VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis directed the Vatican on Friday to act decisively on clergy sex abuse cases and punish pedophile priests, saying the Catholic Church’s “credibility” was on the line. The announcement was quickly dismissed by some victims’ advocates as just more talk, while others lobbying for reform in the church held out hope the new pontiff might challenge the Vatican’s bureaucratic culture seen as fostering a coverup mentality.
Clergy abuse victims called for swift and bold action from Francis as soon as he was elected pope last month. Yet in his homeland, Roman Catholic activists had characterized him as being slow to act against such abuse in his years heading the Argentine church.
The Vatican’s brief announcement about Francis’ meeting Friday with the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the office that shapes and enforces policy on what to do about any abuse allegations and what happens to the abusers — depicted Francis as urging assertive action to protect minors.
“The Holy Father in a special way urged that the Congregation, following the line sought by Benedict XVI, act decisively in sex abuse cases, above all promoting measures to protect minors, assistance for all those who in the past suffered such violence, necessary measures against the guilty,” the statement said of Francis’ meeting with Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller.
The Vatican quoted Francis as saying abuse victims were always present “in his attention and in his prayers.” It was the first announcement by the Vatican that Francis had made dealing with clergy sex abuse a priority of his fledgling papacy, and the pontiff seemed to be putting Mueller on notice that he would tolerate no easing of the crackdown.
Francis’s expressed intentions left some victims’ advocates unimpressed.
“Once again, has have happened hundreds of times already, a top Catholic official says he’s asking another top Catholic official to take action about pedophile priests and complicit bishops,” said Barbara Dorris, an official of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a U.S.-based organization.
“Big deal. Actions speak louder than words. And one of the first actions Pope Francis took was to visit perhaps the most high-profile corrupt prelate on the planet, Cardinal Bernard Law, who remains a powerful church official despite having been drummed out of Boston for hiding and enabling crimes by hundreds of child molesting clerics,” Dorris said in a statement.
Others were cautiously giving Francis the benefit of doubt — for now.
The church has “not done anything to remove bishops and cardinals who covered up, or protected those who covered up” the abusers, said James Post, a professor at Boston University’s School of Management who teaches corporate governance, accountability and ethics. “That’s the bureaucratic defence that has to be broken. It’s a huge challenge” for Francis, Post said in a telephone interview.
Post, who is also a founder of, and serves as an advisor to, Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay organization in the United States pushing for church reform, described the mandate to Mueller as “strongly symbolic” but one which should “be translated into forceful enforcement” of the policy.
This “may be a first step toward action and a test of whether the curia, the Vatican’s notorious bureaucracy, will blunt the new pontiff’s instruction,” Post said. Some of those involved in protecting perpetrators “are almost certainly members of the curia,” and it may well boil down to whether Francis has the skill and drive “to weed them out,” Post said in a separate statement.
The clergy child abuse scandals in many countries have drained morale and finances from the church, driving countless Catholics away, especially in Western Europe. Some dioceses have had to close parishes and take other drastic actions after paying out millions for counselling and other compensation to victims in cases settled in and out of court.
On March 19 — the day Francis was formally installed as pope — an activist group in Buenos Aires urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children. Separately, a lawyer for some of the victims said the future pope, then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, had not met with or helped the abuse victims and contended that mid-level church officials who covered up the abuse haven’t lost their jobs.
Bishop Accountability, a prominent church activist group, has described Bergoglio as being behind the curve in the Catholic Church’s global struggle to deal with widespread cases of sex abuse by its clergy. It also has urged him to order his former diocese in Buenos Aires to release the complete files on the two abusive priests.
Many victims’ advocacy groups contend that the late Pope John Paul II was too protective of clergy, and that a de facto policy of shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish or diocese to diocese held sway under his long papacy.
Benedict, his successor, was the first pope to meet with those who were sexually abused by clergy. In 2010, Benedict issued an apology to Ireland for chronic abuse there over several decades. He also ordered a drastic overall of a conservative religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, which was a favourite of John Paul, but whose founder sexually abused seminarians.
However, Benedict disappointed victims by not disciplining church higher-ups who had shielded the abusive priests.
Francis has set a tone of humility for his papacy and victims will be watching closely to see if he will meet with them, promote zero tolerance for abusers and perhaps issue an overarching church apology for the systemic coverups by church hierarchy in many countries.
As for the issue with Cardinal Law, Francis saw him the morning after his election as pope when he went to St. Mary Major’s Basilica in Rome. Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston, was among several prelates who came to the basilica in hopes of seeing the pope. Law had been named by John Paul to head the basilica, a plum post for aging clerics. Law later retired from that post.
Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.