Monday, March 18, 2013

Activists Urge Pope Francis to Confront Clergy Abuse

On March 13th, a Vatican conclave of cardinals elected Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first South American pope. Bergoglio, who now leads the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis, is the former archbishop of Buenos Aires. The new pope must now confront controversies over his old statements and policies, as well as his actions to come.

Pope Francis has drawn controversy because of his stance on LGBTQ issues. First, the New York Times reports that in 2010, before the Argentinian Senate was schedule to vote on a same-sex marriage bill, Bergoglio called same-sex marriage a "destructive attack on God's plan". According to the National Catholic Register, Bergoglio also condemned adoption by same-sex couples, warning that adoption legislation would "seriously damage the family" and constitute "an attempt to destroy God's plan".

Pope Francis has also come under fire for failing to confront Argentina's military junta during the 1976-1983 "Dirty War", in which the junta kidnapped and killed thousands of dissidents. The Vatican has defended the new pope against critics, insisting that the allegations are neither concrete nor credible. According to the Washington Post, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi dismissed the claims, calling them the work of "anti-clerical left-wing elements."

Controversies notwithstanding, Pope Francis now has an opportunity to show himself to be an honorable leader and heal the wounds of clergy sexual abuse. When the conclave elected Pope Francis, I immediately wondered how he would confront clergy abuse in the church. The Catholic Church has been mired in scandal over allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children, as well as cover-ups and inadequate responses to abuse victims. With his new position, Pope Francis has the power to address systemic corruption and usher in transparency and accountability. But will he? Clergy abuse activists and progressive Catholic groups want action.

Even before the conclave elected Pope Francis, activists were already reminding church leaders of their responsibility to clergy abuse victims. In a March 8th statement, DignityUSA executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke listed several areas in which the Catholic Church is in need of reform, including the "need to put accountability measures in place regarding sexual abuse and cover-up." Several socially conscious Catholic organizations endorsed the statement, including Catholics for Choice, Call to Action, CORPUS, Pax Christi-Maine, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and the Women's Ordination Conference.

Catholic activists are calling on the public to demand church accountability. Sigrid Grabmeier and the Germany-based Wir Sind Kirche ("We Are Church") have launched a petition calling on Pope Francis to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the global clergy abuse crisis.
"The Roman Catholic Church is in a deep crisis, not only in Rome but world-wide. The abuse scandals and their cover-up have led millions of people to doubt the path of the Catholic Church. Innocent people especially children have been victimised by priests and religious only to see their abusers shielded from justice and protected by the Church hierarchy.

The future of the Catholic Church depends on seeking truth, justice, and reconciliation for the grave crimes committed by Catholic clergy.  - An[d] it needs over all a reforming process that stops injustice, high-handedness and institutional centrism within the Church."
The two most prominent clergy abuse organizations in the U.S., Bishop Accountability and the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), have been advocating for church accountability in Rome. (As discussed in a prior post, SNAP and the Center for Constitutional Rights are involved in a pending International Criminal Court case against Vatican officials.) The two groups held a joint news conference in Rome on March 14th to discuss the new pope and the need for a fresh model for responding to clergy abuse.  In a March 15th press release, SNAP requested a meeting with Pope Francis and announced 20 "action steps" they would like Pope Francis to implement in his first 100 days in office.
"You have chosen as your namesake a man who was the one of the greatest reformers in church history, a figure whose memory is universally beloved because he stood for justice. Across the globe, as you know, tens of thousands of childhood survivors of sexual abuse by clergy – priests, nuns, bishops, seminarians and others - are by coming forward and demanding justice, accountability, prevention and transparency. We believe they are, by their courageous example, the “St. Francis” of the modern church.

Your predecessor met only a few times with a few carefully chosen victims in tightly choreographed settings, as he visited nations where this crisis had reached a fever pitch. We write today seeking a different kind of meeting – one in which our respective organizations – yours, huge and struggling, and ours, small and struggling – can begin to work together to safeguard children across the globe (not merely make gestures when forced to do so by external pressures).

Despite the differences we may have, we desperately hope we might be able – and you might be willing – to calmly talk with us about ways to better protect children from the devastating, lifelong effects of horrific childhood sexual trauma."
SNAP leaders have publicly urged Pope Francis to take a strong stance against clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. According to ABC News, SNAP national director David Clohessy asserted that the Vatican needs "a tough administrator who'll crack some skulls, shake things up and end -- once and for all -- the reckless, callous and deceitful coverup of heinous crimes against kids." Likewise, SNAP midwest director Peter Isely argued that Pope Francis must be a great reformer in the tradition of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. "Pope Francis must, as his very first act, decree the zero tolerance of sexual abuse of children by priests," Isely said.

From Bishop Accountability's perspective, Pope Francis' papacy had an inauspicious start. Shortly after his election, Pope Francis reportedly met with disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law, the Boston archbishop who resigned in 2002 due to a controversy over how he handled a clergy abuse crisis. Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Barrett Doyle called the meeting "a trult unfortunate first step on the pope's part," according to the Boston Globe. “Intended or not, the pope was sending a dispiriting signal to the victims and Catholics of Boston in particular.” However, Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that Pope Francis condemned Law during the meeting, a claim that Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica denies.

As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has a rare opportunity to address clergy sexual abuse and target systemic problems within the church that allow it to continue. I sincerely hope that Pope Francis use his papal power to bring about real change in the Catholic Church and foster a safe, just community of believers.

For additional news and commentary on the conclave election of Pope Francis, visit the following links.

Washington Post: US clergy abuse victims want new pope to take action against cardinals, release all files

RH Reality Check: Contradictions and Conservatism Muddle Hopes for Change Under Jesuit Pope

The Advocate: Pope Francis, Will You Accept Me?

Religion Dispatches: Note to the New Pope: Half of the World's Poor are Women


  1. It would be great for the new pope to clean house a bit, unfortunately it seems to be somewhat of a pipe dream. It still baffles me how anyone can remain a member of that organization.

    1. Hausdorff -- I was cautiously hopeful for Pope Francis, until I read about his track record in Argentina. Now, I'm more cynical. More to come in a future post.


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