The intense meeting between Pope Francis and victims of clergy sexual abuse in early July at the Vatican marked a new chapter in the Church’s response to the tragic scandal that has been part of Catholic life now for more than a decade.
Pope St. John Paul II worked in his last years to help the Church craft an adequate response to clergy sex abuse, even as he was criticized by some for the long delay in galvanizing the Church’s resources. He was aided in the reform process by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who, after becoming Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, moved swiftly to investigate and then punish Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, on charges of horrendous sexual abuse and misconduct and to implement international norms for dealing with cases.
Francis thus came to the papacy in March 2013 with a proven system in place for handling abuse, certainly in the United States. The result of the reforms in the United States has been striking as the annual audits of dioceses over the last years have shown a decline in new cases of abuse to the low single digits, a sea change from the early 2000s.
The question now to be asked is where the Church’s response goes from here, especially under Francis?
The pope certainly is continuing the efforts of the recent popes to deal with the crisis, but he has also put his own stamp on the Church’s pastoral approach to victims.
The pontiff is committed to following the laws of the Church in removing abusers as part of what he has repeatedly described as a “zero-tolerance” policy. In his homily at Mass with the victims of abuse at the Casa Santa Marta on July 7, the pope said, “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”
Francis referenced this willingness to act against bishops during his in-flight press conference returning from the Holy Land at the end of May.
And he moved sharply and transparently in removing the apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, when he was charged with sex abuse. Wesolowski was recalled by the Vatican, tried by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and laicized in June. He may also be extradited to the Dominican Republic or Poland. This was an unprecedented trial, and it is likely that similar steps will follow with other bishops in the future.
Institutionally, Francis assured the victims that the Church would “continue to exercise vigilance in priestly formation,” and that he is dedicated to developing better policies and procedures for the protection of minors and for the training of Church personnel.
“We need to do everything in our power,” he said, “to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church.”
Just as significant, Francis is determined to expand the Church’s pastoral care of victims. Last December, he established the Commission for the Protection of Minors and filled it in March with genuinely serious leaders in dealing with the crisis, including Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston and the Irish woman Marie Collins, who was abused as a girl. The commission will advise the pope on ways to improve the Church’s approach to the problem, with a particular eye on bettering pastoral care and concern.
One of the keys for Francis in this pastoral solicitude is to meet with victims, something certain to become a regular feature of Francis’ more expansive outreach. Pope Benedict XVI met six times during his pontificate with those who had been abused, including a session during his 2008 visit to the United States.
Francis, however, gave several days to the victims. He celebrated Mass for them, shared several meals with them and then spent almost 3 1/2 hours meeting with them one-on-one. Dismissed by the usual critics as a “publicity stunt,” the sessions were described by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, as “a very profound, spiritual and kind dialogue with a pastor.” Look for Francis to hold additional encounters, including one during his anticipated visit to the United States next year.
For average Catholics, the pontificate of Pope Francis is a renewed opportunity to tell the truth of what is being done to prevent abuse and especially to care for the victims. And the pope is showing the way in the need to redouble our commitment to resist what he calls “execrable acts of abuse which have left lifelong scars” and to promote healing for the abused. There are still many victims in need of our prayers and attention.
Matthew Bunson is OSV's senior correspondent.