Pope Francis called on the Catholic Church to take decisive action against sexually abusive priests, to bring offenders to justice, and to protect children, in his first remarks on an issue that dominated the papacy of his predecessor and is likely to loom large in his own reign.
But groups representing victims of clerical sex abuse dismissed his remarks as empty rhetoric and called into question whether he was really determined to tackle the scandals head on.
Pope Francis, who was elected just three weeks ago, discussed the sex abuse scandals – which have severely harmed the image of the Roman Catholic Church since the first revelations emerged in Boston in 2002 – during a meeting with Archbishop Gerhard Muller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department which investigates cases of sexual abuse and decides if priests should be defrocked.
"The Holy Father in particular asked that the Congregation, continuing the line adopted by Benedict XVI, act decisively in cases of sexual abuse, promoting above all measures to protect minors, help for those who in the past suffered such violence and the necessary procedures against those who are guilty,” the Vatican said in a statement.
It was vital to combat the scourge of sexually abusive priests in order to restore the “credibility” of the church, the pope said.
But victims of clerical sex abuse said they would judge the pope on his actions, rather than words.
“Kids won’t be helped by a 'continuation' of the tiny symbolic gestures taken by Pope Benedict. Kids will be helped by decisive changes. Thus far, Pope Francis hasn’t even discussed, much less adopted, even a single reform,” says Barbara Dorris, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
The group said Pope Francis had already called into question his credibility on the clerical sex abuse issue within the first 24 hours of his papacy, when he met Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, who resigned in disgrace amid allegations that he had covered up years of abuse by priests.
Victims’ groups said at the time that the encounter “rubbed salt into still festering wounds.”
Cardinal Law resigned as Boston’s archbishop a decade ago after being accused in dozens of law suits of failing to protect children from predatory priests. He moved to Rome and took up residence in an annex of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in the center of the city.
Pope Francis went to pray there on the morning after his election and met Law, although it was not clear if he knew the American would be present at the time.
“One of the first actions Pope Francis took was to visit perhaps the most high profile corrupt prelate on the planet, who remains a powerful church official despite having been drummed out of Boston for hiding and enabling crimes by hundreds of child molesting clerics,” says Ms. Dorris. “By visiting Law, the pope has continued to ignore – and thus encourage – heinous wrongdoing.”
But in other quarters, the pope’s remarks were hailed as timely and significant.
“By proclaiming this message so early in his pontificate, Pope Francis is sending a very strong signal to the world that he is willing to tackle the issue head on,” says Dr. Rebecca Rist, a historian of the Catholic Church and the papacy at the University of Reading in the UK.
“It also signals that Pope Francis is serious about his recent messages of reform and renewal in all quarters of the Church.”
Pope Benedict's legacy
Pope Francis’s predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, took steps to address the sex abuse scandal after being elected in 2005.
In 2009, he issued an apology to victims of abuse in Ireland, expressing “shame and remorse” for what priests had done to generations of children in their care.
He told Irish Catholics: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... it is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church.”
But many critics said he did not take enough action to defrock guilty priests and to discipline the bishops and archbishops who shielded them.
The church was widely accused of turning a blind eye to abuses and moving predatory priests to new postings where they continued to molest children.
Critics pointed out that Pope Benedict could have taken substantive action before he was even elected pope, because as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades.