A French historian has warned that the Catholic sex abuse crisis will remain irresolvable without a challenge to Church sexism.

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“The sexual abuse crisis is linked to institutional silence, but it also reaches the power structure, an exclusively male power in the Catholic Church”, historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), Denis Pelletier, told Libération December 22.

“I do not believe that the crisis can be resolved without asking this question of the masculinity of power” in the Church, Pelletier continued, recalling that “sexual violence… is mostly carried out by men”.

The episcopate, meanwhile “finds it difficult to understand the crisis and to find solutions that are acceptable to a society that has requirements in terms of protecting victims”, the historian explained.

“In its discourse, the Catholic Church always put forward the protection of the weak. Suddenly, it is caught in a deep contradiction. What did it do for the victims, be they adolescents, young people or nuns?”, Pelletier asked.

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Speaking to Libération, Pelletier didn’t make mention of Pope Francis’ historic December 17 decrees abolishing the pontifical secret on internal Church abuse investigations and raising the age of victims of the Church offence of child pornography.

That’s perhaps because the historian thinks the sex abuse crisis can’t be totally fixed with measures like the Pope’s, because the sex scandals reach so far back into the past.

“The crisis that the Church is going through is that of an apparatus that has concealed knowingly abuses”, Pelletier denounced, even while acknowledging that the Church hardly has a “monopoly” on sexual crimes in society.

Giving the example of Lyon cardinal Philippe Barbarin – sentenced in March to a six-month suspended jail term, since appealed, for covering up the crimes of a pedophile priest – the academic deplored that “although it knew the facts, the institution did not want to see, did not want to denounce, did not want to sanction”. 

The Church “discovers today that society no longer accepts that it does not submit to the rules of law and morals that apply to everyone”, Pelletier explained.

Why it matters

On the sex abuse scandals, the Catholic hierarchy “is today helpless for lack of tools to think through a crisis which it does not understand”, Pelletier continued.

“In fact, for many years, it worked to remove from places of power those of its members who were most open to the way society evolved”, the academic recalled.

“It is this long silence which, today, puts in difficulty the immense majority of its priests and its faithful”, Pelletier denounced.

But the historian added that, the most acute aspects of the crisis apart, still there were signs of hope.

Signs like the establishment of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (Ciase) in November 2018, under the chairmanship of French jurist and former public servant Jean-Marc Sauvé – “whose independence and thoroughness are unanimously recognized” – “is good news”, Pelletier said.

“It is a sign that something is really happening”, the historian concluded.

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