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Pope Francis calls for ‘all-out battle’ against child sex abuse

Pope Francis referred to clerics who abuse children as 'tools of Satan.'

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Feb. 24, 2019. Francis celebrated a final Mass to conclude his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests. The Mass was celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Apostolic Palace. (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In his final address to nearly 190 bishops attending this week’s Vatican summit on sex abuse, Pope Francis called for the eradication of abuse both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

“I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth. This is demanded by all the many victims hidden in families and in the various settings of our societies,” Francis said.

The pontiff’s address, which referred to clerics who abuse children as “tools of Satan,” began with a litany of statistics regarding multiple kinds of sex abuse and its effects in various parts of the world.

He then outlined eight principles for the church: protecting children; maintaining “seriousness” and rejecting cover-ups; “purification” within the church; better screening for candidates for the priesthood to avoid potential abusers; taking a united approach to the issue across bishops conferences; accompanying those who have been abused; confronting child pornography and online abuse; and combating “sexual tourism.”

“If in the church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — which already in itself represents an atrocity — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness,” he said. “Indeed, in people’s justified anger, the church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”

He later added: “The church’s aim will thus be to hear, watch over, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten children, wherever they are. To achieve that goal, the church must rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”

As the pontiff concluded the conference, which focused on “the Protection of Minors in the Church,” clerics in the room burst into applause.

The pope’s remarks capped off an intense four days of discussion and debate at the Vatican summit on the topic of sex abuse. Speakers at the conference, who included bishops, nuns and journalists who have covered the abuse crisis, put forward several recommendations on how to tackle abuse.

Advocates for abuse survivors were quick to express frustration with the pope’s speech. Standing in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, Peter Saunders, a sex abuse survivor visiting Rome with the group Ending Clergy Abuse, said he was “very disappointed” with both the pontiff’s address and the summit in general.

“The fact that it lacked passion or commitment is one thing, but it contained nothing concrete. They’ve had four days to decide on the things they could do that could make a difference, and they have avoided that,” Saunders told Religion News Service. “They’ve heard some impassioned speeches, they’ve had cardinals admitting burning files, we’ve had nuns saying it’s terrible … but they haven’t said, ‘Right, this is what we do next.'”

He added: “They’ve lost even more friends, more Catholics will leave the church, and we will all become even more determined to put the pressure on this institution.”

In a homily that preceded Francis’ remarks, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, told the gathered bishops that the church had little room for further mistakes.

“All of this will take time, but we do not have forever and we dare not fail,” Coleridge said.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago who presented a detailed plan to hold bishops accountable earlier in the week, told RNS that the pope’s address showed he was intent on establishing “norms, not just aspirations.” He also noted the forthcoming creation of a task force that will “provide some insight and visibility into what’s happening around the world” regarding abuse.

“As (the pope) said, we have to get this right because we have a moral voice on so many issues, and if we don’t get this right we squander that,” the cardinal said. “The safety of the next generation: That’s why this is so profoundly important.”

At a news conference later in the day, Vatican officials formally announced the pope’s intention to create “task forces of competent persons to help episcopal conferences and dioceses that find it difficult to confront the problems and produce initiatives for the protection of minors.”
Other next steps include a formal papal Motu proprio “on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons” and a new Vatican document that will serve as a guide to “help bishops around the world clearly understand their duties and tasks.”

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