Catholic activism, not repentance for sexual abuse, is what forces clergy to resign

The Roman Catholic bishop of Buffalo, New York, Richard Malone, became the seventh U.S. bishop since 2015 to be forced out of power for his role in covering up clergy sexual abuse cases. Malone resigned on Dec. 4, stating that his departure stemmed from a recognition that “the people of Buffalo will be better served by a new bishop who perhaps is better able to bring about the reconciliation, healing and renewal that is so needed.”

By comparison, during the prior 35 years, only three U.S. bishops had resigned because of the scandal, even though there were more than 10,000 cases of clergy sexual abuse reported to the American bishops during that time.

In my research, I have found that this increase in bishop accountability is due not to an improvement in the Vatican’s protocols, but rather to the activism of local Catholic reform groups.

Start of survivor-advocacy groups

I study how survivors and their advocates have exposed the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

Survivors first went public with their stories of abuse in the 1980s. But other Catholics did not begin forming survivor-advocacy groups until 2002, when a series of reports detailing how Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, had protected more than 230 abusive priests.

Energized by the Boston Globe’s investigation, Boston parishioners founded Voice of the Faithful in 2002, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting clergy abuse survivors and increasing transparency in the Catholic Church.

Within months, Voice of the Faithful had grown into a national movement of 50,000 members organized into 220 local chapters. It was through their public protests and petitions that Cardinal Law was forced to resign in December 2002.

Seeking reforms, not revolutions

Voice of the Faithful’s rapid ascension came in part, sociologists have concluded, because their leaders were highly educated professionals with a proven track record as activists.

Founding Voice of the Faithf...

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