Anna Sheffer
December 20, 2017 1:52 pm
Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Today, December 20th, news broke that Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced Catholic Church official who helped cover up countless sexual abuse cases within the Church, died at the age of 86. The Boston Globe initially broke the news in 2002, and the story of their reporting efforts was adapted into the 2o15 film Spotlight. Law’s death has led many to ask: What, if anything, has changed within the Catholic Church since the 2002 scandal broke?

After the initial 2002 investigation, bishops in the U.S. sent 700 cases of abuse to the Vatican for consideration. The Vatican has the power to “defrock” priests — aka strip them of their power. And from 2011 to 2012, the Vatican defrocked nearly 400 priests specifically for sexual abuse. But most cases of abuse at the hands of priests are not prosecuted in courts. Often, when abuse allegations surface against priests, it is too late to try the case because the statute of limitations has passed.

However, the Church continues to settle sexual abuse cases outside of the justice system on a case-by-case basis, and by 2006, the church had spent $2.6 billion on settlements.

In 2013, officials from the Vatican took questions from the U.N. about sexual abuse in the Church. But officials refused to provide data on how many cases of abuse the church dealt with, and the U.N. admonished the Vatican for its lack of transparency. That same year, Pope Francis said he planned to set up a committee specifically designed to tackle the issue of abuse, but the idea has faced much pushback within the Vatican in the ensuing years and has gained little traction.

In a letter sent on December 28th, 2016, Pope Francis wrote that bishops worldwide need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward child abusers within their institution. And in June 2016, he ruled that bishops who fail to report sexual abuse by priests can be removed from office. However, Francis has also continued to uphold a law that allows the church to withhold reports of abuse from authorities.

We hope that the Church continues to change from within. While some progress has certainly been made since 2002, more is both possible and necessary.

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