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What would Jesus do? Clean house.

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“Anyone who welcomes one little child like this in my name welcomes me,” said Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.” – reported Stars and Stripes (US).

This is what the men of the church that claims Jesus as its founder did in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, according to a grand jury report released: They protected more than 300 accused predator priests, alleged to have collectively molested at least 1,000 children; they covered up the sexual assaults; they transferred priests to new parishes with a fresh supply of victims; they maintained a conspiracy of silence that allowed the abuse to go on, and on, and on, world without end.

The report reads like one of those lurid anti-Catholic novels that flourished in 19th-century America. Only this story was authored by the church hierarchy itself — a hierarchy that has thus far evaded full accountability. “Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected,” the grand jury wrote, adding that “many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.” With overwhelming understatement, the grand jury continued, “Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

There are plenty of tales to tell about how church reality came to resemble a dime novel, yet most are essentially stories of individual malfeasance, of depraved molesters seeking the camouflage of priestly celibacy. That doesn’t explain the bureaucratization of evil. For what is striking about the grand jury’s findings is that this was not simply a matter of a few bad individuals, or even many of them; what impresses and appalls is how routine it all was — that the church had, as the report says, “a playbook for concealing the truth.”

As with other instances of organizational corruption, such as accounting scams or police scandals, the playbook may well have started with small exercises in reputation management that metastasized into monstrous proportions: each lie necessitating the next one because telling the truth about today threatens to unravel the long chain of past falsehoods.

One suspects, too, that many who should have known — must have known — went along because by the time they caught on, they were already halfway to being accomplices. Exposing the crimes risked destroying the entire organization and themselves with it.

That may help explain; it cannot possibly excuse. The rape of a child is a far graver sin than financial malfeasance, and we expect more from a church than from an investment fund or even a police force. We should never hear about this sort of conspiracy within a church, but when, God forbid, we do anyway, the news should come in the form of a full accounting of sins from the church itself, not from a grand jury — immediately followed by mass resignations and ruthless reforms.

We expect, in other words, full penitence. We are still waiting.

If Jesus were here today, would He not be running through American cathedrals, knocking over tables as He did with the money changers in the Temple? “According to scripture,” He said in the Gospel of Matthew, “my house will be called a house of prayer; but you are turning it into a bandits’ den.” The words are a fitting indictment of the men who are accused of committing a moral theft of unimaginable wickedness — in their thoughts and in their words, in what they did and in what they failed to do.

The innocence of children was stolen, as was the church’s sanctity and the faith of congregants, many of whom are today asking how they can possibly continue to believe that this is the one true church that Christ founded through Peter. They do not expect the church to be perfect; even St. Peter, after all, denied Christ three times. But they do expect to find the reflection of Christ there.

According to news reports, the church hierarchy in Pennsylvania and beyond has already denied Christ’s gospel three times: once when it sheltered predators in silence; once when it failed to remove everyone who was involved in covering up any crime; and again when two of the six dioceses involved tried to shut down the grand jury investigation that produced the report. Now they face the same choice Peter did.

They can offer the full record of faithlessness in abject penitence, witnessing for repentance and redemption even at risk of martyrdom. Or they can deny Him a fourth time by minimizing the past and protecting those who helped maintain that grisly silence. Which is to say, they can choose to be a millstone around the neck of the faithful — or the rock on which the church can be rebuilt.

***

The Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” in a lengthy statement in response to a US investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, reported Euronews (France).

A Grand Jury report concluded that more than 300 priests had abused over 1,000 identifiable children over a 70-year period, and that the Church was involved in a “systematic cover-up”.

However, the Vatican’s critics say it should have responded earlier and argue the Catholic Church – and Pope Francis himself – are shirking responsibility in the face of a wave of abuse scandals around the world.

What does the Vatican’s statement say?
The statement by the Vatican’s senior spokesman Greg Burke forcefully condemns the sexual abuse of children revealed in the Pennsylvania report.

“Shame and sorrow” are words that express feelings towards crimes that are described as “criminal and morally reprehensible”, it says. “The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

There’s a message for the victims of abuse: “the Pope is on their side” and “the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror”, the statement adds.

Noting that the Grand Jury finds “almost no cases after 2002”, the Vatican defends reforms that have “drastically reduced” US cases of clergy child abuse. Backing continued reform, it highlights the need to comply with civil law requirements such as mandatory reporting.

What did the Pennsylvania report find?
The Grand Jury report found that 301 priests abused more than 1,000 identifiable child victims in the eastern US state over 70 years.

However, it said the real number of abused children was believed to be “in the thousands”.

The 18-month investigation uncovered graphic cases of abuse – and a systematic cover-up. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the report concluded.

The Grand Jury also found that cover-up efforts meant most cases were now too old to go to court – and that some involved had been promoted to senior church positions.

Why have the Vatican and the Pope been criticised?
The Vatican’s comments come 48 hours after the Pennsylvania report was published. Pope Francis has yet to comment directly.

Despite acknowledging that digesting the 1350-page report would take time, both liberal and conservative Catholics in the United States had been pressing for some response from the Vatican since Tuesday.

Pennsylvania dioceses named by the Grand Jury had reportedly received advance copies. The state’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro said this week that from some quarters in the state there had even been an attempt “to cover up the cover-up”.

Shapiro also said he had never received a response to a personal letter he wrote to the Pope in late July.

Pope Francis himself has been accused of failing to get a grip on the series of scandals around the world. He apologised earlier this year for “grave errors” of judgment for defending a bishop accused of concealing years of child sexual abuse cases in Chile, and has also been criticised for failing to act against another bishop in Australia.

What does the Catholic Church do next?
Later this month Francis faces another test when he visits Ireland, a country that has been shaken by revelations of abuse and cover-ups. He has been called upon to take personal responsibility, and is expected to meet with victims of abuse.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has called for an urgent Vatican-led investigation into events in Pennsylvania. Its leader, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas, has said the Church is facing a “spiritual crisis”.

In a long statement, he called for an inquiry into issues surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned in July over abuse allegations. Such investigations should be independent and include lay people, he added.

The bishops also propose improving confidential channels for reporting complaints, and better procedures to resolve abuse cases.

A particular charge against the Catholic Church is that although many priests have been punished for abusing children, that is not the case with bishops who covered up their crimes. There are calls for an overhaul of rules which dictate that only the Pope can remove or punish bishops – even though there are over 5,000 of them worldwide.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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