(RNS) The Vatican is trying to reassure Catholics and the public that Pope Francis takes the clerical sex abuse crisis seriously in the wake of defensive comments Francis made this week, the first serious bump in the road for a pope approaching the first anniversary of his election with sky-high approval ratings.

In an interview published Wednesday (March 5) with an Italian newspaper, Francis was asked about the scandal that has shaken the faith of many Catholics, especially in the U.S., and why he hasn’t fought back against criticisms of the church’s record.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the conclusion of a consistory at which Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 22. Pope Benedict's presence at the ceremony marked the first time he had joined Pope Francis for a public liturgy. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the conclusion of a consistory at which Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 22. Pope Benedict’s presence at the ceremony marked the first time he had joined Pope Francis for a public liturgy. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service


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Francis began by acknowledging that “the cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very profound wounds,” but he then shifted to praise the policies on abuse instituted by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, while asserting that the Catholic Church has “advanced a lot, perhaps more than anyone” in battling the sexual abuse of children.

“The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that moved with transparency and responsibility,” the pope continued, arguing that most abuse occurs in the home or other community environments. “No one else did as much. And yet, the church is the only one being attacked.”

That prompted a torrent of criticism from victims advocates and others who noted that Francis did not apologize for the abuse, has not disciplined any bishops who covered up for abusers and has yet to meet with any abuse victims or name any members to a commission he promised to establish three months ago.

“His comments reflect an archaic, defensive mindset,” said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

“He is triumphalist about clergy abuse of children and silent about the complicity of bishops,” said Terence McKiernan, head of BishopAccountability.org.

“Hearing the Pope use the abuse-occurs-elsewhere excuse is truly disheartening,” said the U.S.-based church reform group Voice of the Faithful, echoing a sense of disappointment among many Catholics who hoped the pope’s pledges and moves to reform the church on many levels would extend to an examination of conscience on clergy abuse.

A Pew Research Center survey of American Catholics last year showed that 70 percent thought addressing abuse should be the top priority for the new pope, but in a follow-up report released this week only 54 percent gave Francis high marks for addressing it.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi addresses the press on Friday (Feb. 21) at the Vatican. RNS photo by David Gibson

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi addresses the press on Friday (Feb. 21) at the Vatican. RNS photo by David Gibson


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Vatican officials seem to be aware of the danger the crisis poses for Francis. The pope’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, sent an email to The Associated Press saying it was taking time to set up the abuse commission in part because the pontiff was busy with other reforms. But he said that experts had been contacted to check their availability and that this remained a priority for Francis.

“I’m waiting for it (the commission),” Lombardi wrote. “And I hope that the commission will also be able to propose to the pope initiatives adapted to give a true broad impulse in the church for the active protection of minors.”

Apparently referring to a United Nations report last month that was sharply critical of the Vatican’s record on abuse — but which itself was widely criticized for exaggerated claims and overstepping its mandate — Lombardi said the pope was pointing out that the Vatican’s efforts have “not been recognized objectively.”

“At the same time,” Lombardi added, “it is clear that there is still an immense task to do for the past, for the present and, even more so, for the future. The pope knows this well.”

Some critics held out hope that Francis would act soon and that the penitential season of Lent would be a spur.

The editors of National Catholic Reporter wrote an open letter to the pope Thursday (March 6) recalling that Francis captivated the public shortly after his election when he broke with tradition by going to a youth detention center for a Holy Thursday ritual before Easter, at which he washed the feet of a dozen young people, including two women and a Muslim.

“We implore you to turn the world’s focus this Holy Thursday on a healing service for victims of sexual abuse by priests,” the editors wrote. “Listen to their stories. Wash their feet.”

YS/MG END GIBSON

8 Comments

  1. The Catholic Church, despite the seemingly sweet Pope of the moment, is a criminal enterprise

    It owes the world complete cooperation in handing over ALL of the priests and bishops who should be handed over to the authorities for due process!

    Start with CARDINAL LAW! Those of us who lived in Boston in the early 1990′s learned very well that dozens of pedophile priests were moved from Parish to Parish to prey yet again on more poor beautiful children!

    Disgrace is not the word for what these priests did – and the hunt for the perpetrators of 22,000 crimes against humanity must be brought to justice!

    Hypocrisy is too nice a word for this digusting lot. Where is the jail time? Cough up the perpetrators! Stop hiding your criminals, Pope Francis!

  2. I agree with “Atheist Max” wholeheartedly, though I am not an atheist. I support him releasing his rage over the priest-pedophile scandal. it should be called the five hyphen scandal, the priest-pedophile-hierarchy-Vatican-cover-up scandal.

    There are many so-called “liberals” in the Catholic Church who still minimize and downplay this horrible, atrocious scandal. For example, the otherwise enlightened, liberal theologian Hans Kung says it is the worst scandal in the Church since the Reformation. Kung is correct in searching for a historical context for this terrible scandal, but he does not go far enough, historically. I say, it is the worst scandal in the entire history of the Church!!
    But then, Kung is himself a celibate priest, has no children and no grand-children. How will he, even as courageous as he normally is, ever feel the pain of the victims and their families. He simply cannot! He does not!

    Pope Francis is doing a great job overall, but his first big mistake was to propose to move forward with the canonization of Pope John-Paul II. It was John-Paul who was utterly lax in his administration and allowed the scandals to go on as long as they have. It was John-Paul who allowed Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to escape to Rome and appointed him the rector of Santa Maria Maggiore, a plum, prestigious assignment in Rome. John-Paul will never be a saint in my eyes, though he was a great pope in his political accomplishments.

    Francis is basically a good man. But he still needs our help to govern wisely and to have the courage to think outside the conventional Catholicism box. Please, Brother Francis, no canonization and no “sainthood” for John-Paul. Please, educate yourself regarding the agony of the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests!

    Kenneth Kelzer, M.S.W.
    Licensed Clinical Social Worker
    (Former seminarian for the diocese of Sacramento)

  1. […] The Vatican is trying to reassure Catholics and the public that Pope Francis takes the clerical sex abuse crisis seriously in the wake of defensive comments Francis made this week, the first serious bump in the road for a pope approaching the first anniversary of his election with sky-high approval ratings. In an interview published Wednesday (March 5) with an Italian newspaper, Francis was asked about the scandal that has shaken the faith of many Catholics, especially in the U.S., and why he hasn’t fought back against criticisms of the church’s record. [Read more] […]

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