Editorial: Pope shows compassion, needs to show action

Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014
Pope Francis met for the first time last week with Catholics sexually abused by members of the clergy. He conducted a private Mass with six victims — two each from Ireland, Britain and Germany — at his Vatican residence. He also spent several hours listening to their accounts, one on one.

We pray that the time spent with the victims gives the pope added strength to heal this deep wound in the Catholic Church.

To his credit, the pope went further than any of his predecessors in promising to hold bishops accountable for their failure to protect children from abusive priests. This is a dramatic change from the church’s stance on accountability just a few months ago. We just hope it is followed up with decisive action.

The pope’s meeting with victims happened after the church came under harsh criticism in two recent United Nations reports. In February the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that the Vatican had placed its interests over those of victims by enabling priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children under the protection of a clerical code of silence.

In May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture concluded that Vatican officials had failed to report sex abuse charges properly, transferred priests rather than disciplining them and failed to pay adequate compensation to victims. That report found that the Vatican, despite its claims to the contrary, exercises worldwide control over its bishops and priests and must comply with the U.N.’s anti-torture treaty.

The Vatican dismissed the U.N. panel’s conclusions at the time and insisted it didn’t exercise direct control over its priests worldwide. Really? The hierarchical Vatican cannot control its priests?

But perhaps Pope Francis’ expressions of compassion to the victims last week signals that he has rejected this outrageous position.

“Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness. I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused, and it endangered other minors who were at risk.

“All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors,” the pope said, “and they will be held accountable.”

Unfortunately, the pope didn’t specify what he intends to do about the bishops and other church officials who have been involved in the scandal. Victim support groups like SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, have reacted skeptically to the latest comments and say they are still waiting for concrete action. We share their impatience.

We also hope the pope continues to give his strong support to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston. Cardinal O’Malley attended the victims meeting and has been at the forefront of confronting the sex abuse scandal for a number of years.

The cardinal is a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors and also organized Pope Benedict XVI’s first meeting with abuse victims, in 2008. At home, he has been responsible for settling 101 abuse claims and claims to have initiated a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse. He also instituted one of the first comprehensive sexual abuse policies in the Roman Catholic Church.

Late last year O’Malley announced a pontifical approved commission whose purpose is to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to help victims. Cardinal O’Malley has delivered on the promise of action.

Let’s hope the pope delivers as well in the months and years ahead.