Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. has been full of positive messages and happy gatherings. However, the clergy abuse crisis still looms over his church. As Reuters noted, Pope Francis is visiting a country where the Catholic Church has lost members and money in the wake of countless clergy sexual abuse cases.
The Catholic Church's long history of sexual abuse by clergy is well-known. Too often, the church has responded to child sexual abuse with cover-ups and silence, traumatizing victims in the process. To add insult to injury, some Catholic diocese have adamantly opposed legislation that would extend the statute of limitation for childhood sexual abuse. Rather than cherish children as its savior did, the Catholic Church has all too often chosen to protect itself at the expense of childhood abuse victims.
The world noticed. In 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Committee Against Torture came down hard on Vatican representatives during two hearings on clergy abuse. Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of the Holy See, a report issued by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, criticized the Catholic Church for covering up clergy abuse at the expense of victims.
To be fair, the Catholic Church has taken steps to address clergy abuse. The Vatican's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Ireland's Hussey Commission, and and the USCCB's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People are examples of church efforts to address the clergy abuse crisis. In 2013, the Vatican announced plans to create a commission that would advise Pope Francis on how to counsel clergy abuse victims and prevent future abuse, according to the New York Times. This summer, Pope Francis launched a new tribunal section that will hear cases of bishops who failed to take action against clergy abuse. How successfully the tribunal will address clergy abuse remains to be seen, however.
While Pope Francis did touch upon the clergy abuse crisis during his U.S. visit, many observers feel that he did not go far enough. During a September 24th speech at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Pope Francis alluded to the clergy abuse crisis. While Pope Francis acknowledged the suffering caused by the scandal, he did not explain how the Catholic Church would confront the problem.
"I know that, as a presbyterate in the midst of God’s people, you suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members ... I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people."
The Pope's praise for American bishops in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal gave some people pause. During a September 23rd address to Catholic bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington D.C., Pope Francis praised the bishops for supposedly helping clergy abuse victims heal.
"I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice. Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful. I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated."How could Pope Francis be so naive? How could he ignore the countless bishops who covered up clergy abuse and abandoned victims? Where was the call for accountability, the acknowledgement of unethical behavior?
Advocates for clergy abuse victims were unhappy with Pope Francis' remarks. In a September 23rd statement, SNAP president Barbara Dorris was disappointed in Pope Francis over his praise for U.S. bishops.
"We're sad that Francis claims US bishops have shown "courage" in the abuse crisis. Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now. They offer excuses, exploit legal technicalities and hide behind expensive lawyers and public relations professionals, hardly the marks of courage.SNAP director David Clohessy accused Pope Francis of minimizing the clergy abuse crisis in a September 25th statement.
We're also sad that Francis can't bring himself to call this crisis what it is - not "difficult moments in recent history," but the continuing cover up of clergy child sex crimes by almost the entire church hierarchy."
"We’ve long sought better papal actions more than better papal words. We still do. But this degree of insensitivity is hurtful. It deters victims, witnesses and whistleblowers from reporting child sex crimes, known and suspected. When in 2015, even this pope minimizes and mischaracterizes this crisis - calling it “difficult moments” for instance – where’s even the hope, much less the evidence, of change? Why bother speaking up if even Francis sees the scandal only through the eyes of clerics?"John Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, told the Washington Post that the Pope's comments to American bishops were "bizarre".
"In reality, the American church hierarchy has treated clergy sex abuse victims as adversaries and enemies for decades ... His concern about how the abuse crisis has weighed on the bishops’ spirits, and his hope that all of their good deeds will help them heal from the crisis, reflects a profound misunderstanding of the role the church has played in this self-inflicted crisis."Several lawmakers gave Pope Francis the opportunity to show his commitment to stamping out clergy abuse. For example, Capital New York reported that New York Assemblywoman Margaret Markey urged Pope Francis to convince New York's bishops to support a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
Additionally, District of Columbia Councilman David Grosso urged the Catholic Church to support a statute of limitations reform bill. Earlier this year, Grosso introduced the Childhood Protection Against Sexual Abuse Amendment Act of 2015, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for the recovery of damages related to childhood sexual abuse. In a statement at the SNAP website, Grosso called on Pope Francis to hold bishops accountable for clergy abuse.
"In his prayer meeting with U.S. bishops yesterday, Pope Francis spoke of a 'generous commitment to bring healing'- this stance must extend to those who have suffered sexual abuse. I am calling on the Pope to hold the bishops of the Catholic Church accountable for abuse committed on their watch. It is past time for the Church to support better laws that protect children, expose predators, and punish enablers.Clergy abuse victims deserve more than a few kind words from Pope Francis. The Pope's U.S. tour represents a squandered opportunity to address the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Pope's visit could have been an opportune time to publicly acknowledge the church's failings and demonstrate remorse to victims. Understandably, victims and advocates are disappointed.
Earlier this year I introduced the 'Childhood Protection Against Sexual Abuse Amendment Act' to give child victims of sexual abuse more time to file a civil lawsuit against perpetrators. Our current laws unjustly protect predators, and too often the Church has opposed legal reform. If the Catholic Church is truly committed to healing and forgiveness, then it will support this legislation and efforts to protect children from harm."
9/27/15 UPDATE: On September 27th, Pope Francis met with childhood sexual abuse survivors and discussed clergy abuse in an address to American bishops. For more information, click here.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Vox: Pope Francis is doing more to fight sex abuse than his predecessors. That's still not enough.
Los Angeles Times: Abuse victims say Catholic Church must do more to atone for predatory priests
Love, Joy, Feminism: Pope Francis Presides over a Church Still Fighting to Keep Accused Sex Abusers from Going to Trial
Boston Globe: Pope Francis, the church sex abuse scandal is not over