When USC students discuss Catholicism with one another, all too often the first thing that comes to people’s mind is the sexual abuse scandal in the church. That’s what David de la Cruz has experienced during his time on the Caruso Catholic Center Student Advisory Board.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding because I know that sometimes when I say that I am Catholic, the punchline eventually gets to, ‘Oh, how many pedophile priests do you know?’” said de la Cruz, a sophomore majoring in classics and informatics. “That is very reductionist, and a hurtful sentiment to hold.”
The topic of sexual abuse in the church goes beyond everyday conversations with Catholics, and has been thrust into the national spotlight.
Pope Francis convened an unprecedented summit in late February to discuss the global crisis of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Leaders from across the world joined in conversation with one another at the Vatican following revelations of thousands of cases of abuse in countries like Japan, Australia, Germany and the United States.
Though studies show that sexual abuse scandals in the church have existed for centuries, recent allegations have prompted visible global response.
Cardinal Pell of the Australian Catholic Church was convicted of abusing two boys in the 1990s and sentenced to six years in prison in mid-March — making him the highest-ranking official in the world to be convicted of sexual abuse. Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki, Japan announced a plan to conduct a nation-wide survey of abuse in the Japanese church in mid-April.
“I think [the summit] is long overdue and I think one of the major reasons why it is happening is because people are pressing criminal cases,” said Rev. James Heft, president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC. “There are very few power structures in history that have had the gumption to reform themselves … and usually what forces change is some external pressure.”
These actions come on the heels of similar allegations in India, the Philippines, Germany and the U.S. As hundreds of victims continue to come forward and the Vatican continues the dialogue about the crisis, there is growing concern over youth recruitment and overall retention in the church.
A 2017 study found that young people are leaving the church due to feelings of apathy, misunderstanding and witnessing the sexual abuse crisis. Nearly 12.8% of Americans between 18 and 25 are former Catholics and nearly 6.8% of American teens between 15 and 17 are former Catholics, a study by Georgetown University and Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota found.
The same study reports that 74% of the sample population left the Catholic faith between the ages of 10 and 20.
Heft said the church is working to increase transparency within the hierarchy and work with individuals to ensure allegations of abuse are met with proper response and urgency. He believes that church should work more with the laity, or non-clergy members, to solve these problems.
"What we are doing now and what needs to be done in the Catholic Church on sexual abuse is to involve more of the laity, reporting independently to them, and the laity making a determination where there is criminal accusations," Heft said. "I think that kind of checks and balance is really important to have, and we will work in that direction."
De la Cruz believes the problem of sexual abuse in the church is not a problem of Catholicism, in and of itself, but a problem of systemic oversight and injustice.
Recently, the Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to pay an $8 million settlement to a 15-year-old student at a local Catholic high school who was allegedly molested by the school’s athletic director. It’s the largest settlement in the history of the L.A. diocese.
“I do hear [about the abuse] a lot … Anything that gets this much media attention inevitably reaches the buzz of the people,” de la Cruz said. “Not all of it is necessarily ‘Oh, this is just the byproduct of the church,’ some of it is more understanding that it is not just because they are Catholic priests, but that there are serious issues with the way we run things … and deal with accusations.”
Heft said the media attention surrounding the abuse allegations has the potential to negatively impact different members of the church. However, he believes that those with positive experiences with faith will be able to “weather” the news.
“There are so many headlines that are flying around in many directions and I think what really shapes the thoughts of most young people are not the headlines, but their local experience and what kind of experience they have had with the church,” Heft said. “But if a [Catholic] is on the edge, wondering if they want to believe or not, this is the publicity that can push them over.”
The problem of mistrust within the church continues to be a growing problem. In addition to media coverage surrounding the sexual abuse crises, multiple women’s groups and organizations have called for hierarchical reforms.
In late March, the director and all-female staff of Women Church World, a monthly women’s magazine published by the Vatican’s newspaper, resigned in protest. In an open letter to Pope Francis, they wrote that they were, “throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of mistrust and continual delegitimization.”
De la Cruz said in speaking to young people at USC, he understands why those outside of the church might view the institution as a rigid structure that is resistant to change.
“They might see it as an oppressive structure that tells you what to do and how to live your life,” de la Cruz said. “And nowadays, people are increasingly secular and see religion as something that is trying to control you, as opposed to something you interact with and try to live with in your life.”
Looking forward, Heft said that churches and diocese around the world need to work together to solve the problems that face the institution on a international level. He believes the church should primarily work to support and console victims of abuse.
“I think that first thing to [focus] on is preoccupation with the victims and their welfare — one of the problems in the past is that the first preoccupation is the reputation of the church and that only destroys it,” Heft said.