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Will the economic cost of clergy pedophilia make the Church’s poverty “inevitable”?

by Luigi Sandri

By Luigi Sandri, Confronti Editorial Staff.

The cost of the compensation that the episcopal conferences, or individual dioceses of the world, have paid to the victims of pedophilia of the clergy is several billion dollars. The compensation amounts vary between country and country. This is the strange case of the Italian Episcopal Conference (in Italian, the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana or CEI): will the Vatican help the poor Churches of the Global South?

And what if the cost of compensating the victims of clergy pedophilia were the historic, certainly unexpected, opportunity to make the Roman Catholic Church effectively poor in the West and its very existence in the South of the world problematic? The question appears “obligatory,” if we put together data, albeit still very partial, which suggest a rather worrying future for the economic and financial structures of the Episcopal Conferences of the historically wealthy North, and almost catastrophic for those of the plundered South.


On July 14, 2009, the archdiocese of Los Angeles, then led by Cardinal Roger Mahony, announced that, in an out-of-court settlement with the lawyers of about five hundred victims of pedophile priests in the years 1930-2003, it had agreed to pay compensation totalling 660 million dollars (almost half a billion euros). This was the highest compensation ever paid out by a US diocese, since 2002, since the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy came to light no longer as a single case, but as a systemic scourge. According to the Los Angeles Times, the diocese allegedly sold real estate properties to raise the necessary funds to honor their commitment to pay.

In the United States, as a rule, it is the individual diocese that must pay the compensation, if the pedophile priest does not have the means to compensate his victim (and this is generally the case). And so it had been in Boston. There, The Boston Globe, starting in January 2002, published every month a series of articles denouncing how, in the diocese, about ninety priests were implicated in cases of pedophilia: the situation was first denied by the archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law who, overwhelmed by the scandal, was finally forced at the end fo that year to resign. In 2015 a film was released by Tom McCarthy entitled Spotlight (an Oscar winner in 2016). The film made a lot of noise, in the US and beyond, because it revealed a shameful reality to the general public.

In 2003, the archdiocese paid about 85 million dollars in compensation to the victims of abuse, and risked bankruptcy. But what became of the cardinal? He – born in 1931 – moved to Rome, where John Paul II appointed him archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore: an honorary position, and yet offensive to the victims of pedophile priests of Boston who, in fact, had been covered up and protected through his leadership. Fortunately, Pope Wojtyla chose Monsignor Seán Patrick O’Malley as his successor, who later revealed himself to be extremely severe in the battle to eradicate the pedophilia of the clergy.

But what if the diocese is small, and does not have the possibility to compensate the victims of pedophile priests? The one in Portland, Oregon, filed for bankruptcy in 2004, faced with an outlay, impossible for the diocese, of 155 million dollars; and last February, the bishop of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, declared the diocese bankrupt, unable to pay 21.5 million dollars to compensate one hundred and forty-five victims of clergy pedophilia.


If in the United States every diocese has to face the situation by itself, the case of France is very different, where, as a rule, none of them can face millionaire compensation to victims of pedophilia of the clergy. An independent commission on sexual abuse in the Church (CIASE), commissioned by the president of the Bishops’ Conference, Monsignor Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, Bishop of Reims, on 5 October announced its results: from 1950 to 2020 about three thousand priests raped 216 thousand minors; we are therefore faced not with a few “bad apples,” but with a tremendous “systemic phenomenon.” Recognizing the “shame” of the incident, the prelate said that the bishops will sell their property and buildings, and will go into debt with the banks, to compensate the victims. But it will be a truly arduous undertaking: if, in fact, only 50 thousand euros were paid to each victim, the total would be 10.8 billion.

The episcopates of the rich Northern countries, as well as those of the South, will face great economic difficulties in order to honor the decisions made to compensate the victims of clergy pedophilia and rape. The Church’s coffers may dwindle. 


On the Australian continent, according to an investigation by the Royal Commission, 1,880 Catholic priests—7% of the total—have been accused of child abuse over the span of sixty years (between 1950 and 2010). For much of that time the Church failed to tackle the shameful phenomenon: only a few years ago it made a decisive effort to crush it. And the compensation? For a priest, Gerald Ridsdale, an abuser of many children for years, the compensation to be paid in 2019 was equivalent to 620 thousand euros. In Europe, many episcopates, from Germany to Poland, from Spain to Portugal, will have to face expensive compensation to the victims of the pedophilia of the clergy. And in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia? Certainly the phenomenon of predatory presbyters also exists there: but, for now, it is difficult to quantify it. Worldwide, estimates are very varied: from country to country the incidence of the phenomenon seems to vary from 1 to 5% of the clergy. These percentages demonstrate that the Catholic clergy are healthy, in the great majority; however, the “deviants,” albeit a minority, are always too many (“even if there is only one!” said Pope Francis), because they carry out devastating actions, which can ruin the victims forever, even if they have become adults and have now escaped from the clutches of their predators. They are also the result of a closed and patriarchal system.

When the numbers (and the events) of the pedophile priests of the Southern Churches begin to spread, and the civil courts intervene, who will compensate the victims, since those dioceses – in general – are very poor? The problem worries the Holy See not a little, because finally it would be up to the Holy See itself to answer for the “guilty” dioceses: with high figures, presumably, if added together, even if they were not as high as those faced by the Western “sisters,” because the dioceses potentially affected number about a thousand.

For this reason, the Vatican welcomed with satisfaction last October 12th’s decision in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg rejected twenty-four plaintiffs – Belgian, French and Dutch – who, in one class action suit had sued the Vatican before the Belgian courts, demanding that that state pay for acts of pedophilia committed by Catholic priests. According to the accusers, in fact, the Vatican is guilty “for the damage caused by the structurally deficient way in which the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem of sexual abuse within it.” But the Court ruled: “The Holy See cannot be sued for cases of sexual abuse committed by priests from various countries”; the Vatican State, by virtue of the “principles of international law,” enjoys “immunity” from complaints.

However … if very poor dioceses in the South of the world, pressed by the local courts that demand reparation of damages, ask the pope to pay compensation – due to “crimes” of pedophile priests that they cannot deal with in any way – could he, morally and ecclesially, exempt himself? This is why the filthy plague or clergy pedophilia, albeit often denounced by Francis, could be the unforeseen event that not theoretically, but actually, makes the Roman Church poor. And this also applies to the Italian Church. In fact, during his extraordinary general assembly (22-25 November), Monsignor Lorenzo Ghizzoni, archbishop of Ravenna and president of the National Service for the Protection of Minors, made a statement that reads: “an update on the initiatives and structures put in place so far to combat the scourge of abuse of minors and vulnerable people, inside and outside the Church, after the issue of the Guidelines of June 2019.” These are all commendable initiatives. And yet, once again, the CEI avoids “quantifying” the compensation of the victims; and, above all, it stubbornly refuses to establish an independent Commission, like the French one, even though one was launched by the Portuguese bishops, and even though it was suggested by many people in Italy who were positively impressed by the courage of the bishops beyond the Alps. This is a bad sign in view of the “courage” that would be needed to prepare the General Synod of 2023 and the Italian one of 2025.

Ph. © FMateus Campos Felipe via Unsplash

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