“To those who abuse minors I would say this: Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” Francis said in his annual Christmas speech to Vatican officials. “Let it be clear that before these abominations the church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes.”
The pontiff’s speech, to the Roman Curia — the central governing body of the Vatican — is evidence that a year of devastating revelations of sexual misconduct and cover-up around the globe has shaken his papacy and caused a crisis of confidence in the Catholic hierarchy.
“Pray also for the survivors of sexual abuse that their suffering may serve to strengthen us all for the hard task of rooting out a terrible evil from our Church and our society so that such suffering is never multiplied,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement provided to the Herald.
The pope acknowledged that the church in the past had failed to treat the problem seriously, blaming leaders who out of inexperience or shortsightedness acted “irresponsibly” by refusing to believe victims. But he vowed that going forward the church would “never again” cover up or dismiss cases and urged victims to come forward.
Vatican guidelines currently call only for bishops to report priestly abusers to police in those countries where civil law requires it — a technicality that survivors and their advocates have long blasted as a convenient dodge to the church’s moral obligation to protect children regardless of what the law requires.
Survivors and their advocates, however, found Francis’ words hollow, noting that just this week the chief prosecutor in Illinois accused church officials there of hiding the names of around 500 priests accused of abuse.
“The pope has responded to the growing clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States in the most expected way possible: with flowery words backed up by inaction,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“The only way to be sure that future cover-ups won’t happen is to take concrete steps toward prevention, not simply make promises,” Hiner told the Herald. “Promises from church officials do not protect children; only real reform can do that.”
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has fought church sex abuse for nearly two decades, said, “All victims understand that the Catholic Church does not care about victims and never will.”
The pope has summoned church leaders from around the globe for a February abuse prevention summit, in an indication that he has come to realize that the problem is far greater and far more global than he had understood at the start of his pontificate five years ago.
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