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Joseph H. Saunders
| Saunders and Walker

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx admitted what we long suspected to be true.  The Catholic Church has been destroying documents related to the sexual abuse of children.  This marks the first time a top church official has admitted to the destruction of documents.

“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created,” said Marx, beginning a list of a number of practices that survivors have documented for years but church officials have long kept under secret.

“Instead of the perpetrators, the victims were regulated and silence imposed on them,” the cardinal continued. “The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offences were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden. These are all events that sharply contradict what the Church should stand for,” said Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, head of the German bishops’ conference, and a member of Francis’ advisory Council of Cardinals.

Marx’s admission to the church’s destruction of files may have special significance in his native Germany, where an exhaustive September 2018 report on abuse in the country detailed cases involving 3,677 children but said files in at least two dioceses had been changed or destroyed.

The admission’s impact in the United States has yet to be determined.  However, the destruction of evidence related to a crime is itself a crime.  Thus far, no US bishop or cardinal has commented on Cardinal Marx’ admission.

Pope Francis, who has had a mixed record on addressing the church’s pedophilia problem, convened the four-day summit in a landmark effort to curb the widespread and systemic failures that turned the issue into a global crisis. In his opening remarks on Thursday, Francis condemned the “scourge” of sexual abuse and said it was up to church leaders to “confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity.”

During his pontificate, Francis’ words have been contradicted by his actions such as his defense of a Chilean bishop accused of abuse. Francis was criticized during his 2018 visit to Chile for defending a bishop accused of knowing about abuse by a priest. The pope has since apologized in a public letter to the people of the country and has accepted the resignations of several Chilean bishops accused of abuse or cover-up.

Activists and victims of clergy abuse are calling on the church to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy that would apply universal standards for abusive priests around the globe. So far, however, accountability measures have varied from region to region — if they happen at all. Even as more and more allegations of abuse come to light, factions within the church still deny its existence. Which is why one major theme to emerge out of this week’s summit focuses on transparency as a (small) first step to confront the crisis.

Even in the United States, responses to sexual abuse varies widely from diocese to diocese.  Some dioceses are responsive to survivors while others stonewall or still blame the survivors for the scandal.

In the two decades, since I’ve been working with survivors of sexual abuse, I recognize we are at a tipping point.  More survivors are coming forward, laws are changing, and the media has renewed interest in uncovering the truth.

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