The Catholic Church’s Biggest Crisis Since the Reformation

Why a New Wave of Sexual Abuse Revelations Has Deepened Preexisting Divisions

Pope Francis sits during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, October 2017. Max Rossi / REUTERS

The Catholic Church is facing its most serious crisis in 500 years. In these last few months, a new wave of clerical sexual abuse revelations left the world in shock. From Australia to Chile to Germany to the United States, horrifying reports revealed thousands of cases of child molestation by members of the clergy. One U.S. grand jury report documented 1,000 children abused by 300 priests in the state of Pennsylvania alone over seven decades.

The new wave of revelations in 2018 was disturbing not only because it exposed the persistence of abuse but also because it implicated high level church officials in the abuse and its cover-up. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned from the College of Cardinals in July when credible accusations came to light that he had sexually abused a minor and harassed seminarians he supervised. The McCarrick revelations were particularly troubling because the former archbishop had played a leadership role in the Catholic Church’s response to the last U.S. clerical sexual abuse scandal in 2002. In late August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal diplomat, published a letter accusing Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick’s sexual abuses for years and helping to cover them up. Viganò concluded by calling on the pope to resign.

The Viganò letter, and the scandal itself, have sent shockwaves through a foundation that was already cracked. The church is bitterly divided between progressive and conservative wings. This split is particularly pronounced in the United States, where highly mobilized, neo-traditionalist Catholics took up Vigano’s call for Francis’ resignation. This branch of the church already feared that Francis presented a progressive threat to church teachings on marriage and sexuality. The letter seemed to vindicate such distrust by accusing the current papacy and its supporters in the church of complacency towards what Viganò called a “pro-gay ideology” and “homosexual networks” among the clergy. In Viganò’s opinion, this was the cause of the abuse crisis. Church progressives, meanwhile, have defended Francis

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