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Cardinal Marx's offer to quit is a wake-up call for Asian bishops

Many church leaders in Asia are still caught up in denial and believe sexual abuse cases are 'isolated incidents'

Cardinal Marx's offer to quit is a wake-up call for Asian bishops

Cardinal Reinhard Marx addresses a press conference in Munich on June 4 after he offered Pope Francis his resignation over the Church's 'institutional and systemic failure' in its handling of sex abuse scandals. (Photo: AFP)

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany shocked the Catholic world on June 4 by announcing that he had submitted his resignation as archbishop of Munich and Freising to Pope Francis.

The 67-year-old cardinal in his letter submitted to the pope on May 21 said he found himself unworthy to continue as a bishop because he was part of the hierarchy’s “systemic failure” to respond to clergy sex abuse.

Although Cardinal Marx faced no allegations regarding sex abuse, he felt “personally guilty” for a clerical system that covered up sex abuse in its attempt to save the reputation of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Marx’s daring step should shock bishops across the globe, especially in Asia, as they fail to hold clerics responsible for the sexual abuse of children and adults. Most bishops in Asia pretend that their priests commit no sex offenses.

Incidentally, Cardinal Marx’s announcement came just days after the Vatican on June 1 announced a revision of Canon Law to make it adequately address clergy offenses such as abuse of minors, vulnerable adults and fraud.

Pope Francis reminded bishops that they are responsible for following the letter of the law. The revision aims to "reduce the number of cases in which the imposition of a penalty was left to the discretion of authorities,” he said.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it!

It is no wonder Cardinal Marx felt that he was part of a hierarchy that speaks loudly about fighting clerical sex abuse but works overtime to cover up crimes purportedly to protect an image of the Church that exists only in their minds.

Pope Francis has not accepted the resignation of Cardinal Marx but asked him to continue until further arrangements are made. If the resignation is accepted, it would indirectly tell other bishops, who have actually covered up sex crimes, that they are welcome to submit their resignations.

The Church is at a dead end, Cardinal Marx said in his resignation letter before adding that the dead end offers the pastoral hope of a “turning point.” 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!”

Is Cardinal Marx indirectly asking bishops accused of abuse and covering up abuses to stop being stumbling blocks in the Church’s path to renewal? That would mean dozens of bishops in Asian nations moving out to facilitate fresh leadership.

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During the Franciscan pontificate, we have witnessed unprecedented cases of action against top-ranking church officials for sexual abuse and cover-ups — US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was stripped of his cardinalship and priesthood, Polish Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz was banned from public ministries and appearances for cover-ups, and Australian Cardinal George Pell was sent back home from Rome to face historic child abuse charges of which he was later cleared.

Over the past decades, the Church in Europe, America and Australia has faced an existential crisis posed by clergy sex abuse that has not only shaken the its moral authority but also triggered an exodus of members.

In Asia and Africa, where the Church is a minority but showing signs of growth, the blowback from the abuse crisis has not been as severe as in Europe and America.

But this is no reason for self-congratulation as sexual abuse by the clergy and religious has been in the spotlight in various Asian countries including the Philippines, India, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Japan and Bangladesh.

There are plenty of cases of priests and bishops facing allegations of abuse of minors and adults, being defrocked and arrested for direct and indirect roles in the crimes and cover-ups.

All these instances triggered a massive public and media backlash against the Church over the mishandling of abuse cases including victim blaming and presenting conspiracy theories.

Thanks to the Vatican's directives, churches in Asia have their codes of conduct to deal with the abuse of minors, but questions remain about how effectively the rules have been publicized and applied.

They take little to no action to confront a grave crisis that stems from a clericalist system that Pope Francis has attempted to abolish since his election in 2013

Except for Japan, churches in Asia have not investigated sexual abuse even after all these years. Bishops in Asia are not known to have adopted any comprehensive corrective action to examine clergy sex crimes.

In April last year, Japanese bishops published the inquiry report of sex abuse in the local Church from the 1950s and outlined corrective guidelines to deal with cases.  

Cardinal Marx offered to quit for no personal fault. But several priests and bishops refused to resign even after legal cases were registered against them. They move out only after the Vatican moves them out.

The truth is that many church leaders in Asia are still caught up in denial and believe sexual abuse cases in their countries are “isolated incidents.” They take little to no action to confront a grave crisis that stems from a clericalist system that Pope Francis has attempted to abolish since his election in 2013.

In 2017, Pope Francis called an “for all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and abolished age-old rules of pontifical secrecy that allowed cover-ups of abuse cases and opened the way for reporting suspicion of sexual abuse to civil authorities.

Despite such examples, churches in Asia have been visibly reluctant to confront the abuse crisis comprehensively.

In 2011, the Office of the Clergy of Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences held a closed-door meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, to address concerns over sexual abuse. The outcome of the meeting was never known as it was never made public.

It seems the yoke of ignorance, negligence and cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse is too heavy to shed for churches in Asia

In February 2019, Catholic bishops held a meeting in Rome at the invitation of Pope Francis to debate effective ways to handle clerical abuse. The media reported that Western bishops were rather frank in words and actions over abuse, but bishops from Asia and Africa were typically “stoic in manner” and even declared sexual abuse was not their problem.

It seems the yoke of ignorance, negligence and cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse is too heavy to shed for churches in Asia, holding back the church hierarchy from a much-needed awakening about the devastating consequences of the crisis in coming days.  

The Church now has the unprecedented example of an influential cardinal-archbishop willing to quit his position for being part of a system that continues to cover up sexual abuse.

The Vatican has issued a revised set of laws to criminalize the abuse of minors and adults, and established a process to punish the offenders, including their removal from clerical status.

It remains to be seen how seriously churches in Asia take these developments and mend their ways to help the renewal of the Church. If they fail, history will be unforgiving to them for not acting boldly when the time was ripe.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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