How much is the Catholic Church not telling us? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of the most recent clergy abuse revelations in Illinois. The state attorney general’s office reported this week that Catholic dioceses in Illinois neglected to report at least 500 priests and clergy members accused of sexual misconduct.
Five. Hundred. Priests. In Illinois alone. And that’s on top of the 185 priests the church did decide to report – meaning the total number of potential offenders is actually pushing 700.
The state attorney general launched its investigation following the disturbing reports out of Pennsylvania earlier this year, hoping to identify potential offenders who’d been flying under the radar up until now. They just happened to stumble into an alarming cover-up.
Looking Behind the Curtain
Catholic leaders have since pushed back, claiming that they reported all the allegations that were deemed credible. Those that weren’t reported simply didn’t have enough evidence, officials insist.
But state investigators tell a different story. Their probe “has revealed that allegations frequently have not been adequately investigated by the dioceses or not investigated at all.” Apparently, the Catholic Church doesn’t have a specific standard for what qualifies as a “credible” accusation – meaning that decision is left up to individual church leaders who habitually choose not to air the damaging information.
Can the Church Be Believed?
Look, it’s possible that the Illinois Catholic Church is innocent of any wrongdoing, and that each one of those 500 allegations really were spurious or lacking credibility. But it’s possible in the same way that it’s “possible” ISIS is planning a grand transformation into a pro-Israel human rights organization, or that North Korea will suddenly decide to give up its nuclear weapon stash and join forces with the U.S. to denounce religious persecution in China.
It could be true, but all available evidence points to the contrary.
Let’s face it: the Church’s protestations would be far more believable if it weren’t for a disturbing and well-documented track record of covering up allegations and downplaying clergy abuse over the course of multiple decades.
In 2002, the house of cards began to fall when the famed “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe published the first accounts of widespread abuse in the church. Over the past 16 years, as allegation after allegation has been brought to light, the Church’s reputation has effectively been dismantled. The result? There is little doubt – in the eyes of the public, anyway – as to whether this latest report is accurate.
That’s not to say there isn’t a path to recovery for Catholicism. If stamped out properly, this plague could eventually be relegated to an unfortunate chapter in history textbooks. But restoring trust first requires acknowledging the full scope of the problem and adopting tough measures to address it. Pope Francis is pushing for the Church to clean up its act worldwide, which is a step in the right direction.
However, the fact that massive new allegations are still surfacing years after these issues were first identified has some wondering: what else has yet to be uncovered? Have we seen the worst of the epidemic, or is this still just the tip of the iceberg?