(Written by Livia Albeck-Ripka)
The sentencing of Cardinal George Pell for molesting boys more than two decades ago comes just weeks after a Vatican summit in which Pope Francis called for “all-out battle against the abuse of minors.”
Pell is the most senior cleric in the Roman Catholic Church ever to receive jail time for child sexual abuse. But for decades, it has been victims, journalists and civil authorities who have forced abusers into the open and called them to account when church leaders failed to do so.
Law enforcement officials in some countries have become more willing in recent years to prosecute priest perpetrators, according to observers of the scandals.
Here is how countries other than Australia — with varying historic and societal ties to the Catholic church — have dealt with abusive clergy:
While thousands of priests have faced civil lawsuits for sexual abuse in the United States, and some have faced criminal trials, no one of Pell’s stature has been convicted. In February, the Vatican found former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick guilty of abuse, and defrocked him. McCarrick is unlikely to face criminal prosecution, however, because the alleged abuse took place well beyond the statutes of limitations.
These restrictions are common across the United States and directly correlate with the data on clergy abuse in any given state, said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org. Some states have extended the statute of limitations, allowing victims more time to report abuse. But in others, like Pennsylvania — where an explosive grand jury report recently documented abuse of 1,000 children — the church has lobbied against bills to broaden the statute of limitations, tying prosecutors’ hands.
“Amending legislation so that victims can try to obtain justice in court will help victims,” Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer from Boston who has represented hundreds of survivors, said in a recent statement. The laws need to change, Garabedian said, to give victims the chance “to heal.”
Hundreds of priests have been accused of sex crimes in Italy, but few have been convicted, and even fewer have gone to jail, according to limited data. The scope of the problem has, in part, been obscured because of the cozy relationship between church and state, say experts, where a culture of impunity has long protected abusive members of the clergy.
“There’s some kind of silent understanding that’s going on between the church authorities, and the police, the judges; there are some issues that are too sensitive to be investigated,” said Massimo Faggioli, an expert on Catholic church history at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “This is as it’s always been in the last four, five, six, centuries.”
In February, the United Nations released a report criticizing Italy for “the numerous cases of children who have been sexually abused by religious personnel of the Catholic church” and “the low number of investigations and criminal prosecutions.”
Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world after Brazil, but only four priests in the country have been convicted of sexual abuse in the past decade. In part, as in the United States, this is because of restrictive statutes of limitations.
A deep Catholic heritage and weak reporting laws — which only require clergy to notify civil authorities of abuse if it occurs during religious worship or on church property — also play a part, experts say.
“In Mexico, we don’t have a lot of cases denounced, but we have an estimation of about 500 cases that could be prosecuted,” said Adalberto Méndez, a human rights attorney in Mexico and a member of Ending Clergy Abuse, a victims’ advocacy group.
“This is a really Catholic country,” Méndez added. “The authorities don’t want problems with the church.”
Searing government reports exposing the scope and severity of the abuse problem in Ireland — which relied on the Catholic church to run schools, orphanages and other social service organizations for decades — have undermined the country’s trust in the church. Ninety-three priests and brothers have been convicted there, according to BishopAccountability.org.
“The government would have bowed down to the church,” said Marie Collins, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in Ireland and a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a group created to advise Pope Francis.
“Those days,” she said, “are well and truly passed.”
In some cases, however, strict defamation laws as well as privacy lawsuits filed by the church have protected abusers from being publicly identified, stifling further investigation, experts said. A law holding church officials accountable for covering up abuse was finally introduced in 2006.
“The real anger was focused on the church authorities and their failure to act,” said Maeve Lewis, the executive director of One in Four Ireland, a victim support group. That was what “caused so many people to absolutely abandon the church,” she said.
The Philippines has the third-largest Catholic community in the world, but no priests there have been convicted of child sexual abuse, according to BishopAccountability.org. At the Vatican summit in February, however, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, admitted that “wounds” had been inflicted by bishops and needed to be healed.
Tagle has been criticized for his lack of commitment to zero-tolerance policies on child sexual abuse in the church. That, combined with what victims’ advocates describe as laws hostile to victims and a lack of survivor support groups, makes it challenging to bring perpetrators to justice in the Philippines.
A handful of priests and bishops have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, but it is “very rare,” said Shay Cullen, a priest in the Philippines and founder of the Preda foundation, which helps victims of abuse.
“Denial and cover-up is rampant,” Cullen said. “If the truth ever breaks out,” he said, “there will an avalanche of cases.”