"The church will never seek to hush up, or not take seriously, any case," said Pope Francis, calling on priests who have sexually abused children to "convert" and turn themselves in.
Wait. Once again, that is what the Catholic Church told the victims of decades of sexual abuse committed by priests — a sinister scandal that has plagued the church since it was unveiled nearly two decades ago. Pope Francis promised this time would be different. That a four-day summit that just concluded at The Vatican would result in a bold plan to transform a church culture that allowed clergy to prey on vulnerable children and then protected the priests when they were found out. This after delaying American bishops last fall from coming up with their own remedy because finally the Vatican would take a strong stance.
Instead, we got more of the same even as Pope Francis talked a strong game, calling the abuse “abominable crimes” and imploring the church to “combat the evil” and “do all that is necessary for justice.” Even as more victims shared tearful stories with those in attendance and a top Catholic cardinal from Germany shared mind-blowing testimony that documents related to sexual abuse were destroyed.
Pope Francis declared an “all-out battle” on the issue of sexual abuse, but he didn’t put up the church’s strongest defenses. If he truly wanted to make a statement to parishioners and the world, he would have exerted his absolute authority, since he is the head of the church, to institute a law for all its churches that would call for dismissal of priests who abuse and the bishops who do nothing about it. He owed at least that much to the victims.
Rather than taking responsibility and leadership, he passed the buck to local church leaders to hold clergy accountable in their own dioceses.
This may work in some places. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is waiting for the green light from the Vatican to implement policies it has already written to address the scandal, said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who points out that in Baltimore there is now an independent review board, led by two retired judges, to investigate sexual abuse allegations. Members of the board would report the allegations to civil authorities and to the Apostolic Nuncio, the Pope’s U.S. envoy responsible for the supervision and appointment of bishops. Mr. Lori has also asked the board to issue an annual report to parishioners outlining the handling of abuse cases.
Pope Francis concluded the clerical sexual abuse summit by calling for an "all-out battle" against the scourge. But the summit ended with few concrete remedies.
By Chico Harlan and Michelle Boorstein
Feb 24, 2019 | 5:20 PM
If given the go-ahead, the U.S. bishops must act swiftly to take up previous initiatives, including creating a national third-party system for confidential reporting of alleged abuse or mishandling of abuse allegations by bishops, a code of conduct for bishops and a uniform standard for dioceses to report credible accusations of abuse by priests.
But other church communities will need more pushing to take the strongest stance against sexual abuse and instill transparency in investigations and not just ship offenders off to other congregations or countries. A strong statement from the top would send a zero-tolerance message.
The Vatican also still needs to devise a clear plan and protocol on how to investigate and discipline accusers.
The few initiatives the Vatican promoted during the summit were not new and were generally already in the works. For example, the body will publish a guidebook for bishops on how to address abuse and create laws to protect children in Rome — but not for the whole church.
Archbishop Lori and others see the summit as setting the framework for change and are eager to implement new laws.
We don’t think it goes far enough. We can only hope that more will be done during a follow-up task force, announced by the pope. Given the track record, we are not to confident. Talking about the issues is not enough.
Clearly, the Catholic Church still is not ready to address sex abuse on its own. The church will have to be hit in a more meaningful way to create the urgency for faster change. Catholics should continue to speak out and even consider leaving the church.
A Gallup poll released last spring found that from 2014 to 2017, an average of 39 percent of Catholics said they had attended church in the past seven days, down from 45 percent from 2005 to 2008. Nearly 45 percent of Protestants reported have attended church regularly. Maybe the church needs more empty seats to get the message.
We can also look to law enforcement to step in where the church won’t. The office of Attorney General Brian Frosh put out notice last September looking for victims “associated with a school or place of worship.” His office doesn’t comment on investigations, but it is not hard to read between the lines. The search came shorty after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro found that more than 300 priests in that state had been credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 children and that for decades church officials covered it up.
We’re not sure exactly what has caused Pope Francis to hold back on a true call to action. Perhaps, there are so many people culpable it would decimate the church? Just how high up the ranks does the cover up climb.