Skip to main content

Pope Francis must finally root out child abuse

By Mary Dispenza
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, seen in 2013, was relieved of all public duties over his mishandling of cases of sex abuse of children.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, seen in 2013, was relieved of all public duties over his mishandling of cases of sex abuse of children.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mary Dispenza: Finally, the U.N. condemned the Vatican for its negligence in priest abuse cases
  • Dispenza was raped by a priest when she was a young girl and it shadowed her life
  • She says abuse is still secret and the church still protects priests, holds back evidence
  • Dispenza: Pope must take strong action to stop clergy abuse of children and coverup

Editor's note: Mary Dispenza, a former nun, was a plaintiff in a successful class action suit against the Los Angeles Archdiocese over child molestation claims. She is the area representative for SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, in Bellevue, Washington. She is also the author of "Split: A Child, a Priest and the Catholic Church."

(CNN) -- Finally. Finally. Finally, a strong important voice in the world, the United Nations, speaks out on behalf of the rights of children and condemns the Vatican and the bishops for crimes of violence, rape and sexual abuse against children by transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish, withholding documents for prosecution and perpetuating an institutional culture of secrecy and shame.

What's truly shameful is that the Catholic Church was not itself that strong and important voice, protecting "the least of these." It's shameful that in spite of Pope Francis' refreshing compassion toward the poor and downtrodden, to date he has not addressed the issue fully. Pope Francis is caught up in the shame and like most of his brother bishops, seems unwilling to say, "Enough is enough -- not ever again in our church will one of these little children be harmed."

Mary Dispenza
Mary Dispenza

The media have said the church is suffering from a "code of secrecy." Kirsten Sandberg, the chairwoman of the United Nations, put it this way: "We think it is a horrible thing that is being kept silent both by the Holy See itself and in local parishes. "

As a survivor of rape and violence at the hands of a priest when I was a young girl, I understand that secrecy.

I went silent at age 7 and became a part of the secret code that no one could unlock in me, because there were always pieces missing. For the rest of my childhood I really wasn't there. I split and left a part of me behind in shame and secrecy.

For the rest of my childhood I really wasn't there. I split and left a part of me behind in shame and secrecy.
Mary Dispenza

It has taken me more than half a lifetime to piece myself back together. I was 52 years old and still captivated by the Catholic Church when I let the buried "secret" memories emerge. His name was Father Rucker -- George Neville Rucker. I must have trusted him when he asked me to crawl up on his lap as he sat watching a movie in an auditorium so long ago. He raped me while my mother was in the lunchroom nearby.

The tragedy here -- among others -- is that Mom died before I was strong enough to tell her about that terrible day. We missed out on conversations about intimacy and love because I would always shut down and disconnect. Rape robbed me and my family of so much that mattered -- like truth and honesty between us.

After high school at age 18, I entered the convent of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Santa Barbara, California, and remained there as a nun for 15 years. Detaching from the destructive invasion of Father Rucker into my body and soul allowed me to hold onto God and to the sisters I loved. Very simply, that is how I was able over half a lifetime to remain in the Catholic Church until the day I awakened to the tragedy of the little girl whom I once was.

Mary at 7 years old
Mary at 7 years old
Mary as a sister at the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary convent in Santa Barbara, California.
Mary as a sister at the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary convent in Santa Barbara, California.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles released 12,000 pages of files on scores of priests accused of sexually abusing children in 2013. I found out that the pastor of our parish back in 1947 suspected Father Rucker of "touching" little girls. It was the bishop who would not listen and passed Father Rucker on and on until 2002, when he was defrocked. He had become a real liability to Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the archdiocese.

About 33 women accused him of abusing them when they were young. That's five decades of abuse.

In 2002, he was charged with 29 counts of molesting girls. He was taken off a cruise ship on its way to Russia to face the charges; authorities thought he was trying to flee. But his case was dismissed in 2003 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the charges were too old.

It is easy to think that when we talk about the crisis of child rape and abuse that we are talking about the past -- and the Catholic Church would have us believe that this most tragic era in church history is over. It is not. It lives on today. Pedophiles are still in the priesthood. Coverups of their crimes are happening now, and bishops in many cases are continuing to refuse to turn information over to the criminal justice system. Cases are stalled and cannot go forward because the church has such power to stop them. Children are still being harmed and victims cannot heal.

Vatican quizzed by UN
Pope: Church can't interfere with gays

These criminal acts happened over and over to tens of thousands of children in the past, continue now and will continue until Pope Francis and the bishops act fiercely to insist that children and their safety come first, and that priests and protecting the image and power of the Catholic Church come a distant second.

Pope Francis must take action and mandate every bishop to immediately defrock any priest who has sexually abused children in the past or in the present and let the civil authorities investigate any priest or bishop alleged to have sexually abused a child. It's common sense. Nothing else will show the world that the Catholic Church is serious about its promise to address this issue.

Pope Francis will need to begin at home and release whatever records the Vatican possesses on priests and bishops accused of these crimes, wherever they are in the world. Anything short of this speaks of lip service and platitudes.

Francis also needs to chastise and demote bishops guilty of protecting priest abusers and working against the criminal justice system -- not honor and promote them. Cardinal Mahony was recently honored in celebrating Mass with Pope Francis -- and yet it is documented that he withheld information and transferred priests within and outside his diocese. At least Mahony acknowledged in a statement in 2013 that he had been "naive" about the lasting impacts of abuse and then met with 90 victims. But Pope Francis' speeches and actions to date do not reflect a spirit of compassion for, or understanding of, the impact on survivors.

Any positive changes in the Catholic Church to protect children and hold the church accountable have come about largely because of the tireless work of SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. These are brave and courageous men and women who tell their stories of abuse without shame. We can also thank the Catholic community of laypeople who want their children to be safe and their church to become the church it can be: a beacon of hope for its members and the world.

Now, it's the Vatican that must take action, as the U.N. report urges, to show us that its apologies are matched by actions to both stop the abuse of children and the church's coverup.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Dispenza.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT