CNWE Calls for Lay/Expert Oversight Throughout Vatican Investigations of Allegations of Clergy Sexual Abuse

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) is dismayed to learn that the Vatican will not be conducting a thorough investigation into the allegation that Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec engaged in unwanted sexual touching, kissing and sexual harassment at public events (2008-2010) with a then 23-year-old woman who was working as a pastoral intern for the archdiocese during Ouellet’s tenure as archbishop. 

The Vatican’s investigation has been dropped based on a claim of “insufficient evidence” of sexual assault according to a spokesperson for Pope Francis (August 18, 2022). The complainant, named “F”, is part of a class-action civil suit against the Archdiocese of Quebec involving 101 allegations of sexual abuse by 88 Catholic clergy and staff that date back to the 1940s. Under Canadian law, the alleged actions of Cardinal Ouellet constitute ‘sexual assault’ and are a criminal offense.

CNWE commends “F” for her courage in coming forward with these allegations. “F” alleges that she realized the actions of Cardinal Ouellet constituted sexual abuse after attending a workshop on sexual abuse in 2020. When she complained to the archdiocese of Quebec (without naming Ouellet initially), they recommended that she write directly to the Pope. 

There are several troubling aspects about the way the Vatican has since handled this complaint.  

Most troubling is the fact that Pope Francis appointed Fr. Jacques Servais, SJ, to conduct a preliminary investigation in 2021, even though Fr. Servais and Cardinal Ouellet have worked together on several publications and events in Rome as members of the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association. According to Canon law, such an association should have disqualified Fr. Servais from conducting the investigation. Furthermore, Fr. Servais has no expertise in adjudicating sexual abuse allegations. 

Pope Francis also has a ‘conflict of interest’ in this case because Cardinal Ouellet is one of his most trusted advisors. Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Ouellet to be Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, tasked with overseeing the selection and conduct of bishops (including in cases where they are accused of sexual abuse of adults). As such, Cardinal Ouellet must be held to the highest standard and the Vatican should welcome a thorough investigation to be accountable. 

The delay in the Vatican’s decision contravenes recent changes to Church law requiring allegations of sexual abuse against adults be dealt with promptly. It is concerning that only after Cardinal Ouellet was publicly named in the class-action suit, that the Vatican declared their decision not to investigate the case. 

As has been made abundantly clear, ‘clergy policing clergy’ is not a credible process regarding allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Until there is a mandatory process that from the outset includes gender-equal committees with lay Catholic review and oversight as well as consultation with experts in clergy sexual abuse, the credibility of the Vatican’s process of investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse lacks credibility. 

Furthermore, the Vatican’s response in this case highlights the issue of the rights of church workers and interns. Most pastoral associates in the church are women who have few labour rights and little recourse to impartial appeal if they are wrongfully dismissed or come forward with allegations of clergy abuse. It is long past time that the Catholic church be fundamentally restructured at every level to end systemic sexism and a culture of clericalism, and cover-up of sexual abuse that it has permitted. With any allegation of clergy sexual abuse, the Church must be held to the most stringent standards of moral accountability and transparency. Canadian Catholics should expect nothing less and should let their views be known.