Pope Francis vowed Monday that "no effort must be spared" to root out priestly sex abuse and cover-up from the Catholic Church, but gave no indication that he would take action to sanction complicit bishops or end the Vatican culture of secrecy that has allowed the crisis to fester.
In a letter to Catholics worldwide following damning new revelations of misconduct in the U.S., Francis sought to project a get-tough response to the perpetrators and a compassionate shoulder for victims ahead of a fraught trip to Ireland this weekend.
Francis begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be included in the effort to root out abuse and cover-up. He blasted the clerical culture that has been blamed for the crisis, with church leaders more concerned about their own reputations than the safety of children.
"We showed no care for the little ones," Francis wrote. "We abandoned them."
But Francis alone can sanction bishops and he offered no hint that he would change the Vatican's longstanding practice of giving religious superiors a pass when they botch abuse cases or are negligent in protecting their flocks.
He said he was aware of the "effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world" to ensure children are protected and hold accountable those who commit abuse and cover it up.
But he made no reference to what the Vatican plans to do, saying only: "We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future."
The letter was viewed by abuse survivors as little more than recycled rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the Vatican's own role in turning a blind eye to predatory priests and fomenting a culture of secrecy that has allowed crimes to go unpunished for decades.
"That culture was overseen by #Vatican & codified into its laws," tweeted Colm O'Gorman, a prominent Irish abuse victim who is organizing a solidarity demonstration of survivors in Dublin during Francis' visit. "He needs to name & own that."
Marie Collins, another prominent Irish survivor who resigned in frustration from the pope's sex-abuse advisory commission, said statements about how terrible abuse is and how bishops must be held accountable are meaningless.
"Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable," she tweeted. "That is what we want to hear. 'Working on it' is not an acceptable explanation for decades of 'delay.'"
Priestly sex abuse was always expected to dominate the pope's trip to Ireland, a once staunchly Roman Catholic country where the church's credibility has been devastated by years of revelations that priests raped and molested children with impunity and their superiors covered it up.
But the issue has taken on new gravity following revelations in the U.S. that one of Francis' trusted cardinals, the retired archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused and harassed minors as well as adult seminarians.
In addition, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania last week revealed that at least 1,000 children were abused by some 300 priests over the past 70 years, and that generations of bishops failed to take measures to protect their flock or punish the rapists.
"Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all," the grand jury report said.
The letter from Latin America's first pope also comes on the heels of a spiraling sex-abuse scandal in Chile, where law enforcement has staged multiple raids on church archives to try to determine what was known and kept hidden about pedophile priests.
The three-page letter, issued in seven languages, referred to the Pennsylvania report but stressed that its message was to a much broader global audience. In it, Francis acknowledged that no effort to beg forgiveness of the victims would be sufficient but vowed "never again."
Looking to the future, he said: "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."
He demanded an end to "clericalism" — the culture that places priests on a pedestal. He said lay Catholics must help end that culture, since rank-and-file Catholics are often the ones who most fervently hold up their priests as beyond reproach.
That emphasis — on both the role of the laity and clericalism — is new for a pope in addressing the abuse scandal and seems a direct response to the Pennsylvania findings, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Notre Dame.
"That's what people are feeling. That's the rage," she said, adding that she had acquaintances who were withholding donations to their parishes, refusing to address priests as "Father" and demanding at Sunday Mass that their pastors address the crisis.
"I think this is a crisis and I don't think many church leaders appreciate that," she said.
Francis appears to hear that call, but it's unclear if it will be enough.
Several years ago, he scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops, relying instead on current Vatican procedures. While he has taken some bishops to task, he has refused to act on credible reports of bishops failing to report abusers to police or otherwise botching the handling of cases.
Francis also has kept on his nine-member cabinet a Chilean cardinal long accused of covering up for pedophiles, an Australian cardinal currently on trial on sex-abuse charges and a Honduran cardinal implicated in a gay priest sex scandal involving his trusted deputy.
As a result, advocates for victims found his letter wanting.
"Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain," said Anne Barrett Doyle of the research group Bishop Accountability, which released a database Monday of credibly accused or convicted Irish clergy.
What Francis should do to protect children, she said, is to order the Vatican to release the names of all priests who have been convicted under canon law of abusing minors.
Unlike the U.S. bishops' conference, which has referred only to "sins and omissions" in their response to the Pennsylvania report, Francis labeled the misconduct "crimes."
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said it was "significant" that Francis used that term and called for accountability, "which in many cases means bishops."
"This is a wake-up call for everyone," Burke told The Associated Press.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro praised the pope's letter and urged local church officials to "cease their denials and deflections" and accept the grand jury recommendations, which include allowing victims to sue the church for abuse that otherwise would fall outside the statute of limitations.
The Catholic Church has long resisted such litigation windows, fearing for its bottom line. In the U.S., the sex-abuse scandal and related litigation has cost the church some $3 billion and led to the sell-off of church properties and bankruptcy protection for several dioceses.
It was the second Vatican response in recent days to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which has sparked a crisis of confidence in the U.S. Catholic leadership and led to calls for mass ouster of American bishops.
Last week, Burke issued a statement calling the abuse "criminal and morally reprehensible" and said there must be accountability for those who raped children "and those who permitted abuse to occur."
Subsequently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Francis to authorize a Vatican investigation into McCarrick, whose penchant for inviting seminarians to his New Jersey beach house and into his bed was apparently an open secret.
The Vatican hasn't said if Francis would approve such an investigation. The question is delicate, given that there is evidence that Vatican officials knew as early as 2000 of McCarrick's activities, yet still appointed him Washington archbishop and a cardinal.
On Monday, the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said he didn't see a letter sent to his office in 2015 concerning McCarrick's activities.
O'Malley said a pastor sent him the letter because he was president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He said his priest secretary told the pastor a recommendation to review cases fell outside the commission's mandate.
O'Malley apologized to the pastor and to anyone whose concerns were reflected in the letter.
Read the full letter below:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons. Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. 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. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.
1. If one member suffers…
In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years. Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless as time goes on we have come to know the pain of many of the victims. We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. Mary’s song is not mistaken and continues quietly to echo throughout history. For the Lord remembers the promise he made to our fathers: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53). We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite.
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. I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)” (Ninth Station).
2. … all suffer together with it
The extent and the gravity of all that has happened requires coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way. While it is important and necessary on every journey of conversion to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough. Today we are challenged as the People of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit. If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history. And this in an environment where conflicts, tensions and above all the victims of every type of abuse can encounter an outstretched hand to protect them and rescue them from their pain (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 228). Such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person. A solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption. The latter is “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14)” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 165). Saint Paul’s exhortation to suffer with those who suffer is the best antidote against all our attempts to repeat the words of Cain: “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Gen 4:9).
I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.
Together with those efforts, every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does. For as Saint John Paul II liked to say: “If we have truly started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49). To see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. 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.
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.
It is always helpful to remember that “in salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in the human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 6). Consequently, the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. In this way, we will come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel. For “whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
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. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.
Likewise, penance and prayer will help us to open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s sufferings and to overcome the thirst for power and possessions that are so often the root of those evils. May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled. A fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combatting all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.
In this way, we can show clearly our calling to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”, said Saint Paul. By an attitude of prayer and penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation. Mary chose to stand at the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’ side. In this way, she reveals the way she lived her entire life. When we experience the desolation caused by these ecclesial wounds, we will do well, with Mary, “to insist more upon prayer”, seeking to grow all the more in love and fidelity to the Church (SAINT IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA, Spiritual Exercises, 319). She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.
May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.