The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

We have some real, live news coming out of the Vatican conference that is focusing on clergy sexual abuse of “children,” and maybe a few other kinds of victims.

It’s big news. But one or two of the most important facts in this story are still missing.

Looking at the coverage, it would appear that these holes are probably not the result of bad or shallow reporting. The holes may be intentional, in terms of a German cardinal’s remarks that were stunning, but also rather vague.

Let’s look at the top of a report in the National Catholic Reporter, which — as I typed this post at mid-day — had the most information in it. You can see the big hole right in the headline: "

Cardinal admits to Vatican summit that Catholic Church destroyed abuse files.

What, precisely, is the “Catholic Church”?

I realize that the Church of Rome is one church, with one leader in the Chair of St. Peter, but — at the level of administration and the supervision of priests — it is actually a complex network of ecclesiastic bureaucracies at the local, national and global levels. Let’s look at the overture in that story. This is long, but essential as journalists look forward:

VATICAN CITY — A top cardinal has admitted that the global Catholic Church destroyed files to prevent documentation of decades of sexual abuse of children, telling the prelates attending Pope Francis' clergy abuse summit Feb. 23 that such maladministration led "in no small measure" to more children being harmed.

In a frank speech to the 190 cardinals, bishops and heads of religious orders taking part in the four-day summit, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church's administration had left victims' rights "trampled underfoot" and "made it impossible" for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.

"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.


OK, we do have another adjective added to the mix — but not one that helps journalists move forward.

Yes, what is the “global” Catholic Church?

Is Marx saying, to be specific, that the VATICAN destroyed files? Or is he saying that the Vatican has evidence that dioceses all over the world destroyed evidence, so many individual dioceses that is is accurate to say that the Catholic Church, as a whole, destroyed files. Another thought: Is he saying that the Vatican — formally or informally — sent some kind of signal that this action was acceptable?

But, again, are we talking about the Vatican? The church in Germany? A specific diocese, under the leadership of a specific bishop or chain of bishops? The details really matter, in this case.

Let me stress, again: I am not saying that this is a journalism hole in the reporting, at this point. But this certainly is an alarm siren for journalists all over the world (as well as police authorities who are preparing criminal investigations).

Later in the story there is some additional discussion of this statement, but, once again, there is no specific statement of who did what, in what church offices.

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. …

Marx focused his half-hour talk Feb. 23 on the need for better administration by bishops in the church. He stressed the need for transparency, but also "traceability," so as to allow victims and Catholics to follow abuse cases as they develop.

The cardinal said that management in the church "should take place in such a way that people feel accepted in administrative procedures, that they feel appreciated [and] that they can trust the system."

He said the importance of such management could be seen in the negative experience suffered by many abuse survivors, which he summarized as: "If the church claims to act in the name of Jesus, yet I am treated so badly by the church or its administration, then I would also like to have nothing to do with this Jesus."

No doubt about it, this is important news. Now we have to see if journalists are given a chance to ask the tough follow-up questions and whether those questions are answered.

Stay tuned. To say the least.

Please respect our Commenting Policy