The revised legal framework that Pope Francis has just prescribed to deal with sexual abuse could go down in history as the most progressive reform that the Catholic church has initiated since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.
After living in denial for decades, if not longer, the Church has finally had the courage to try to come to terms with a canker that has worldwide manifestation. It is perhaps true that with top Cardinals having been deemed guilty of sexual offences in civil courts in the US, Australia and elsewhere, the Vatican had little option but to crack the whip or face a potential revolt among the faithful.
Still, the measures announced by the Vatican on May 9 will find universal resonance ~ even if they will not automatically suffice to eliminate an evil that has been systematically covered up for so long. Pope Francis, and his team, have at least exhibited the moral courage to look within, and while doing so have tasked thousands of priests and nuns with the sacred duty of “blowing the whistle” when they get information ~ not necessarily proof ~ of an entire gamut of sexually-related offences.
Since the bulk of the priests and nuns give considerable weight to orders from the Vatican, genuine hopes have been raised that a clean-up will follow. This is not to even momentarily suggest that sexual abuse and exploitation is rampant, only to stress that Pope Francis has cleared the doubts among the faithful that it would be sinful to expose the misdeeds.
Those who created/encouraged the mindset that to even talk about sexual misconduct would invite the proverbial “fires of Hell” will now have to be wary ~ the principle of accountability has been established, and it will progressively extend itself into all spheres of the Church’s functioning. A new, additional, responsibility now devolves upon Bishops worldwide. What has been powerfully reiterated is their duty to ensure that priests and nuns walk the “straight and narrow”.
Conditions vary from place to place: in more bold societies paedophilia had become widespread, in India the economic situation had resulted in nuns and women workers in hospitals, schools etc, falling prey to predatory priests who abused the considerable power they wielded, and the more senior nuns in the convents often failed to accord due protection to their wards.
It would be incorrect to point accusing fingers, but timely action by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India might have averted the despicable developments in Kerala. The CBCI’s argument, “let the law take its course” is obliquely what the Vatican has now deprecated.
Pope Francis is not unaware of both human weaknesses and temptations; what he has just reemphasised is the sense of “sacred duty” that every priest or nun is required to accept and adhere to: taking Holy Orders have now become even more onerous. That could be the defining feature of the present papacy.