The Pope is Dishonest About Zero Tolerance for Child Sex Abuse

Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Barbara Blaine of SNAP say the Catholic Church and Pope Francis are not serious about addressing the church’s on-going struggles with child sexual abuse

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

With Pope Francis now visiting the United States, groups working domestically and in the region on issues related to the Catholic church are seeking greater attention for their causes. Among them are of course those still wanting to ensure that the church be held accountable for its support in defense of members who have both in the past and still today sexually abused children. While the pope has publicly condemned these acts and reconfirmed his support for the church’s zero tolerance policy, there are those who want to remind him and others that the atrocities are far from over.

To help us better understand this and related issues are our next two guests. Barbara Blaine is the founder and president of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. A survivor of clergy abuse herself, Blaine works tirelessly to protect the innocence and safety of children and vulnerable adults by exposing coverup in the church. Also joining us is Pam Spees, senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where she has represented the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests at the International Criminal Court in the Hague and the United Nations in Geneva. Welcome to you both, to the Real News Network.

BARBARA BLAINE: Thank you.

PAM SPEES: Thanks.

BALL: Barbara, let me start with you, if I can. How do you assess Pope Francis’ response to this issue of child abuse in the church? We have heard of his establishing a tribunal to deal with church abuses, and of course his claim of zero tolerance. Is he an advance, as many think or claim, and is there hope behind his position regarding sexual abuse in the church?

BLAINE: Well, thanks for having me. I’m happy to be with you today. I’m not so sure that Pope Francis has actually made a zero tolerance policy. I know that’s the policy here in the United States, the U.S. bishops have adopted that. But it’s my understanding that the U.S. is the only country that actually operates that way. And I think that for us as victims, what we are looking for is concrete action on the part of the pope. We just don’t want any more children to suffer as we did. And we believe that children remain at risk today, so we think that Pope Francis should clearly state that all sexual perpetrators have to be removed from the priesthood. They shouldn’t get to keep their jobs, and yet they do.

BALL: Pam, is it not true, as has been reported recently in the Boston Globe, that despite the zero tolerance policy something similar to what I think Barbara was just alluding to, that the church requires that first the secular, legal world must generate the cause for concern before the church will involve itself? And even then when it does, often the punishment is little more than a warning. Does that comport with what you understand to be the case?

SPEES: Often I believe that is the case. And it’s, you know, we have seen a number of examples of that. I would say that even though there is a zero tolerance policy on paper here in the U.S. we do have examples where when certain diocese have been certified by their review boards as having been, as functioning and in compliance with that policy, investigators have still found credibly accused priests to be actively serving.

One clear example of that is the archdiocese of Philadelphia, where a grand jury looked into the matter after the archdiocese had been certified as functioning properly. They had found 37 credibly accused priests still functioning. So you know, it’s not to say that the problem is solved here in the U.S., it’s still–there are still a lot of underlying policies and practices that are still very problematic.

BALL: Could you both take a shot at briefly explaining the procedures here or the process, or even the hierarchy? We understand the pope obviously is at the top of the chain here, but also if I understand correctly, bishops have a great deal of autonomy in their region of leadership. And I’m wondering, you know, what exactly the pope can do to assure this zero tolerance policy is adhered to, or to bring those who are accused of these atrocities to “justice”. What exactly is the process or procedure here? Barbara, I’ll start with you.

BLAINE: Well, I think that first of all, we should understand that the “tribunal” that the pope said he will set up has not been set up yet. He just says it’s going to be set up. But we don’t believe that he needs a tribunal. He is the pope, after all. He can fire any bishop he wants at any time. And we think that if he really wanted to protect children he would be firing some of those bishops who had transferred perpetrator priests, or covered up, or concealed information about crimes from police.

So our concern is that children remain at risk. We think Pope Francis should open all his files and turn them over to the police, and he should order all the bishops to do likewise. And he should punish the bishops, and we should post the identities of these perpetrators on websites so that parents and employers can know to keep children away from them.

BALL: Pam, I ask you the same question.

SPEES: Well in terms of the procedure, it’s just not true to say that the bishops have a lot of autonomy and they’re operating sort of independently of Vatican instructions and guidelines. We saw under Pope Benedict that the process was streamlined even more than it had been before, where all allegations of abuse were supposed to go from the diocese and archdiocese and religious orders to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is one of the congregations operating in the Vatican in Rome. So all of those allegations were supposed to be directed directly back to Rome. And Rome was exercising oversight over the handling of these cases.

And we’ve seen in, for instance, in documents that have come through in discovery in several cases here in the U.S., they’ve learned that bishops have often sought guidance from those in Rome as to how to handle certain accused priests. And often they were pleading to be able to remove these priests from the priesthood, and there was delay and often, you know, there were instances even when Joseph Ratzinger, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was declining those requests.

So it’s just not true that the Vatican doesn’t exercise control over this issue. And many others. Very tight control over bishops. For instance, you will see the swift removal of a bishop who speaks out on certain issues or goes astray of certain doctrine. But on this issue what we’ve seen repeatedly is that for instance, in the case of Cardinal Mahony in the Los Angeles archdiocese, repeated instances of very elaborate efforts to shield accused priests. This is known. And yet Cardinal Mahony is alongside Pope Francis now. And he’s still a cardinal. So it’s just–it’s not true. The process is very clear.

And I think it speaks to this issue of the tribunal that was set up, because there were mixed messages going from the Vatican to bishops. If you’re a bishop, and the mid-2000s there was a letter that was sent from a higher-ranking official in Rome to the bishops basically praising a bishop in France for having protected and having refused to cooperating with the court, cooperate with civil authorities, and report a priest who had admitted, basically, to sexually assaulting at least ten boys in that diocese. And what the Congregation for the Clergy said is you did the right thing, and you’re to be congratulated, and we’re going to share this letter with bishops around the world so they know how to act.

So it’s not true that bishops are just acting on their own and the Vatican, those in the Vatican have clean hands in this. They’re directing policy for–they’ve been directing policy. And you can set up a bishops’ tribunal, but what do we do about the accountability for those within the Vatican?

BALL: Well, so just, Pam, staying with you and to wrap up here, what are each of your demands going forward? And what do you each expect as restitution from the church?

SPEES: Well, I think actually Barbara can speak to that with the voice of survivors who have been working on this for over two decades. But first of all, let’s start with the UN’s recommendations. The Vatican as a state is a party to the treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the convention against torture. For the first time last year they were called to answer questions about their handling of this matter. And those committees have asked for data and information, and they’ve issued a series of recommendations about the kind of accountability that’s needed.

And what we’ve seen, and this is in stark contrast to the public messaging on this from Pope Francis and others in Rome, what they have submitted to those committees on paper is that they basically don’t have to cooperate. They have not, particularly with the committee against torture, they basically told them we’re not responsible for anything that happens beyond Vatican walls. And we don’t think that these issues of rape and sexual violence rise to the level of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, so we’re not even going to answer those questions.

So that’s very telling. And you can start with the recommendations these UN committees have made.

BALL: Barbara, anything to add to that?

BLAINE: I think that it’s interesting because one of the first recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child was that the Vatican officials should remove the known perpetrators from ministry. So in the investigation that the independent body at the United Nations did, they found perpetrators were still working in ministry. And so that’s why when you say that the pope is claiming that there’s a zero tolerance policy it’s just not true. I don’t know whether it’s true that he’s really claiming that zero tolerance for the whole world, because it was my understanding that that didn’t go beyond the U.S., but even so.

What should happen is that those who abuse children should be removed from the priesthood. And when you ask what we as victims want, you know, nothing can give us back our innocence and our childhood that was taken from us. We can’t go back and grow up over again. But it would mean the world to us to know that maybe the other 12 and 13-year-olds are not getting raped like we were when we were children. And that’s the most important thing for us as victims.

BALL: Well, Barbara Blaine and Pam Spees, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News Network.

SPEES: Thank you.

BLAINE: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here as well. For all involved I’m Jared Ball again here in Baltimore saying as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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