In recent years, several countries in Europe have launched new investigations into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
More recently, following the publication of new data by the newspaper El País, the Spanish parliament approved the creation of an investigative commission led by the country’s ombudsman, marking an unprecedented move in a country with a Catholic majority. he had been silent on the subject for years. . In France, a national investigation last year found that an estimated 330,000 children have been sexually abused in Catholic institutions since 1950. Germany has conducted multiple investigations into the subject in recent years, while Poland, Portugal and the United Kingdom have investigations in course. In Italy, too, abuse survivors are calling on their government to launch a national investigation, echoing a call made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2019.
While this current wave of investigations in Europe follows in the footsteps of earlier investigations in countries such as Canada, Ireland, Belgium and Australia, there are regions in the world where the political will to expose the truth and bring justice to survivors largely remains. stagnant or nonexistent. This is particularly the case in Latin America, home to the world’s largest Catholic population, where no government has yet announced a national investigation into the issue.
This is despite various estimates that the scale of clergy abuse in Latin America is similar to that in Europe, and the region’s impressive history of conducting effective truth commissions in response to clergy abuse. large-scale human rights. But there are growing hopes that Latin American nations will also soon launch their own investigations into landmark cases of clerical sexual abuse and bring justice to those who have yearned to be heard for years, if not decades.
When will Latin America do the same?
What we are currently seeing in Europe is a domino effect, with one country’s investigation into clergy abuse prompting another to respond by launching a similar investigation. And this effect is not something new. One of the earliest abuse investigations took place in Canada in 1989, followed by similar and even larger investigations in countries ranging from Ireland to Australia.
So now that more and more countries in Europe seem committed to addressing historic clergy abuse, holding the church to account, and preventing future abuse through new independent investigations, there is reason to hope that similar investigations will emerge in other regions.
There are already some promising signs in Latin America, as independent research on the subject has been proposed in three countries.
In 2018, a parliamentary commission investigating cases of sexual abuse in Ecuador’s education system urged the president to establish a truth commission to investigate the sexual abuse of minors in schools, including those run by the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, Chile’s Survivors Network renewed its long-standing call for a truth commission to be established to investigate human rights abuses in all institutional settings, including the church, in the country. And in 2020, two Mexican senators, Germán Martínez and Malú Micher, bravely petitioned parliament to create an independent commission to investigate clergy abuse.
I was an adviser to senators whose move came after a high-profile sexual abuse scandal broke out at the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, a Mexico-based Roman Catholic clerical order, which admitted in 2019 that 175 children had been abused. sexually. by its clergy for eight decades, including at least 60 at the hands of its founding director, Marcial Maciel.
However, Martínez and Micher’s proposal for an independent investigation was blocked by the government, whose close ties to Mexico’s Catholic Church mean it continues to protect religious officials even when they are accused of heinous crimes against children. But there is still reason to hope that the tide is starting to turn in the region, and especially in Mexico.
The time has come for the first investigation into abuses committed by clerics in Latin America
In Mexico, as in many other countries, one of the biggest obstacles for survivors of child sexual abuse to access justice is the statute of limitations that apply to this type of crime.
The statutes of limitations establish the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings can be initiated. In cases of child sexual abuse, it takes survivors an average of 24 years or more to accept what happened to them and report the abuse they suffered. This means that by the time most survivors are ready to take legal action, statutes of limitations will have already blocked their path to seeking justice.
In Mexico, however, legal authorities are finally discussing the issue and considering taking steps to right this wrong and allow survivors access to justice when they are ready and able to do so. In January of this year, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation announced that it will soon discuss whether a statute of limitations should continue to apply to cases of child sexual abuse.
While we hope that the Court will remove the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases, the fact that it is having this discussion is a positive development in itself, and signals that the issue is finally on the national agenda in Mexico.
As such, the time has come to pressure the government to stop shielding the Church from scrutiny and heed growing calls for the establishment of a truth commission in Mexico to investigate the historic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. in the country. But it is crucial to ensure that the investigation is independent and effective.
National investigations not only establish historical truth, but in doing so bear witness to the suffering of survivors, invite them to give their testimony, and offer them a safe forum to tell their story and be heard with respect and sensitivity. Furthermore, the recommendations of the commissions of inquiry may lead to long-sought legal reforms and reparation schemes that aim to repair the harm suffered.
But not all consultations are equal: some consultations are undoubtedly more effective and legitimate than others. Therefore, it would not be enough for Mexico to simply launch an investigation into the matter, it must also adopt the correct approach.
Spain, for example, initially proposed launching a “parliamentary investigation” into clergy abuse, but this suggestion drew criticism on the grounds that the representatives who would participate in the investigation might not act independently of the political parties they represent. It was then suggested that the Public Ministry could investigate the matter, but this proposal was not supported by many either, as it is known that most survivors are reluctant to speak to legal authorities due to trauma, shame and fear that don’t believe them. Ultimately, the proposal that the investigation be led by the country’s ombudsman, an independent official appointed to investigate complaints against companies or organizations, was accepted. While it was arguably the best and most appropriate of all the proposals, research shows that ombudsmen generally lack the resources to conduct investigations on the scale of a national investigation.
Rejecting all these options, Spanish survivor and founding colleague of a human rights organization Global Justice Project to End Clergy Abuse (ECA) Miguel Hurtado called for a well-funded truth commission made up of independent experts to investigate the issue. Australia has taken a similar approach in the past, and its Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which ran from 2013 to 2017, is widely considered the gold standard of abuse investigations to this day.
In Mexico and Latin America in general, efforts must focus not only on ensuring an investigation into clergy abuse, but also on ensuring that the final investigation is legitimate, meaningful, and effective. An investigation can also be specific to clergy abuse or have a broader scope and look at child sexual abuse in all institutions, including the Catholic Church, as has already happened in many countries. And regardless of which body ultimately carries out the investigation, and the correct setting and scope may understandably differ from country to country, the most important thing is to ensure that the relevant investigation and proceedings are fully independent.
The Catholic Church cannot legitimately investigate itself, despite insistence to the contrary by many high-ranking clerics. A common response by Catholic bishops’ conferences to national scandals is to announce the creation of a church-led commission to receive and investigate complaints of alleged abuse. But such initiatives are plagued by accusations that they lack transparency and are institutionally biased, not to mention the Church’s history of covering up abuse and silencing victims to protect its own reputation.
It would be a historic moment, and perhaps an example for the rest of the region, if the Mexican Senate approved an independent truth commission on clergy abuse specifically or child sexual abuse in all institutions after the Supreme Court debate on the abolition of the statute of limitations for such offences. This is by no means a distant dream: many countries where the Catholic Church is powerful and politically influential, from Spain to Ireland, have already done so. All that is needed is the political will of the current Mexican government.
But even if the Mexican government doesn’t respond soon, the survivors and their allies won’t ease the pressure. The issue is now being widely discussed in the media and is also routinely raised in international human rights forums. A case in point was when End Clergy Abuse (ECA) insured the first public hearing on clergy abuse at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December 2020, where the cases of Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina were presented, and the commissioners expressed their commitment to ensure that States are accountable for their international legal obligations in terms of human rights of childhood.
The new wave of independent investigations in Europe is a sign that survivors of clergy abuse on the continent are one step closer to securing truth, justice and reparations. Change is also coming to Mexico and Latin America in general. And the survivors and their allies will not give up this fight until all nations take the necessary steps to expose the truth, hold those responsible to account, and ensure that such suffering and pain is never again inflicted on children.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.