Catholic Church ‘nowhere close’ to confronting global ‘epidemic’ of child sex abuse by priests

The Catholic Church is "nowhere close" to enacting the reforms needed to stop the "epidemic" of sex abuse by predatory priests and bishops against children, campaigners warned on Tuesday.

Pope Francis is "in retreat" from any meaningful effort to bring abusers to justice, said Bishop Accountability, a leading pressure group.

The scathing criticism comes as the Vatican admits it has secret guidelines on how to deal with priests who break their celibacy vows and sire children. 

Nearly 200 archbishops, bishops and other senior officials are to join the Pope at the Vatican for an unprecedented, four-day conference on combating the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Like his predecessors, the Pope has fostered "a culture of plausible deniability" in which allegations against priests are lost, not scrutinised properly, or buried in bureaucracy, campaigners said. 

The Catholic Church persists in regarding the sexual abuse of children as a sin, to be dealt with internally, rather than as a serious crime that requires the intervention of the police, said Phil Saviano, a high-profile survivor of sex abuse.

Molested by a priest in Massachusetts when he was 12 years old, his ordeal was told in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, based on a Boston Globe investigation into widespread sex abuse by clergy.

"The Church is still treating abuse as a sin, not as a crime,” Mr Saviano said in Rome. “I first went public with my story in 1992. Boy, the Church sure does make slow progress.

“Back then, there was dismay and shock among Catholics. Now, there is a great deal of anger. People are leaving the Church and no longer making donations.”

There is a huge gulf between the way in which the Catholic Church deals with abusive priests and the norms that campaign groups say need to be introduced to tackle the problem.

Many of the largest Catholic countries, including Brazil, the Philippines and Venezuela, do not even have published guidelines for how to respond to predatory priests and bishops, let alone mandatory rules for reporting them to the police.

Priests convicted of rape are routinely allowed to remain in the priesthood, with access to children, in countries around the world.

Despite the gravity of the crisis, campaign groups hold out little hope for significant progress.

“So much is at stake this week. The Catholics of the world are grieving and disillusioned,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, the head of Bishop Accountability.

“Canon law has to be fundamentally changed so that it stops prioritising the priesthood over the lives of children. But the Church is nowhere close to enacting the necessary reforms to stop this epidemic. And the Pope seems to be in retreat from concrete reform efforts.”

With the Vatican resisting change, it will have to come from outside the Catholic world.

“Unfortunately the way forward will be a bloody, hard-fought path of lawsuits, prosecutions and government investigations,” said Ms Barrett Doyle. “I would be amazed if the conference at the Vatican produces any meaningful reform.”

In the latest mea culpa issued by the Church, two organisations representing Catholic religious orders around the world apologised for covering up or denying the sexual abuse of children by priests in their ranks.

The Union of Superiors General, which represents male religious orders, and the International Union of Superiors General, which represents female orders, expressed shame and regret for “errors in judgment, slowness to act, denial and at times, cover-up."

Orders such as the Christian Brothers, the Jesuits and the Salesians have been accused of perpetrating horrendous abuse on children in schools and institutions across the globe.

"It is a story stretching back for decades, a narrative of immense pain for those who have suffered this abuse,” the organisations said. “We bow our heads in shame at the realisation that such abuse has taken place in our Congregations and Orders, and in our Church.”

Meanwhile the Vatican acknowledged, for the first time, that it has confidential guidelines on how to deal with priests who break their vows of celibacy and father children.

The guidelines, drawn up in 2017, would not be made public because they are “an internal document”, the Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said.

While the number of children fathered illicitly by Catholic priests is not known, it has called into question the Church’s celibacy requirement, with critics saying the rule should be relaxed or abolished altogether so that priests are able to marry and have families.