Massimo Faggioli – « What the CIASE report says to theology »

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What the CIASE report on abuse in the Catholic Church in France (1950-2020) says to theology and theologians

by Massimo Faggioli
(Villanova University)
@MassimoFaggioli

The CIASE commission’s report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France between 1950 and 2020 been released on October 5, 2021[1] and will have effects, at the moment difficult to be predicted, on the ecclesial discourse not only in France, but also at a global level. The commission’s chairman, Jean-Marc Sauvè, stated during the press conference that “we need to get rid of the idea that sexual violence in the Catholic Church has been completely eradicated and that the problem is behind us: no, the problem remains.” The report also mentions that sexual violence is “significantly” higher in church settings than in other social circles such as schools or summer camps, with the exception of the family, which is the place where the risk of sexual abuse remains the highest. Thus, there is still an urgent problem of prevention and repression of the phenomenon.

But the CIASE report is also a document that raises serious theological questions for theology: they will have to be addressed by a theology that has among its audiences not only the academy, but also the church and the public sphere. This brief article proposes, without any pretense of being exhaustive or definitive, to begin to make a first list of issues.[2]

Studying abuses from the perspective of the victims

The uniqueness of this report is the ethical and methodological reference point. In its opening, the report states that “victims have unique knowledge of sexual violence and they alone are able to give us access to the topic. It is their voice that acted as the leitmotif for the committee’s report. It is because of them that the report was able to be conceived and written. It is because of them, and not just those who gave us the mandate, that the work was accomplished” (para. 12). It is a reminder of the transformative nature, at the level of empathy but also cognitive, of any sincere effort to study and understand the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Victims are at the center of the CIASE report, but at the same time they have not been included in the list of the members of the commission, personally chosen by Sauvé, in order to protect the third party nature of the commission’s work. This raises ethical questions for theology in the field: how do we include, in research as well as in teaching, the voices of victims and survivors? I’ve been teaching since 2019a university course on the history and theology of the church abuse crisis, and the question has come to the surface often. The question is how to manage, for this kind of field, what French Holocaust scholar Annette Wievorka has called “the era of the witness”: how to put at the center the account of the witness, while maintaining respect for the witness in a larger framework that helps to understand the complexity of the phenomenon. 

A widening definition of “sexual abuse in the church”

Leaving aside for now the terminological question (“abuse”, or “violence”?) as it takes on different aspects in different languages, the CIASE report is also important because it testifies that – compared to the first phases of the history of the emergence of the phenomenon (from the 1980s to the early 2000s) – today the object is no longer the question of the “pedophile priests”, but it is much broader, from the point of view of victims, abusers, and types of crime. For example, the report differentiates different “logics of abuse and systems of control”: abuse in the parish, school, family, other educational settings, “therapeutic abuse” and “prophetic abuse,” i.e., suffered by the hands of charismatic leaders and/or in new church movements. It makes a distinction between three types of “institutional enterprise” that provide opportunities for abuse: sacramental, vocational, and charitable. It investigates the patterns of prise de la parole: the primary obstacle to reporting abuse was “a constructed ignorance” (causing victims to have difficulty identifying the sexual abuse they had suffered) as well as the “silence, loneliness, and suffering” received from the community by abused Catholics. It mentions the “deviations of authority” and the “deviations of the sacred” as typical of a Church too concerned with protecting the institution and for a long time without regard for the victims.

This framework – much broader than only a few years ago – raises for theology the question of a response to the phenomenon that takes into account the fact that abuse does not always and necessarily come from men ordained to the priesthood, and that the mechanisms of cover-up are not always attributable solely and only to the hierarchical church, but also to the laity in the church and to other actors (families, the press, the police, the judiciary). It is about the inadequacy of both “clericalism” and the fight against clericalism as all-encompassing paradigms for grasping and resolving the issue of abuses. It is the “gray zone” of which Hans Zollner SJ, one of the foremost experts and director of the new Institute of Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (development of the pioneering “Center for Child Protection” at the same university), has often spoken.

Abuses in church and society

The survey conducted on the entire French population, by a non-confessional body such as INSERM (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research), states that 14.5% of women and 6.4% of men over the age of 18 have been sexually assaulted (not only in church settings) when they were minors. As has been noted, the survey commissioned by CIASE is welcome because it raises a huge question about the protection of children and sexuality in the Western world, not just in the Church: “The survey commissioned by CIASE opens up an enormous question about the protection of childhood and sexuality in the Western world. All the more so for the Church, which cannot react by continuing in the logic of the ‘bad apples’. The final 45 recommendations are a wide-ranging program. The work the Church is doing benefits itself and society as a whole.”[3]

The question that this poses for theology is how to keep in mind the specifics of sexual abuse in the Catholic church (identification of the abuser with the “sacredness” of the church institution, sacramental context, etc.) but in the awareness that the phenomenon is present not only in the church. At the same time, it is urgent to study how a global Catholic theology, with many voices, should elaborate responses in the face of a phenomenon that in the so-called “emerging Catholicism”, i.e. outside the axis of Europe, the Americas and Australia, is still largely submerged and whose epidemiological and cultural contours are less known than in the West. While Catholic theology has some coordinates for understanding the relationship between the church and the history of sexuality in the West and its importance for the phenomenon of sexual abuse in the church and society, the issue takes on different traits for Africa, Asia and the Pacific, from the point of view of chronology and beyond.

Final recommendations: for the church but also for theology

The already controversial part of the report, both within the church and for the relationship between church and state, is the one with the recommendations (available in English translation along with a summary of the report https://www.ciase.fr/medias/Ciase-Summary-of-the-Final-Report-5-October-2021.pdf) The CIASE committee here took Pope Francis at his word: “l the committee made remarks inviting the Church to ask itself some fundamental questions. One word of reassurance, however: at no time did CIASE outgrow itself or exceed its mandate, or even, it could be argued, take over. On the contrary […] at this precise moment in the history of the institution, affected by the acute crisis of sexual abuse, it attributes to it the responsibility to dig down to the roots of the problem […] as clarified, among other publications, by the aforementioned ‘Letter of Pope Francis to the People of God’.”[4]

The recommendations speak of a reexamination of the requirements of celibacy and the “super-heroic” model of Catholic priesthood. Most strikingly, they propose an experiment in the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The committee urges to “evaluate, for the Church in France, the perspectives opened up by the proposals of the Amazon Synod, in particular the suggestion that ‘ad experimentum […] married men could be ordained priests if they meet the conditions for pastors, as established by St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy'” (Recommendation 4). The report either ignores or avoids mentioning the fact that Pope Francis, in his early 2020 exhortation Querida Amazonia, rejected (at least for now) the Amazon Synod’s approval of such proposals for reform of ordained ministry. This CIASE report is an example of how complicated the reception of a synodal document such as that of the Synod for the Amazon can be: what Francis decided not to accept in early 2020, is coming to the surface eighteen months later, from an independent report that expresses the voice not only of the commission but also of many Catholics, in France and elsewhere. On the other hand, the findings of the report acknowledge that celibate life in itself is not the reason for abuse: not all abusers are celibate, and not all celibate or single individuals are abusers.[5]

The final recommendations of the CIASE report challenge the Catholic Church to reform its power structure, using the very language of synodality in pope Francis. But they also call for a revision of the teaching on sexual morality “not separating it from the social doctrine of the Church and the equal dignity of all human beings” (Recommendation 11). This requires changes in catechetical formation: “Throughout all types of catechism, teach the faithful, especially children and adolescents, the importance of listening to their conscience with critical intelligence in all circumstances” (Recommendation 6). More Erasmus than Voltaire, one might say. It is a task that falls to the institutional church but also to theology, given the long-time frame of the institutional church. Theology also has the task of trying, as much as possible, to bridge the gap between academic elaboration and preparation for ministry, a gap that in some countries takes the form of something like parallel churches.

Ecclesiology, ecclesial movements and reparations for the victims

The question of reparations takes on legally different aspects in different systems: churches under concordat (such as in Italy or Germany), churches under separation (two different separatist systems in France and the USA), missionary churches or churches under minority status (as in most countries in Asia, for example), or in which the church receives support from the state in exchange for services rendered to the public, such as schools and hospitals (as in Australia). But beyond the legal issue, there is also a question of ecclesiology that needs to be reflected upon.

The French bishops have already begun asking French Catholics to contribute financially to a fund for reparations to the victims, going against one of the recommendations of the report (“this fund should be reconstituted from the assets of the guilty and those of institutions belonging to the Church in France. It should exclude any appeal for donations from the faithful”). The recommendation in this case echoes a certain Gallican or episcopalist ecclesiology, which tends to separate the episcopate from the people. The question to be asked is about the meaning of being a Church “people of God” when it comes to reparation for victims of abuse suffered not only by clergy, but also by laypeople?

Talking about the “people of God,” a very interesting part of the report and recommendations concerns the “new ecclesial movements” in some of which, during the last few years, cases of abuse have been discovered. It is clear that there is, on the part of the pontificate of Francis, a new Vatican policy towards movements oriented to a greater control by Rome, also in the wake of those discoveries. But what does theology have to say about these new movements? Everything seems entrusted, for now, to the game of ecclesial politics and Vatican doctrinal policies. 

Law and Gospel 

A few days after the publication of the CIASE report, the president of the French bishops’ conference, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, was summoned by the Minister of the Interior for his statements on the superiority of the Church’s right over the State’s right to defend the seal of the confession. On this, the report makes a very clear recommendation: “Confessors must not be allowed to derogate, on the basis of the sanctity of the seal of confession, from the obligations provided for in the French penal code, which conform to those of the divine law providing for the protection of the life and dignity of the person.” This tension between recommendations in the final reports of inquiry commissions (this was the case for France, but also for Australia since the publication of the final report of the “Royal Commission” in 2017) and protection of the seal of the confession has become part of the current debate about risks for religious freedom, which of course takes on different aspects in different parts of the world. It should be noted that the debate over the seal of the confession is not a debate that frames the State against Church, but in which there are Catholics on both sides of the argument. It is a central issue that requires input not only from canonists, but also from moral theology and sacramental theology.

No less interesting is the report’s recommendation that “the statute of limitations should not be extended” in favor of “so-called restorative justice”: “this approach seems preferable to a further extension of the statute of limitations by law, an option that CIASE explored before rejecting, considering it a cul-de-sac. An extension of the statute of limitations would not help in the recognition of crimes and would not help the victims in their reconstruction; on the contrary, the latter would be faced with the even more uncertain outcome of a criminal trial because of the long time elapsed since the event”. This emerging model of restorative justice calls for a comparison with the model of justice in canon law on the issue of abuse, even in light of recent changes to Book VI of the Code of Canon Law.

This also has to do with the recommendation on “liturgical celebrations in memory of the victims and their suffering.” How do we educate a liturgical culture that learns the lessons of memorialization and monumentalization in the civil sphere, that is, that keeps that memory alive without becoming anesthetic? 

Abuses and synodality

Recommendation no. 34 addresses the hierarchical issue in the Catholic Church: “there is a need to examine closely the hierarchical constitution of the Catholic Church in light of the church’s internal disagreement over its own understanding of itself: between communion and hierarchy; between apostolic succession and synodality; and, in essence, between the assertion of the authority of the hierarchy and the reality of grassroots practices that are increasingly influenced by democratic practices”.

If we look at the most recent independent reports at the national level (the Royal Commission in Australia 2017, the MHG in Germany in 2018, and this one for France) there are similar findings on root causes and similar recommendations: form of ordained ministry, role of women, governance structure, teaching, and catechesis. These recommendations have yet to be addressed by the Vatican and the institutional church more generally, with the exception of the launch of the “2021-2023 synodal process,” which is – despite its minor role in the official narrative of the synodal process itself – a very belated response to the global crisis of abuse in the church.

We need to remember the fact that both the German “Synodal Path” and the Plenary Council in Australia are incomprehensible when considered outside the context, in this last decade, of national inquiries into the abuse crisis. Theology needs to question and interrogate whether or not the link between the institutional and theological models adopted at the universal and local levels for the “Synodal Way 2021-2023” on the one side and the cataclysmic abuse crisis on the other side is appropriate. A key question that the CIASE report raises is whether mechanisms for representing the people of God, including victims, and the abuse crisis have adequate space in this synodal process.


[1] See https://www.ciase.fr/rapport-final/.

[2] See Massimo Faggioli, The Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis as a Theological Crisis. Emerging Issues, in “Theological Studies” 80(3) 2019, pp. 572–589. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040563919856610; Massimo Faggioli, Mary Catherine O’Reilly-Gindhart, A New Wave in the Modern History of the Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church: Literature Overview, 2018–2020, in “Theological Studies”, 82/1 (March 2021), pp. 156-185 DOI: 10.1177/0040563921995848. It is not just an issue concerning the Church in Europe, the Americas, and Australia: see https://africa.la-croix.com/de-moins-en-moins-de-personnes-pensent-que-le-probleme-des-abus-sexuels-dans-leglise-nest-pas-africain/.  

[3] Maria Elisabetta Gandolfi, blog della rivista “Il Regno”, https://re-blog.it/2021/10/09/perche-aspettare-di-farsi-travolgere/ 9 ottobre 2021.

[4] For the pontifical epistle, see https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/letters/2018/documents/papa-francesco_20180820_lettera-popolo-didio.html.

[5] Cf. Clergy Sexual Abuse: Social Science Perspectives, eds. Claire M. Renzetti and Sandra Yocum (Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 2013).

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