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

Religion News Service/VATICAN CITY | 3/1/2019, 6 a.m.
In his final address to nearly 190 bishops attending last week’s Vatican summit on sex abuse, Pope Francis called for …
Pope Francis

In his final address to nearly 190 bishops attending last week’s Vatican summit on sex abuse, Pope Francis called for the eradication of abuse both inside and outside the Roman 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,” Pope 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.”

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,” Mr. 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.’ ”

Virginia’s two Roman Catholic dioceses published on Feb. 13 lists of 58 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. Forty-two of those priests were connected in some way with the Diocese of Richmond, while the names of 16 priests were on the list released by the Diocese of Arlington.

The bishops of both dioceses apologized to victims in letters that accompanied the lists, and said none of the clergy who names were on the lists are currently in active ministry.

The Virginia dioceses joined others around the country in answering calls to make public the names of abusive clergy.

The Richmond diocese list is available on www.richmonddiocese.org.

News also was released Monday that the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted in Australia of molesting two choirboys after celebrating Mass.

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top financial adviser and the Vatican’s economy minister, bowed his head but then regained his composure as the 12-member jury delivered unanimous verdicts in the Victoria state County Court on Dec. 11 after more than two days of deliberation.

The court had previously forbidden publication of any details about the trial.

Cardinal Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing this week. He has foreshadowed an appeal.

The revelations came in the same month that the Vatican announced Pope Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood for a former high-ranking American cleric, Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

The jury convicted Cardinal Pell of abusing two 13-year-old boys whom he had caught swigging sacramental wine in a rear room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, in late 1996, as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of Sunday services.

Cardinal Pell, now 77 but 55 at the time, had just been named the most senior Catholic in Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne.

The jury also found Cardinal Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

Cardinal Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as “vile and disgusting conduct” that went against everything he believed in.

In a homily that preceded Pope 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,” Archbishoop Coleridge said.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago who earlier last week had presented a detailed plan to hold bishops accountable, 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, 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.”