The Catholic Church desperately needs to change, but will it do so?

(Photo: Unsplash/Kévin Langlais

There is no doubt that at long last, the Catholic Church has heard the message that survivors and others have been crying out for decades. There is a serious problem with clerical sex abuse and something - a lot - needs to change.

There are signs that change is finally happening. But serious questions exist still about whether reforms, taking place both here in England and Wales, to Canon Law in Rome and elsewhere around the globe, go far enough.

We can hope that the shock resignation of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, leader of Germany's Catholic bishops – a resignation yet to be accepted by Pope Francis – might have some effect. For him to take such a radical step away from the vocation as priest and bishop that he loves, shows just how seriously he is taking the crisis, and how he at least understands the threat it represents to the Church on so many levels, not least its very credibility.

In his letter to Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx, wrote: "My impression is that we are at a 'dead end' which, and this is my paschal hope, also has the potential of becoming a 'turning point'. Of course, the 'paschal faith' also applies to our pastoral care as bishops: For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it."

In England and Wales, the Catholic bishops are in the final stages of implementing the reforms of the Elliott Review, set up in 2019, which will bring the Church's safeguarding in line with what is expected by the Charity Commission. A new Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency has been set up, chaired by former crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal, a top lawyer with an impressive record who the Church is lucky to have. The intention is to fully take on board and act the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which heard damning evidence about the Catholic Church.

But as abuse lawyer Richard Scorer wrote in The Tablet, even someone of the calibre of Afzal could ultimately find the job too difficult. Scorer wrote: "IICSA was especially critical of church leaders, highlighting their 'delay in implementing change' and 'reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, to hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies'. Many church leaders, IICSA concluded, conveyed a 'grudging and unsympathetic attitude to victims' and 'failure in some of these areas contributed to more children experiencing actual abuse and many other being exposed to the risk of sexual abuse'. As we know, Cardinal Nichols was himself singled out for stinging criticism. Along with other church leaders, he remains in post."

The marked difference between Cardinal Nichols' response, and that of Cardinal Marx, has been commented on publicly and privately in Catholic circles. There is widespread hurt and anger, in the UK, Ireland and worldwide, around the whole issue of clerical sex abuse and the Church's response, and there is little sign of this anger diminishing any time soon.

At the heart of the difficulties in bringing about real and lasting change is the issue of mandatory reporting. There is no secular mandatory reporting law, meaning whatever the good intentions of any organisation, Church or otherwise, can still be foiled by a determination to keep quiet about knowledge of abuse. IICSA might address this in its final report.

So what of the Church itself? As our Rome correspondent Christopher Lamb reported, Pope Francis has ordered sweeping changes to the Canon Law, toughening up rules on abuse. The revisions strengthen penalties under the Church's penal law, and move the abuse of minors to "Offences Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty," instead of "Crimes Against Special Obligations" where they were before.

Yet, once again the Church is being criticised for dressing up something as a change, while effectively just keeping it the same. Prominent abuse survivor Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, says the revisions are littered with caveats, and once again, mandatory reporting is not introduced, nor the concept of "zero tolerance". Survivors have also condemned as "offensive" that child abuse remains defined as an offence against the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Marie Collins' reaction is in line with what so many suspect – that yet again, the Church is seeing just what it can get away with.

Joe Biden is the second Catholic to be elected to the office of President. He is a regular Mass attender and exemplifies Christian living, with family values preeminent in his personal and public life. But the US bishops are seriously contemplating, at their meeting next week, taking steps to deny Holy Communion to him and other pro-choice politicians.

The Catholic Church does indeed still need to change, at a fundamental level. But coming up with ways to deny the sacrament to good men surely is not among the many changes that are needed. I just pray there is someone out there who can tell them what they need to know, in a way that they will hear.

Ruth Gledhill is Online Editor of The Tablet, the Catholic international weekly journal that has been in existence since 1840.