embrace our collective responsibility for the failings of the church. Only then will we begin to comprehend all that stands in need of healing. And only then can we hope to build safer, life-giving communities together, in whom the world might discern a reflection of the one who is Light.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.