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Pope Francis voices shame over child sex abuse

Christopher Lamb in Rome - The Tablet - Wed, Aug 29th 2018

Pope Francis greets a young child in St Peter's Square, Rome 
Photo: Mauro Fagiani / IPA/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

The Pope wrote ahead of his trip to Ireland, and in response to the devastating Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania

Pope Francis has expressed his shame over the Church’s mishandling of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and has vowed to create a culture that prevents any future crimes against children being covered up. 

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote in a letter to the entire People of God and released by the Vatican on the 20 August.  

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

The Pope issued his letter days ahead of his 25-26 August trip to Ireland, and in response to a devastating Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania which detailed the abuse of 1,000 children in six dioceses along with multiple cover-ups by bishops. 

Running to just under 2,000 words, Francis’s letter calls for a “personal and communal” conversion from the Church, a “penitential exercise of prayer and fasting” by the laity and the implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse along with accountability for those who mishandle abuse complaints. 

“We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary,” the Pope writes. “Yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future."

His letter received a mixed reaction from one abuse survivor, Marie Collins, who tweeted: “Statements from the Vatican or [the] Pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable.”

She added: “Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable. That is what we want to hear. ‘Working on it’ is not an acceptable explanation for decades of ‘delay’."

Mrs Collins, who is from Ireland, was a member of a papal commission on child protection but resigned last year in frustration at the slow pace of reform inside the Vatican. 

In his letter Francis did not use the word “bishop” in the letter or offer detailed proposals about episcopal failures over abuse despite this becoming a focal issue in recent weeks. Bishops in Chile, Australia and the United States have all been in the line of fire this summer for their handling of abuse complaints while the Pennsylvania grand jury report details widespread failure by bishops to protect children from abusive priests. 

One prelate facing intense pressure is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington and a papal ally, whose handling of three cases while Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2006 was criticised in the Pennsylvania report. The 77-year-old cardinal has pulled out of attending the World Meeting of Families in Dublin – which the Pope will attend this weekend – but has strongly denied he covered up abuse.  

Following the letter’s release today Greg Burke, the Director of the Holy See Press office told journalists that the Pope writes that “greater accountability is urgently needed - not only for those who committed these crimes but for those who covered them up, which in many cases means bishops.” 

In his letter Francis admits that “no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient” for victims and expresses “shame and repentance” that the Church was “not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”

Clericalism, the Pope went on, was at the root of the crisis with Francis arguing that abuse of power and sexual abuse go hand in hand. 

“Whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives,” the Pope writes. 

“This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred.”

Mrs Collins welcomed the reference to clericalism which she said “is good to see as it plays a big part in the ignoring of the laity, survivors and experts.”

In an attempt to bring the whole Church together to address the sex abuse crisis, the Latin American Pope says he wants “the entire holy faithful People of God” to undertake a period of prayer and fasting. 

“This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse,” Francis writes. 

“Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.”

The Pope is also aligning himself with the words of Benedict XVI – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who in 2005 talked about the “filth” in the Church.  

“How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]!” the cardinal wrote in a Good Friday stations of the cross meditation. “How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie Eleison – Lord, save us!”

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