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Is Pope Francis ignoring clergy sex abuse? Some are beginning to wonder

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 11, 2013. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

(RNS) Pope Francis has spent his first nine months buoyed by a wave of good will and positive coverage generated by his disarming style and frank talk about the need to reform the Catholic Church. But the pontiff may be in for a rough patch as media attention begins to shift to an issue that has bedeviled Rome for more than a decade: the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The pope himself put the spotlight on the crisis this week when he told bishops visiting from the Netherlands — where a 2011 report found that more than 20,000 children may have been abused in past decades — to support victims “along their painful path of healing.”

But critics said that the pontiff’s comments seemed almost perfunctory, coming at the end of a prepared speech that he handed to the bishops before they met privately for 90 minutes to discuss the grim prospects for Dutch Catholicism.

Moreover, the brevity of Francis’ remarks, their careful phrasing and the lack of any direct apology stood in pointed contrast to his powerful statements on issues such as economic justice and the need for the church to preach mercy and strip itself of pretensions.

"Catholics' Priorities for the New Pope" graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

Reprinted with permission of the Pew Research Center, “U.S. Catholics Happy with Selection of Pope Francis,” © 2013

“Catholics’ Priorities for the New Pope” graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

Francis has also captivated the public by embracing disfigured pilgrims at the Vatican, cold-calling the downtrodden and washing the feet of young people at a detention center, but he has yet to meet with abuse victims.

“The world is starting to wonder if Pope Francis has forgotten the crisis,” Anne Barrett Doyle of said after Francis’ meeting with the Dutch bishops on Monday (Dec. 2).

The pope, she said, “must address publicly the problems of clergy sexual abuse and its mismanagement with the same candor he has shown on a range of topics, from homosexuality to mediocre homilies. He has shown zest in ridding the Vatican of financial corruption. He must apply the same energy and determination toward ridding the church of bishops who have enabled abuse.”

On Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, issued a sharp retort that rapped critics for “lying in wait” to ambush the pope on this issue. In a detailed statement, Rosica said that Francis has endorsed the stricter policies on abuse implemented by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and said he is working, often behind the scenes, to bring about a “massive change” in both “mentality and behavior” in the church to prevent abuse, as well as to foster other reforms.

“The entire world has witnessed over the past nine months his concern for those who suffer in any way,” Rosica said. “High among his list of priorities are certainly those who have suffered sexual abuse in their lives. He will continue to address the issue with clarity, transparency, firmness, justice, direction and compassion.”

Other church sources also said that in fact the pope does take the abuse crisis seriously and aims to tackle the most sensitive outstanding issue: holding bishops accountable.

Case in point: The Vatican’s lead prosecutor on abuse cases, the Rev. Robert Oliver, told the National Catholic Reporter last month that Rome is “well aware” of the problem of prelates such as Bishop Robert Finn of Missouri, who remains in office despite a conviction last year for failing to report an abusive priest to authorities. Oliver said accountability for bishops is part of “a broad conversation” that is happening in Rome now that he hopes will result in new measures.

Others note that Francis also sent a bishop as the designated successor to Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., who is under fire for his handling of clergy abuse cases, and in September the pope removed two prelates in Latin America — one the Vatican ambassador to the Dominican Republic and the other a low-ranking bishop in Peru — for child abuse allegations.

But those actions were taken quietly, with no media attention, and in the Newark case both bishops said the move wasn’t related to the controversy over Myers. All of that contributed to a sense that the pope does not want to call attention to this topic in the way he has to many others.

Another factor may be that the media haven’t pushed the issue: During his free-wheeling, 80-minute meeting with reporters on the plane returning from Brazil last July, Francis was asked about almost everything — except the abuse crisis. In fact, he went out of his way to note that “the abuse of minors is a crime.” Similarly, the editor of an Italian daily who had a wide-ranging conversation with Francis in September also did not raise the issue, nor did the Jesuit priest who interviewed Francis in August for the 12,000-word blockbuster interview that was published in September.

“We talked about many topics, but not all the possible topics,” the Rev. Antonio Spadaro said in an email after the interview was published. “I just never had in mind to talk with him about that topic” — the abuse crisis — “and it never came out in our talks.”

Soon after Francis’ election, seven in 10 U.S. Catholics told the Pew Research Center that addressing the crisis should be his top priority, and its back-burner status hasn’t gone unnoticed. Veteran Vatican watcher John Allen of NCR has noted that Francis has been “relatively quiet” on the topic and said the pope needs to take some concrete, public steps to show that “he means business.”

This week, Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly based in London, echoed Allen’s concerns.

“I can understand his desire to start the new pontificate off on a positive note, but sexual abuse by priests has not been totally eliminated,” Mickens wrote in an email. “And, worse, the bishops are still rather clumsy — at best — in the way they have handled accusations. This is, without a doubt, one of the weakest aspects of his pontificate.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Mr. Gibson, perhaps you haven’t paid enough attention to all parts of statements that Pope Francis has made. He has clearly aligned himself with traditional teaching regarding moral issues even while noting that the Church now should STRESS other aspects of its mission.

    In your article you cite instances of Francis taking quick action regarding clergy involved in abuse scandals, so why do you ask the question that is the header to your column, or is the header supplied by someone else not very knowledgable about what the pope is doing?

    The “some” who “are beginning to wonder,” clearly have not been paying attention to what the pope has been saying. Perhaps they are getting most of their “news” from the secular news media that cannot be counted on to give us anything but what they want us to know. Equally likely, the “some” are paying too much attention to pronouncements from those groups that have nothing but clergy sex abuse on their minds.

    You might take a look at some of the opening paragraphs of Evangelii Gaudium wherein Francis notes media bias.

  • As a physician, I have met many who have been sexually abused by priests. As a Catholic, I had hoped that Pope Francis would have the courage and integrity that I have witnessed in another member of the hierarchy when I shared with him my story of having been sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor in Dublin, Ireland.

    In 2010, I met Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and told him my story. Immediately he referred my case to the police for investigation and he has removed that priest from ministry. The Archbishop listens to victims and he makes the predators accountable. He has given all files of clergy sexual abuse under his control to the police, since he knows that the church cannot investigate its own crimes.

    It saddens me that Pope Francis refuses to give all files in the Vatican and elsewhere on clergy sexual abuse to the police and to the United Nations for investigation.

    The Pope, like popes before him, is ignoring the command of Jesus to protect the innocence of children. The Pope prefers to protect the sexual predators from accountability it seems.

    Recently in Australia, it has been found that at least 50 young men have committed suicide, who were sexually abused by the order of priests and brothers teaching them. They gave up hope that their stories would be believed, due to the denial of the truth by the predators and by the hierarchy.

    Where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus said the truth will set us free. Archbishop D. Martin is focused on what he believes Jesus would do, by making the predators accountable to civil law. I hope and pray that Pope Francis will have a “come to Jesus moment” and come to realize that living in the truth is not easy, but it is freeing, since the Holy Spirit is in control, and it is the greater glory of God that impels us to live in the truth!
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., Chicago, Illinois, USA

  • Rosemary – Your rants are tiresome and unhinged.
    It took you until 2010 – after alleging speaking to alleged victims for years – to report your claim of abuse?? Really?

    And, David. I know the beat may be slow, but I always imagined you as better than drumming up an unnecessary Catholic Church abuse story.

  • We wonder if Pope Francis is having any trouble squeezing himself around the huge elephant in the room. He can’t be that blind, can he?

    The sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are still not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their image and the institution rather than protecting innocent kids. Until they spend time behind bars for their crimes of cover up, nothing will change and children will still be sexually abused within this archaic secret system. It is becoming more clear that Pope Francis can not be counted on to remove and fire these criminal bishops.

    Does the pope care if his silence and in-actions keep hurting thousands of victims, and continues to put innocent children at risk of being sexually abused?
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511. [email protected],
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • “Lest it be forgot…,” the sexual abuse of our children by clergy unnaturally required to be celibate (and chaste–not chasing), was almost totally ignored by John Paul. It was the collusion of John Paul with his successor Benedict who managed the handling of clergy involved in sexual abuse be transferred to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Holy Office” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    John Paul notoriously did nothing. He was to incapacitated to be anything but a wheeled-about, symbolic figure. Ratzinger was already running the church with the arrangement that he would succeed John Paul. Also, diocesan and other bishops do not act independently of the Vatican curia. The cover-up was managed from the on top.

    Therefore, it should never be claimed that the church needs to rid itself “of bishops who have enabled abuse.” Robert Finn of Missouri and all other bishops have been acting on “orders from headquarters.”

    It is true that Francis can and should make fast changes to end the continuing scandal, the cover-up being equally as bad as the sexual abuse itself. Given the hierarchical, monarchical arrangement of church management and the flood of departures from the church of the people of God due to atrocious, sinful, and criminal mismanagement, the genuine staunching of the sex scandal and clerical celibacy should come before everything else. We are in desperate need of another reformation, or counter-reformation, call it what you will.

    It does not require all this time to correct this gross scandal. It could be done with one loud and clear announcement from St. Martha’s House just as John XXIII announced Vatican II from the Apostolic Palace. It has only taken all this time to try to hide the larger scandal. The church is as much of an unholy mess now as prompted Martin Luther and others to confront the theological grounds of outrageous church behavior in the sixteenth century.

  • I guess all this delay–especially during the “reigns” of John Paul and Benedict–shows that popes are not the independent monarchs they are claimed to be. It would be good to know the realities behind Benedict’s “decision” to retire. Not that he didn’t deserve it, given his age. Perhaps we should be attending to some kind of age and/or term limits on popes. Francis is great at a late age, but can or should we rely on that. The church desperately needs vast reforming. That includes lay people at all levels of decision-making.

  • Sadly, popes for centuries have ignored the demand of Jesus to protect the innocence of children. I found it hard to believe that even Pope John XXIII signed a document in 1962 which reinforced the secrecy of clergy sexual abuse and sent it to bishops around the world for it not to be spoken about, shortly before he called the Second Vatican Council. What could this otherwise good pope have been thinking of, to be willing to betray the trust and innocence of so many more children worldwide who had no voice? This is an outrage that calls to heaven for justice for these victims, a good number of whom have committed suicide when they gave up hope of being believed.

    I believe the canonization of Pope John XXIII and of John Paul II need to be re-visited and cancelled, since no pope for centuries has cared about following Jesus’ command of protecting the innocence of children.

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

  • DPierre….
    You have a crass attitude when it comes to clergy abuse victims.
    You fit right in there with the old boys club in the Vatican as well the majority of the clergy around the world.
    ust pray about and all will be well…NOT so!!!
    I’m not buying into Pope Francis excuses for not helping the victims more. He is using the old-fashioned tactic of deflection and sadly he is using the poor as a shield.

  • You are a survivor, good for you Rosemary!
    Many folks just don’t get it right, about the victims who have been abuse by the clergy.
    It a dirty secret the Catholic Church and their supporters want to forget about and continue to pray and maybe it will just go away.
    Wake up people… the victims!

  • If Pope Francis was serious about doing something about clergy abuse crises in the Catholic Church he would at least put a halt to Pope John-Paul II canonization.
    Pope Francis is going ahead with that canonization. I couldn’t believe he would do such a silly thing. Then again he is a good friend of the ex-Pope Benedict.

  • Gilhcan, we are already seeing Pope Francis institute measures to make himself more responsive, which includes overhauling his “cabinet” bureaus, the dicastries. He also took action in recent weeks regarding two American bishops involved in the handling of sex abuses cases in their dioceses.

    I suspect that in the near future we will find a couple of the dicastries being headed up by laypeople.

    Francis has much to say, some of it controversial, in his Evangelii Gaudium, just released. He is far different from his predecessors; we can see it even in the language he uses in the text.

  • This better be not another publicity stunt by the Catholic Church.

    I heard from another poster and I do agree with him.
    ” Until the pope outright declares that any found guilty of abuse, or those who shield them, will be kicked out of the clergy and let the law run it’s course, there will be no real change.”

  • Judy’s remarks might be well stated, but some of them are without any basis in fact. SNAP is on a mission, on that I approve of, but people hell-bent on missions can sometimes fail to see important facts that should temper their enthusiasm just a bit. It is one thing to go after clerics who demonstrably have been involved in abuse or its coverup; it is quite another to charge complicity on the part of the pope in these matters.

    SNAP shouts. It behooves us to turn down their volume a bit since they won’t do it themselves. It should be careful lest it damage its own effectiveness by making claims or even suggestions that do not withstand scrutiny.

  • Perhaps Francis is already doing this without making a big PR effort about it. Remember, he has said that he wants to establish a different public course of emphasis by the Church. This does not mean abandoning the “negatives” that must be dealt with. Evangelii Gaudium makes this clear. It’s a long document but well worth reading, although we are now seeing that there might be some problems with its translation into various languages, English included.

  • Bergoglio gave Ratzinger a run for his money at the conclave in ’05. Oops, that’s indelicate and inaccurate phrasing. Bergoglio was the second-highest vote getter, according to one or more cardinals who weren’t even supposed to tell us that much.

    John Paul II was a sick man already in 2002, when the abuse problem broke wide open. He died 3 years later. It is quite possible that he was not even apprised of the seriousness of the abuse, and it is also possible that his own failing energy left him unable to appreciate the seriousness of it even if he had been told. When our energy fails us, we can find ourselves losing proper perspective as we attempt to make decisions about what issues we ought to address.

    Besides, in the US crimes are to be handled in the community in which they occur by the legal authorities in that community. The mistake John Paul made was in transferring Cardinal Law to an inconsequential position in Rome. Instead, he should have demanded his resignation as bishop and told him to find a Trappist monastery in which he should spend his remaining days.

    If legal authorities have not gone after the bishops for transferring around the abusing priests, perhaps they felt that the bishops’ role in all this was not sufficiently grave so as to demand their trial and sentencing.

    I don’t claim to know, but I do know from many comments posted here that their authors are primarily interested in taking a clean swipe at religion. They admit their hostility toward it. You can easily find these for yourself with a couple clicks of the mouse.

  • The “rights” of children vs the “rights” of the Vatican
    Ref.: “Vatican ‘must immediately remove’ child abusers – UN” BBC Feb 5, 2014
    “….The UN watchdog for children’s rights denounced the Holy See for adopting policies which allowed priests to sexually abuse thousands of children.
    ….But the Vatican said that…”it regrets to see…an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom” and “reiterates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child… according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine”.
    ….Barbara Blaine, president of a group representing US victims of abuse by priests, told the BBC that the UN report “reaffirms …and shows that the Vatican has put the reputation of Church officials above the protection of children.”
    WHICH BELIEF does the Vatican ( the church of general values of Rome) turn to for protection?…..they have confessed that it is its exercise of religious freedom….its freedom of self-rights……It does that which is right in its own eyes. It believes that it is right to protect itself and its pedophile priests. It believes in its self-interest…to serve and magnify the “self” (XES).
    Keep in mind that the “pedophile priests” are just the tip of the iceberg.….how about the protection of?….the priests / bishops / cardinals / & popes that fornicate with “of age girls”, with married women, with prostitutes, that have caused abortions, that fornicate with other men, that are corrupt for money, that are corrupt for political power, that lie, that are alcoholics, that take on the title of “Father”.
    BUT above all of these, is their belief that it is RIGHT (a right) to be free to worship ANY ‘god’….as Jorge Bergoglio (and his predecessors) have confessed that “religious freedom” is right and good.
    President Obama has confessed that this “SELF-FREEDOM” is the “LIGHT” of man’s righteousness and that this same “FREEDOM” is the “will” of his ‘god’… of fortresses.
    It is clear that Christ is not their first love…that their first love is instead their “freedom”….and that this is the mark on their forehead.
    BUT soon, the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Only God, will rule the earth in power according to and in obedience to the Will of the Only God and NOT according to man’s love for “his self justified freedom / rights”.