Sexual Scandal in the Catholic Church: Need for Broader Reform

By Josef Klee, Ph.D., Former Deputy Director, Office of Internal Oversight of the United Nations, New York City. Dr. Klee outlines some major reforms based on his experience in the office of Internal Oversight Services.

The latest sex scandals involving bishops and cardinals in several countries and the horrific report of the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania alleging long-term Catholic clergy abuse and its cover-up are extremely painful and destructive for faithful Catholics. In 2002, the US bishops and also the Vatican implemented a zero-policy regarding sexual offenses as a justice system to deal swiftly with cases of sexual abuse. It is now clear, however, that the 2002 policies and reform programs failed or were not properly applied. Both the public and the Catholic community feel a sense of betrayal and have experienced a crisis of confidence. In the words of Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the latest cases “have shaken our Church to its core.”

How to Deal with the Crisis

The purpose of this letter is not only to express profound disillusion but also to suggest steps as to how the Church should deal with this crisis.

In response to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, Pope Francis issued a letter addressed to all the People of God in which he apologized for the abuse. He noted the spiritual failings of the Church, and the Church structures and clericalism that led to it. The Pope characterized the abuse as crimes for which all involved must be held accountable.

But it is not enough to focus only on measures to investigate the sex abuse cases, punishment of perpetrators, and support and compensation for victims of sex abuse. Rather, the issue must be seen in a broader context. We now recognize that the Church is lacking an effective governance system and a leadership culture that promotes responsibility and accountability for good administrative practices.

The Catholic Church is not the only large international organization with considerable financial resources and thousands of personnel that has grappled with issues of sexual abuse, accountability, and transparency. In this respect, the Church is similar to the United Nations and could benefit from examining the oversight methods adopted by UN Organizations.

In my capacity at the United Nations in the Office of Internal Oversight, I have participated in the formulation and implementation of sound modern administrative practices. It is from that perspective that I address the reforms with respect to management and administrative practices within the Church.

Need for an Independent Investigative Panel

In 2002, the U.S. bishops adopted a program to address the offenses and initiated a study to better understand the causes of and the impact of abuses. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People announced a national policy which provided that any priest known to have abused a child would be removed from the ministry and would not be allowed to say Mass other than in private. In addition, an outside board of Review to monitor compliance was formed. However, in interest of protecting the institution, the proposed reforms did not address the complicity of hierarchy within the Church and thus failed to protect the children.

A number of proposals have been made by clergy, lawyers and concerned laity to address the latest scandals and have proposed more extensive reform measures to investigate and to root out the sexual abuse cases. However, it is now clear that the debate on a new reform program must focus on the independence and transparency of the investigation system, and not only on the act of investigation. A key issue here is the determination of the role of the bishops, lay experts, victim/survivors, etc. in the reform process.

I recommend that all investigations — of all accused as perpetrators and of all accused as complicit in facilitating abuse, irrespective of their hierarchical status – be conducted in each diocese by a completely independent panel. The investigation results for priests and employees should be submitted to the bishop of the diocese for action, and in the case of a bishop, including a cardinal, should be sent to the Holy See for action.

Need for Independent Oversight

Further, in recent decades UN Organizations have created a modern oversight system that could serve as a model for the Vatican, Catholic dioceses, and all Catholic institutions.

The need is clear, because in the past many sexual-abuse cases have been settled with confidential agreements of payments to the victim. Since many church offices and institutions do not issue financial statements, the payments remained secret. Because the Vatican, dioceses, and religious institutions manage thousands of staff and considerable financial resources comparable to international companies and inter-governmental organizations, the Vatican, dioceses, and religious orders need to establish oversight offices.

The purpose of such oversight offices is to ensure effective management and to avoid corruption. Such offices need to implement a basic oversight system encompassing a financial audit unit and inspection functions, and they need to be composed of highly qualified experts. Such offices would promote the personal responsibility and accountability of all staff members, both clerical and lay. Further, the Vatican, every diocese, and every religious institution should issue an annual financial statement and conduct ad-hoc inspections when irregular administrative practices are suspected.

Need to Employ Skilled Laypersons at All Levels

Still today, many management and administrative functions in the church are carried out by priests who do not always possess the professional expertise for those specific functions. In this aspect of reform, the participation of the laity is necessary. For example, the finance office in the dioceses and religious institutions should be staffed with highly competent finance managers, and they should report directly to the bishop. Canon law also requires the appointment of competent financial lay people to the Diocesan Finance Council.

As noted by Pope Francis in his recent letter to all People of God, “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all members of God’s people.” He already has begun to recruit lay experts for non-religious positions in the field of administration, public information, etc.

I recommend that the Holy See also consider staffing some of the key positions in its Missions to International Organizations with skilled laypersons. (They are still typically occupied by priests rather than by expert laity.) The Holy See Missions to International Organizations deal with a wide variety of diplomatic and secular topics such as human rights, economic and social developments, international law, disarmament etc. which can be performed by qualified lay experts. The employment of lay staff in the missions would send a strong signal that the Church involves laity at the highest international levels.

Further, it is often noted that women are not properly represented in the top positions of the Vatican, or in dioceses and many religious institutions. The Vatican, as well as dioceses and other religious institutions, might well follow the example of UN Organizations and appoint religious sisters or lay women as focal points for the advancement of women in the church.

Need to Reform Internal Church Culture of Customs, Rituals, Title, and Insignia

In a recent letter, Pope Francis has emphatically pointed out the evils of a culture of clericalism. That approach, “whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.” The internal culture of an organization determines its effectiveness, image and trustworthiness. Without doubt, the Catholic Church enjoys a unique positive reputation worldwide. However, the Church’s culture still embodies the customs, rituals, titles, and insignia of a pre-modern aristocratic court.

The Holy See needs to conduct a review of its internal culture, with the objective of simplifying that internal culture to adjust it to contemporary society. In this context, it is noteworthy to mention that the Knights of Columbus have recently made changes in their culture by simplifying the gear for their Forth Degree members.

Pope Francis’s demonstrated life-style of simplicity should become the standard for such internal-cultural reforms. One first step would be to drop the titles “Your Eminence” and “Your Excellency.” All of us in the church are “brothers and sisters in Christ.”