Following the publication of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing the abuse of more than 1,000 child abuse victims at the hands of 300 Catholic clergymen, Pope Francis apologized for “the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced.”
“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.
The pope’s harsh and condemnatory press release was published a week after the Pennsylvania grand jury report and years after episcopal leadership assured Americans that they had a solid grip on the child abuse crisis. Francis’s remarks also came after a statement from the Vatican, authored by Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See Press Office, who called the abuses “criminal and morally reprehensible.”
While previous appeals from the pope addressing child sexual abuse have been limited to certain bishops or countries, Francis’s personal letter was addressed to “the people of God,” or the worldwide Catholic community. He quoted a Gospel passage that reads: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”
For many of the world’s 1.2 billion practicing Catholics, their leader’s words ring especially hollow after systemic pedophilia was first revealed within the Church 16 years ago. Where was Francis’s outraged response before the Pennsylvania court’s findings?
Even now, the cover-up continues. After pleas from the church, the grand jury’s findings were partially redacted to protect the identities of some of the perpetrators.
David Gibson, the head of the Fordham University Center for Religion and Culture and a well-known Catholic polemicist, explained: “The dioceses in Pennsylvania did not want to publicly list all of those who had allegations … there was no push by the church to do it.”
Gibson believes that the age of the allegations — most of which occurred before the 2000s — has served as an excuse for the church to remain silent. Before the grand jury report, only a very small minority of churches and diocese identified their offenders.
The pope’s blind spot
For his part, at least Francis was careful to use the pronoun “we” in his public letter, taking much-deserved responsibility for how the abuses have been handled.
The Holy See could have been describing his own role in the cover-up when he wrote: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
When the victims of a serial pedophile priest in Chilé accused Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of covering up and defending their abuser, Francis responded by calling the accusations “slander” and demanding “proof.” Only after feeling intense pressure from the advocates of child abuse survivors did the Vatican send their top investigator to Chilé.
“[T]he fight against pedophilia is not a priority for Francis,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, the author of a book called “Lust” which details the rampant sex abuse in the Vatican. His disparaging remarks came after Francis granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, the highest ranking Catholic priest to be formally charged with sex abuse crimes.
Let down by the Papacy
Many of Francis’s supporters were hopeful when, nine months after he became the pope, he created a commission to examine child sex abuse among the clergy. However, two abuse survivors that were openly critical of the church were either forced out or resigned from the group, and Francis declined to act on the commission’s recommendations to create a tribunal to punish bishops who covered up abuses after resistance from the Vatican.
Therefore, some Catholics may have trouble believing their pope’s promise on Monday, when he wrote: “It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable.”
Francis, like the rest of the church that he oversees, has a long way to go if he wants to convince Catholics around the world that he is serious about holding the clergy accountable for the most vile of crimes. And it shouldn’t take a grand jury report to galvanize the Vatican to take action.
Their response is almost as horrendous and sickening as the brutal crimes that the church is covering up.