Editorial: Crucial moment for Pope Francis to undo wrongs on clergy sex abuse

Last modified: Tuesday, June 03, 2014

As he takes on the issue of clergy sex abuse, Pope Francis must break with the past and move to resolve, once and for all, a scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for years. The new pope will meet soon with a group of sex abuse victims at the Vatican and has said he will not tolerate any instance of a priest raping or molesting a child. Those are only words.

The planned meeting with a half-dozen victims will mark the first such encounter for the new pope. The session comes after the Vatican has been severely criticized by two recent United Nations reports. Twice this year, the Vatican has been forced to appear before a UN committee in Geneva and be peppered with questions about its handling of abuse cases.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in February that the Vatican systematically placed its interests over those of victims by enabling priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children through a code of silence.

And on May 23, the U.N. Committee Against Torture concluded that Vatican officials failed to report sex abuse charges properly, moved priests rather than discipline 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.

Despite Pope Francis’ steps on this matter, the Vatican dismissed the 10-member panel’s conclusions as “fundamentally flawed” and insisted it didn’t exercise direct control over its priests worldwide. The Holy See long has sought to distance itself from the conduct of pedophile priests and the bishops overseeing them, saying the church’s structure isn’t the centrally organized, top-down hierarchy lawyers for victims describe.

Last month, the Vatican revealed to the committee that it had defrocked 848 priests worldwide and imposed lesser penalties on 2,572 others since 2004.

Those figures reflected only those complaints handled directly by the Vatican, not those left in the hands of dioceses, so the total number of sanctioned priests worldwide is likely much higher.

The U.N. committee rebuffed the Vatican’s position that it should be liable only for enforcing the anti-torture treaty only within the confines of Vatican City. Church leaders have long argued that legal responsibility for abuse lies with the bishops and the leaders of individual congregations of priests, nuns and brothers. The Vatican said it was not even indirectly responsible for enforcing the treaty’s anti-torture obligations on all the world’s 440,000 priests. Well, which is it to be in 2014? A bold step by Pope Francis to right wrongs or more legal maneuvering?

One the one hand, Pope Francis calls to “go forward, forward” on this issue with “zero tolerance” for abusers. He has called abuse of children an “ugly” crime that betrays God. On the other hand, the Vatican argues that it cannot control its priests.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI broke his recent silence on clergy abuse last month, complaining that the church was under attack but saying that “we Christians” must repent for sins and recognize mistakes. Victims of clerical abuse long demanded that Benedict take more responsibility, charging that the Vatican orchestrated a culture of cover-up and secrecy.

Pope Francis must do more than echo the platitudes we heard from Pope Benedict. But Pope Francis has yet to show he grasps the deep changes needed to prevent further cases. He should punish perpetrators not only of the abuse but of its cover-up. The personal touch is a hallmark of his papacy — communicating a warmth and understanding to ordinary people that his predecessor rarely managed. But it will take more than the personal touch by Pope Francis — and certainly more than comments like the ones he made in March, in which he defended the church’s handling of the child sex abuse crisis and said no other institution in the world had “done more” to stamp out child abuse.

In fact, by betraying its members’ trust and looking away from wrong, no other institution in the world has done more to enable child sex abuse. Pope Francis must boldly attack what’s wrong in the church’s handling of clergy abuse, not defend it.


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