Pope Francis Calls for ‘All-Out Battle’ to Fight Scourge of Sexual Abuse
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse with an appeal “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors,” which he compared to human sacrifice, but his speech did not offer concrete policy remedies demanded by many of the faithful.
In the speech at the end of a Mass in the Apostolic Palace’s frescoed Sala Reggia hall, Francis argued that “even a single case of abuse” in the Roman Catholic Church — which he said was the work of the devil — must be met “with the utmost seriousness.”
He said that eradicating the scourge required more than legal processes and “disciplinary measures.”
“To combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope said, the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”
Decades after the sexual abuse crisis first exploded in the United States, Pope Francis sought to get the church’s leaders on the same page for the first time, summoning them to the meeting in September.
The Roman Catholic Church has been devastated and the legacy of Francis’ papacy has been threatened amid a cascade of civil investigations into clerical sexual abuse in the United States and accusations from within his own hierarchy that he had covered up the misconduct of a top prelate, Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who was defrocked.
High-profile cases involving the negligence by bishops, the abuse of nuns and other misconduct added to the pressure on Francis to do more than just speak about ending the crisis. On Sunday, he compared the abuse of minors to “sacrificing human beings, frequently children, in pagan rites.”
“Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan,” he added. “In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children. No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.”
Francis sought to tamp down expectations about the Vatican meeting, fostered by some of his own bishops, that the conference would deliver concrete remedies to end the scourge. He said the meeting had been intended to educate all the bishops on the gravity of the problem of sexual abuse; many were skeptical about such cases in their home countries.
Faithful Catholics — especially those in the United States and other countries that had grappled with the problem for years — had demanded more than soothing homilies: They wanted action that would hold their leaders accountable, once and for all.
They did not get it from the pope’s speech, but church officials have hinted that concrete policy changes are on the horizon, especially on issues of transparency and bishop accountability that were discussed during the meeting.
Some advocates for abuse survivors consider the pope’s remarks a failure.
“Pope Francis’ talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a leader of BishopAccountability.org. “As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the pope instead provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before.”
But Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said on Saturday that he was “very pleased” with the meeting, even though specific action still needed to be determined.
“This went far better than I think some of us had hoped,” he said. “Now you have the bishops all saying it’s ubiquitous.”
At first, some countries did not want to admit that they had the same issues as the United States, Cardinal DiNardo said, but in the end he was impressed with the consensus developed among the global bishops.
He said he also expected that the American church would be asked for resources to assist other dioceses in rolling out reforms.
“That’s what I think people want,” he said. “They want us to take action.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin, the president of the Irish Bishop’s Conference, said that the onus for making concrete changes to protect children in the church fell on the world’s bishops.
“I am always frightened about the thought that somehow safeguarding can be commanded from Rome,” he said after one of the last working group sessions for bishops on Saturday. He argued that the meeting itself had sent a strong message of what was expected of bishops, even those skeptical of how widespread the crisis really is.
As a result of the meeting, he said, the world’s bishops have moved “much closer” to implementing universal zero tolerance norms removing abusers from ministry.
“Every one of us must return home committed to some actions,” he said, adding, “If somebody is in such a grave breach of trust as to have failed to protect children and young people from abuse, I simply can’t imagine how they can continue to either minister as a priest or, indeed, to be the chief shepherd.”
Some bishops have argued that while removing offenders from ministry is absolutely necessary, dismissing them from the priesthood would make it impossible for the church to monitor them so that they do not offend again.
Archbishop Martin echoed other church leaders in suggesting that changes to church law could be coming on the issue of papal secrecy, a level of classification that can be applied to church legal proceedings, including on sexual abuse cases.
“Secrecy has been one of the root causes of the problems that we are in today,” he said, adding that he expected the church to establish a single department in Rome designated to help bishops respond more effectively to abuse cases.
In his speech, the pope rejected a reflexive self-protection in the institution, and insisted that the church would “spare no effort” to bring abusers to justice, to prevent cover-ups, to listen to victims and to spiritually purify its clergy.
He said the world’s bishops conferences needed to apply rules, not just guidelines, to prevent abuse and the covering up of abuse, which “adds a further level of scandal.”
A triumph over the “present-day manifestation of the spirit of evil,” Francis said, required more than practical measures. “If we fail to take account of this dimension, we will remain far from the truth and lack real solutions.”
The speech at times took on a defensive tone. He thanked the good priests who were marred by the misconduct of guilty clergy. And a day after the gathered bishops applauded a journalist who had excoriated them for hiding abuse and urging them to work with investigators in the media, Francis called on the church to rise above “the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”
The pope, as many church leaders often do, made the case that pedophilia existed outside the church, as well, and was often perpetrated by parents and teachers, coaches and husbands of child brides.
He touched on statistics around the world that showed that online pornography increasingly exploited children, as did the sex tourism industry, the outlawing of which he demanded, and said that abuse often occurred at home. He said that other types of abused children “forgotten by everyone” included child soldiers, child prostitutes and refugees, starving children, enslaved children who had their organs harvested refugee children and “aborted children.”
He then acknowledged “this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church,” where the sin is compounded, “for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
Francis repeated his belief that the root cause of the abuse in the church was priests and bishops who abused their office and the power of their ordination.
Some of the faithful who came to hear Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday were watching for what came next.
“Everything depends on whether or not they follow through,” Andrew Bradfield, from Cork, Ireland, said. “If those are just more empty words, the church will continue to become more isolated.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.
JASON HOROWITZ and ELIZABETH DIAS
- The New York Times - Sunday, February 24, 2019