Catholic church unveils new system for reporting sexual abuse committed or covered up by bishops
Victims, advocates question why police aren't considered the first point of contact
Victims and advocates say a new system for reporting sexual abuse and cover-ups by Catholic bishops appears to be a case of "optics over substance" and may not go far enough to protect those at risk of being abused.
This week, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced the unveiling of a national and bilingual service for reporting situations of sexual abuse either committed or covered up by a bishop.
"This service furthers their commitment to responsibility, accountability and transparency in matters of clergy sexual abuse and their commitment to facilitate healing and justice for victims-survivors," the national assembly said in a statement.
The system was created in response to a letter from the Pope calling for one easily accessible system for allegations solely against Bishops. Allegations against priests are still handled at the local diocese level.
With the CCCB's system, a bishop would be investigated by an outside diocese. If the report is then deemed credible, it would be taken all the way up to the Vatican.
For Patrick McMahon, a Windsor man who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, there's some good to this move. He said it means more accountability and better documentation of these types of crimes.
But he's concerned about criminal activity possibly being alerted to the wrong authority.
"Child abuse is a crime. Call the police. That's number one, don't call the church," said McMahon, adding he wishes that something the Catholic church would advise.
"I don't know why they they aren't a little more forthright in saying, 'Please contact us for religious healing and to help us root out these criminals in our midst — but we also strongly encourage you to go to the police.'"
His other concern, McMahon added, is that the system only applies to bishops.
"Bishops have to be accountable, too. But there are a lot more priests and laypeople involved in the church than there are bishops."
In a statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests insisted that anyone with complaints or information will report it to local police, trusted friends and therapists — before reporting incidents internally to the church.
"By creating yet another apparatus that keeps allegations internal, Church officials are not disabusing the notion that what they care about most is the management of their reputations and finances," the non-profit support group said.
"It makes more sense that all allegations are first routed to trained investigators in law enforcement and then sent to the Church, not the other way around."
A London-based lawyer and victims' advocate agrees, calling this reporting system "optics over substance."
"This is an institution that thrives on control and cover-up — and the fact that they still want you to go to them rather than the secular authorities demonstrates to me they still don't get it," said Rob Talach.
"Other organizations just simply point you to the police as is appropriate. These are crimes, crimes against children in most cases ... so why are we clicking on a link or calling our hotline to the church itself when often times they're about as wrapped up in the problem as the perpetrator?"
Talach added there is no timeline to report a sexual crime, meaning victims can report it to police at any stage of their life, even if they're older and something happened to them as a child.
The church's response
The Diocese of London stresses that all allegations of abuse are taken very seriously — and when it comes to the matter of police, they say police are involved on a case-by-case basis. But Matthew Clarke, director of communications for the diocese, said police are always involved if the allegation involves a minor.
"The promise is that this is a transparent and accountable system," he said.
"I don't know of an allegation that has not been taken seriously. They will all be fully investigated whether it's through this process — if it's specific to a living or retired bishop — or if it's to the local diocese for a past malfeasance by a priest or lay minister."
Clarke adds, throughout this process, if someone files a report, they'll be given a case number which can be used to track its progress.
If, for some reason, no action is taken, the person who filed the case will be notified with an explanation as to why.
With files from Katerina Georgieva