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February 17, 2014

The Catholic Church has taken much deserved criticism over the past 20 years for its record on clergy sexual abuse. For years, the Church did not do enough to prevent abuse, and for years more it treated the victims of abuse shoddily and failed to deal adequately with those who perpetrated abuse and covered it up.

In that light, it should not be surprising that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has failed to take note of the changes the Church, at least in some nations, has made to prevent further abuse. The Church will be under a dark cloud of suspicion for a long time because of the defensive manner with which it treated allegations of abuse for far too long.

People who advocate on behalf of the survivors of abuse should not go to sleep despite the changes the Church has made in dealing with sexual abuse. Those changes are largely changes in rules, procedures and penalties. What is debatable is whether the Church has come to grips with the culture of power, secrecy and reliance on lawyers that exacerbated the crisis.

The UN committee can be faulted for failing to see the procedural changes that the Church has made for preventing and dealing with abuse. It can be doubly faulted for trying to impose its secularist agenda of pro-contraception and pro-legalized abortion on the Church.

It can further be faulted for seeing the issue in the same manner that the Church has responded, that is, in terms of rules and procedures.

As Sister Nuala Kenny, a leading Canadian expert on clergy sexual abuse, said in Edmonton two years ago, the Church has done more than any other organization in the world to establish protocols and policies to prevent sexual abuse. However, it has not dealt with the clericalism that underlies abuse.

With lay people gaining more influential roles in the Church, “clericalism” may no longer be the right diagnosis. Nevertheless, the symptoms Kenny diagnosed may well remain in play – resistance to criticism and change, protection of the institution’s image, secrecy, lack of accountability and loss of touch with the organization’s mission.