At The Center Of Catholic Church's Sex Abuse Scandal


Yesterday, Pope Francis released his Amoris Laetitia proclamation on family life. He calls on priests to support their parishioners, including those who are divorced, gay or pregnant out of wedlock, and to love rather than judge them. But the pope stopped short of actually endorsing same-sex marriage. The document lands on a Catholic church that is still working through its abuse crisis.

Earlier this month, another cover-up in western Pennsylvania's Altoona Johnstown Diocese received attention. Jason Berry is an investigative journalist who has covered the church crisis. He joins us now. Mr. Berry, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: And help us understand, please, what happened in Altoona.

BERRY: Well, it was a grand jury report. And what it found was the long reach of a cover-up going back many decades. You know, the rooted problem of this crisis is structural mendacity, institutionalized deception and lying. And bishops, in depositions over the years, have often said that they were doing this to protect the church, for the good of the church. But in fact, it leaves the victims, the children, on the short end of a moral calibration. And to this day, the Vatican is still struggling to figure out a way to hold bishops accountable.

SIMON: I'm interested in asking about Cardinal George Pell in Australia. He apparently testified via video link before the Australian Royal Commission that's looking into institutional responses to sexual child abuse. And I gather that he admitted under oath that he had heard talk about abuse but had not followed up on that. I gather he testified from Rome. Any response from the Vatican?

BERRY: There's been no real response from the Vatican that would indicate that Cardinal Pell is going to suffer any consequence. He is one of the most powerful figures in Rome. He oversees the new economics secretariat. I'm not suggesting that because of that financial power he is immune from any sort of punishment. He is about to turn 75. And I guess one of the tests will be whether Francis decides to let him quietly retire rather than putting him through the embarrassment of being removed because of what he did in Australia. But we have no indication either way as yet.

SIMON: The way you describe it, Mr. Berry, the Vatican will occasionally issue apologies and cooperate in various investigations perhaps, but they haven't yet felt the onus to remove bishops, archbishops, cardinals from exercising the powers of the church.

BERRY: It happens occasionally. Two American bishops have been forced out, you might say, in recent months from the Twin Cities - Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Finn of Kansas City. Finn, in fact, was convicted of a misdemeanor. And Nienstedt was deeply immersed in a cover-up. His own canon lawyer blew the whistle on him. And yet it took quite a while for those two men to resign. Everyone who has covered this assumes that they were forced out. But in fact, publicly, it's a resignation.

There is no legal mechanism with any teeth within the church today to remove men like this. It's up to the pope. Now Francis, to his credit, has removed two bishops from Latin America who were accused of abuse. And he promulgated a law which laid out penalties for any Vatican employee, including cardinals and bishops working in Rome, over child abuse and financial crimes, particularly money laundering.

The one person who really made headlines with his arrest was the Polish archbishop, formally the papal ambassador, or nuncio, in the Dominican Republic, and he was awaiting trial last year when he died. So he has put one mechanism in place. But the larger problem is to have a systematic way to hold these cardinals and bishops who are found to be complicit accountable. And so far there's only the early stages of that.

SIMON: Jason Berry, he's the author most recently of "Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life Of Money In The Catholic Church." Thanks so much for being with us.

BERRY: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

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