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Critics say pope’s comments are both ‘bold’ and ‘too little, too late’

Pope Francis leads an evening prayer vigil at Rome's Circus Maximus on Aug. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — In his response to a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing allegations of sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by Roman Catholic clergy, Pope Francis condemned the abuse as a crime and called the church to solidarity with its victims.

“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,” Francis wrote in a letter published Monday (Aug. 20).

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

The Rev. James Martin. Photo courtesy Nutopia

It was a statement some following the Catholic Church’s clergy sexual abuse crisis called “the boldest we have heard from the Vatican” and others, “too little, too late.”

What makes the letter different from other statements by Francis and previous popes is that it addresses the Pennsylvania grand jury report specifically and not just sex abuse in general, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine. The report found that Catholic priests had abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years and that church officials had shielded those abusers, often by transferring them to other parishes.

“The question is what specific actions will be taken, other than the letter to address the growing crisis,” Martin said.

In the three-page letter addressed to the “people of God,” Francis called all members of the church to pray and fast, writing, “This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”

As important, the pope denounced clericalism, or elevating clergy above other members of the church, saying, “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

For Natalia Imperatori-Lee, associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, that marked a “major shift” for the pope: “centering the pain of the victims and pointing to clericalism as a root cause.”

Natalia Imperatori-Lee. Photo courtesy Manhattan College

“He talks about the sex abuse crisis as an abuse of power and a failure of church culture, not individual failures of chastity which for so long has dominated the way the crisis is discussed in the US, with our longing to point out that there are still ‘good priests’ and ‘good bishops,’” Imperatori-Lee said in an email to Religion News Service.

Thomas Groome, the director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College, praised the pope’s letter for its boldness in calling the abuse a crime — a departure from previous statements — and noting the failure of church leadership to address it.

“Now Francis has clearly cranked it up to a new level and that is the bishops themselves clearly must be investigated,” Groome said.

But the letter falls short of creating structures or naming actions to ensure accountability for clergy and safety for children and other vulnerable people, he said.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI executive and the first director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, said she would have preferred to see more concrete actions, though she appreciated that the pope acknowledged that efforts to implement those things have been delayed.

Since the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative report shone a light on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, various groups have recommended ways survivors could obtain some sort of justice, including being recognized and heard and naming abusers — which the Pennsylvania report does, McChesney said.

Some have suggested financial compensation for victims, the immediate release of records by dioceses and religious orders, or the creation of a tribunal of church and lay leaders that can investigate and punish negligent bishops and others.

Over the weekend, SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also issued a statement urging survivors and supporters to demand that every state’s attorney general launch similar investigations.

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient,” Francis wrote. “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Candida Moss. Photo courtesy University of Birmingham

But while the pope’s letter struck the “correct” tone of shame, fasting and penance, it still feels like “too little, too late” to Candida Moss, professor of theology at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

Not only does it come a week after the grand jury report, Moss said, but also the Vatican has been aware it was coming for years.

The Vatican released the three-page letter ahead of the pope’s trip to Ireland, which has been rocked by similar accusations of abuse and cover-ups going back years. So have Chile, where the pope caused controversy by insisting victims of clergy sexual abuse needed to present proof to be believed, and Australia.

As a historian, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, said she knows change comes slowly and that few people give up power and authority willingly.

But, she said, “I have hope and I‘m optimistic because this feels different to me. There are actions being planned. There are many people who stood up in churches yesterday and disrupted services, particularly if the priest did not preach about the crisis in his homily.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

61 Comments

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  • We have the rule of law at least for now in most cases. However, it is wise to clean up their act before the courts through lawsuits and the criminal justice system steps in. No matter what you call it or yourself, criminal activity can get you in jail. Obstructing justice, statutory rape and conspiracy are not protected under the First Amendment.

  • If you’d be so kind as to point out the indictments for obstructing justice and conspiracy ….

  • The idea of a new or old testament is only an illusion of tradition. There has only ever been the single `law and Command’ that existed from the beginning, even while Moses offered a temporary respite with the 10. But these are external to man. And while It is presumed that natural law, as understood today, was the human condition before the fall, I think otherwise and would suggest that indeed, natural law was altered under original covenant. Taking a man outside the existing evolutionary paradigm and into a moral/spiritual conception that is the sole creation of God. Natural law with all the corruptions and limitations that are sef evident is the fate mankind suffers for that original disobedience.

  • Deflection from his own homosexual desires, I am sure, as it usually is. All too often those who obsess over this sort of thing are just scared of their own same sex desires and feelings. And also all too often, act out on the “down low”. Poor closet cases.

  • Bob, When there are cover ups, it can lead to obstructing justice if individuals lie or mislead civil authorities. A closed group with no transparency can lead to this situation. My point is clean up your act or the government may do it for you in how it prosecutes staff or agrees to plea bargains including changes in how business is conducted. Remember not every country has our set of laws and may take more draconian measures and remedy persistent issues.

    Maybe the indictments are coming especially in jurisdictions where the Roman Church has lost its credibility with local officials and can no longer act above the civil law.

  • Bob _- 1. Thinks it is OK for government for force all taxpayers to support Catholic and other sectarian private schools, though 28 state referenda from coast to coast have shown that voters are opposed by 2 to 1.

    2.Supports the Vatican’s opposition to women’s right of conscience on contraception and abortion, though most Catholics disagree. At least most Protestant denominations had the brains and courage to modernize their views.

    3. The Catholic bishops who want to enter politics should be willing to give up the church’s tax exempt status.

    4. Yadayadayadayada. Bob wants everyone to follow the Vatican’s views on moral issues — the outfit with a history of centuries of sexual and other criminal abuse.

    Bob would like to bring back the Inquisition.

  • 1. I think it’s okay for the government to tax for education as long as it does not mandate one system of education or exclude sectarian schools from reimbursement.

    2. Error has no rights, so the notion that there is a right of conscience opposed to moral behavior is sheer nonsense.

    Every woman has the right under law to use contraception or obtain an abortion, and the Church has every right to excommunicate or otherwise censure those who make that choice.

    3. From the founding of the country the right of religious people, even clerics, to speak out on issues in the public square has been sacrosanct. The so-called Johnson Amendment that purports to enforce otherwise has never been tested because the IRS completely understands it would not pass constitutional muster.

    4. I can only present what I believe to be correct. If what I believe to be correct would result in overall public good, or save folks from losing eternal life, I have absolutely no problem suggesting that others follow it.

    Since, as anti-Catholic, you make zero distinction between that which Christ founded,

  • 1,000 children abused by priests and protected by their bishops and what action is proposed? Fasting and praying? That’ll show ’em.

  • What difference does that make, except to titilate you? Sex abuse is sex abuse, and the detrimental effects on adolescent victims are probably more intense.

  • Of course most Catholics have not read Humanae Vitae, but they do know what if forbids. But Bob regards Catholics who disagree with it as “unreasonable.” That sounds rather anti-Catholic. BTW, I was in Colombia right after Humanae Vitae was issued and was there when Pope Paul came to Colombia to head up a major church event that had anticipated a million people. Colombians stayed away in droves and the newspapers carried letters to the editor from local priests calling the pope unreasonable.

    Bob, if Trump jumped off of a bridge, would you follow him?

  • “Of course most Catholics have not read Humanae Vitae, but they do know what if forbids.”

    But not why. If you don’t know why – like yourself – you can hardly call it “unreasonable.”

    Oddly enough all the Protestant churches had EXACTLY the same belief until the Lambeth Council of 1930, and many still do.

    “Colombians stayed away in droves and the newspapers carried letters to the editor from local priests calling the pope unreasonable.”

    Were any of them part of the teaching authority of the Church?

    “Bob, if Trump jumped off of a bridge, would you follow him?”

    No, why would I?

    You, on the other hand, apparently would follow the Colombians off a bridge.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, of course.

    I might question whether you’re entitled to your anti-Catholicism.

  • You know better than that one.

    Ben in Oakland chose to reveal:

    – his hatred for religion

    – his self-attribution as an atheist

    – his Jewish upbringing and forebears

    – and details about his upbringing.

    I am not that careless.

  • Being an avowed enemy of the institution certainly would seem to preclude making “helpful” suggestions.

    Now, if for example you have some legal expertise providing legal advice for the bishops based on that expertise would seem appropriate.

  • You do understand that several years ago he was a cardinal and responsible for such tribunals?

    “As cardinal, Bergoglio was appointed to five administrative positions in the Roman Curia. He was a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Commission for Latin America.””

    Please point our other alleged errors.

  • Since they consider it sinful, that seems rather doubtful but consistent with your anti-Catholicism.

  • Odd that none of the position you cite involve being responsible for tribunals, least of all a tribunal along the lines mentioned.

  • No, they don’t “launch such tribunals”.

    Some of them operate tribunals, but none of the type mentioned.

    And he was a member of these bodies, not the head of any.

  • “There are actions being planned”

    This has been the mantra of the Church since 2002. The bishops put Frank Keating in charge of the actions being planned, and as soon as it became clear that he intended to go beyond the planning stage to the real actions stage, they got rid of him.

    How many times do the bishops get to pull away the football before we figure it out. Or are we the Charlie Brown laity?

  • This is probably what CitizenWhy is referring to. Early in his Papacy. Francis promised to set up a tribunal to investigate bishops who covered up abuse. If he had done so, that might have reduced some of the damage done by the Pennsylvania report. But the CDF told him he couldn’t, so he didn’t. At about this same time, he promised an independent financial audit of the Vatican. But he got pushback from the Vatican oligarchs and caved on that too. Francis’ Papacy has been a classic case of Over-Promise-Under-Deliver.

  • The Pontifical Commission created in response to the crisis was dead in the water, from the outset.

  • Frank Keating’s problem was that he decided the bishops reported to him.

    He thought he was still running for office, and that he was a prosecuting attorney in search of scalps rather than a problem solver in partnership with the Church.

    Since you’re not in the organization, you’re hardly “the Charlie Brown” anything.

  • And there again, Bob Jose Arzen Carioca wimps out as usual, while taking yet another insulting swipe at another poster.

    Bob Jose, you’re simply a jerk.

  • Block away, Bob Jose Arzen Carioca, you pathetic old wimp. Everyone who doesn’t still gets to see you being exposed as the AS$HOLE that you are.

  • You just want to get the last word in on anything. A day of reckoning is coming and the Roman Church will need to adapt.

  • Until recently Colombia was the most Catholic country in Latin America. A concordat gave the church incredible power and influence. Your comment is an insult to the common sense of Colombians. And you, sir, apparently would follow the pope in jumping from a bridge. And you fail to note that the overwhelming majority of Catholics and Protestants approve of and regularly use contraception.

  • 1. Jefferson, Madison et al were in agreement that it is wrong for government to force citizens to support religious institutions.

    2. Deciding what is moral is a matter of conscience. Bob’s condemnation of it is hateful garbage.

    3. Serious politicking by churches is incompatible with 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.

    4. You are free to kowtow to any sort of nonsense you like.

  • 1. Jefferson and Madison made no court decisions.

    Their thoughts insofar as they are relevant are reflected in written laws interpreted by courts.

    Jefferson, as I pointed the last time we went through this, was against forcing citizens to send their children to ANY school.

    2. If it what is moral is a matter of conscience, Ted Bundy should not have been arrested, tried, convicted, and electrocuted.

    3. The Johnson Amendment, named for that famous bigot and crypto-criminal Lyndon Baines Johnson, was inserted in the Tax Code to punish a religious personage who pointed out he was a lying thieving womanizing ballot box stuffing crook to forbid churches from “politicking”.

    Obviously your hated Catholic bishops haven’t violated it because they’re still tax exempt.

    Most constitutional experts believe it would not survive a constitutional challenge.

    4. You are free to kowtow to any sort of nonsense you like.

  • The overwhelming majority of Catholics and Protestants at one time or another approve of and regularly use multiple things which are either immoral, unhealthy, or unlawful.

    When your argument boils down to “All the other kids do it!” you are out of ammunition.

  • When your argument boils down to “it’s not a fact without documentation” you are out of ammunition.

  • What you’re looking for is documented evidence, not a fact. That’s why your posts, despite their authoritative tone, are bupkis.

    I’m personally not prepared to discount the suffering of survivors just so someone can document further abuse to your satisfaction. Perhaps you are. But that’s your problem and no testament to having great faith but rather a case of willful blindness.

    That latter has left a great many souls ravaged and broken for far too long.

  • Religions infect their followers with a psychosis – the psychotic state of piety – where the followers will do their ” master’s “bidding. This is achieved by brainwashing the very young – into believing whatever it is that the ” master ” wishes – to the detriment of the child, and for the benefit of the ” master “.

    As to my comment – it a matter of degree of slavery.

    As to the Christian Religions – none is, or ever has been, as damaging on a worldwide scale for 1500 yrs as the RCC.

    Below is one of my earlier comments on another article :
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    ” If the Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops,and Bishops who have ” apologized ” for the ” inconvenience ” they have inflicted on the children of the world – let them volunteer to do Penance.

    10 Our Fathers and a bunch of Hail Marys isn’t what I have in mind !

    VOLUNTARY CASTRATION !

    This act of contrition would, I’m sure, be looked upon by Jesus as a divine act of selflessness !

    Francesco should set an example by having himself castrated first – to be followed by the rest of the hierarchy, et al !

    This simple pious act will manifestly demonstrate to the world that their apologies are indeed heart-felt !

    Should the Pope and his minions reject this voluntary act of atonement – this mea culpa – let’s then pull a Torquemada –

    INVOLUNTARY CASTRATION !

    WITH THE SCROTUM, TESTICLES AND PENIS TO BE CHOPPED-OFF – W/O ANESTHESIA – WITH A SHARD OF STAINED-GLASS – TO BE PERFORMED BY THE FATHER OF ONE OF THE CHILDREN WHO WERE RAPED ! “

  • We will all stand before the judge on the throne and you will bend your knee, out of respect or out of spite. Either way brother, you will face the creator.
    Repent now.

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