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The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse inquiry is a crucial moment

What’s news?

For a country that grapples daily with exceedingly high levels of sexual abuse, it is surprising that events taking place in Rome this week have garnered so little local attention. Perhaps our own political events have taken up all of our attention, but the reckoning taking place at Pope Francis’ inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church should matter to all of us.

For decades, there have been thousands of stories of sexual abuse by catholic priests, of mostly children and especially boys. These have come from all over the world. They have been accompanied by denials from the church, even cover-ups, while massive settlement claims were quietly paid to victims to prevent ugly public trials.

But this weekend, Francis is holding a four day long summit, involving 190 church leaders, Vatican officials, experts, victims and other guests, in an effort to finally find out what has really happened.

The summit began on Thursday with moving words by Francis and other leaders. But it was the prerecorded victim testimony that hogged international headlines. One victim said she was impregnated three times by a priest and forced to have abortions. Another reportedly said he was abused hundreds of times.

Why does this matter?

Francis’ idea is being punted as a possible way to deal with this kind of a crisis; a kind of “Codesa” for sexual abuse in the church. All eyes will be watching to see whether this model can bring both healing and accountability for those involved – and, crucially, whether this can be replicated elsewhere, where systemic abuse has occurred.

What’s going on?

As The Guardian put it, Francis is facing his moment of truth. Dealing with this history is the ultimate test of his credibility. It is even bigger than that – the entire Catholic Church is on trial, with all its secrets laid bare. The inquiry goes against everything the Vatican has tried to do for so many decades – deny responsibility.

Well-known Jesuit Priest Russell Pollitt wrote recently that the church failed to respond adequately to the allegations. He is one of many who have welcomed Pope Francis’ inquiry, hoping it will finally bring some healing for the victims. He couldn’t have said it better:

“For a long time the Catholic Church will have to live with this scourge and its aftermath which has lead to inconceivable pain for victims and their families. It has also cost the church huge financial payouts, damaged the image of the priesthood and eroded our moral authority. I hope the events in Rome this week are a strong signal to us all: Strive for transparency and take responsibility – even when it’s painful.”

South African Jesuit Priest Russell Pollitt