Pope Francis attempts to tackle sexual abuse globally and in his own backyard

This ongoing clergy sex abuse trial at the Vatican will be a litmus test for the efficacy of Pope Francis’ reforms.

Pope Francis delivers his speech as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s 
Square, at the Vatican, on Aug. 30, 2020. A recent homily commenting on abortion and pedophilia by the Rev. Andrea Leonesi in Macerata, Italy, has resurfaced conversations surrounding Pope Francis’ efforts toward child protection in the church. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Recent comments by Catholic clergy and a sex abuse trial inside the Vatican highlight Pope Francis’ uphill battle in enforcing accountability and child protection within the Catholic Church.

“Which is worse, abortion or an act of pedophilia?” asked the Rev. Andrea Leonesi, the vicar of the Diocese of Macerata, Italy, during a homily on Oct. 27 that was recorded and later went viral.

In his homily, Leonesi implied abortion is worse than pedophilia and condemned the protests women have led in Poland, where the highest court recently applied further restrictions on abortion.

“In Poland these feminists are loose and doing anything to protest,” the priest said. “Wives must be submissive toward their husbands; do you understand ladies? The husband is in fact the master of the woman,” he added.

The homily, which was uploaded to YouTube on Monday (Nov. 2), garnered a lot of criticism by political activists for gender equality in Italy. Bishop Nazzareno Marconi of Macerata defended his second-in-command by saying while “the drama of pedophilia is a battle that must engage us all,” the homily wished to “guarantee the right to not have an abortion for every woman.”

The homily in Italy is not an isolated incident. Last February a priest in Rhode Island, the Rev. Richard Bucci, stated abortion is worse than pedophilia because, he said, “pedophilia doesn’t kill anyone.” Bucci had previously been criticized for refusing to offer Communion to politicians who supported abortion rights.

The recent remarks are an example of the challenges faced by Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in reckoning with the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the institution’s credibility worldwide.

The first-ever Vatican trial concerning clergy sex abuse started in October and it showcases the Catholic Church’s failures and success in ensuring the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

The Rev. Gabriele Martinelli is accused of abuse of power and sexual abuse against a Vatican altar boy between 2007 and 2012, according to the official indictment.

The former rector of St. Pius X seminary, the Rev. Enrico Radice, is accused of covering up the abuse and obstructing justice by not sharing information with Vatican investigators.

The abuse allegedly took place within the seminary for boys ages 12-18, located inside the Vatican walls and only a stone’s throw away from the residence of Pope Francis.

The pope’s most recent efforts to put a stop to sex abuse within the Catholic Church have already had three strong effects on this unprecedented trial.

In March 2019, Francis issued a new law requiring citizens of Vatican City to report cases of sexual abuse to Vatican prosecutors. The legislation enforced fines or even prison for those who fail to report such cases, created child protection guidelines in Vatican City and its youth seminary and increased the statute of limitations.

If the Vatican tribunal finds Radice and Martinelli guilty, this trial could be the first to apply more severe sentences other than removing them from the priesthood since the alleged events occurred under Vatican jurisdiction.

In December 2019, Pope Francis also abolished the pontifical secret for cases of sexual abuse. This allowed the lawyers of the alleged victim to request access to the data concerning the trial, which would have been impossible before Pope Francis’ new laws.

The victim’s lawyer also condemned the “great negligence” and “lack of vigilance” over the seminary by the diocesan group that runs it, Opera Don Folci, during the hearing last week. He asked that the group be included in the judicial proceedings.

Last July, the pope issued a law that lengthened the time victims had to report and press charges, which was previously limited to only one year. Thanks to this legislation, the prosecution was able to file charges even though the alleged acts occurred more than eight years ago.

This trial will be a litmus test for the efficacy of Francis’ reforms and will send a message to the global church, still struggling to address the sexual abuse scandals.

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