Pope must speak out in Ireland over child sex abuse by priests
Francis needs to go on the attack to expose and root out the years of assaults and cover-ups in order to restore the church’s moral authority
Pope Francis came to the papacy promising decisive action on the gravest challenge to the Catholic Church’s moral authority – the scandal of the rape and sexual assault of countless vulnerable children by the clergy, followed by inaction and cover-ups at the highest levels. Though considered progressive and enlightened on many issues, he has struggled to get a grip on it. His grasp has weakened further with the latest revelations of betrayal around the world, including a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that uncovered abuse by 300 US priests of more than 1,000 identifiable children, and possibly many more, over 70 years. The church was already reeling from the involvement of cardinals in the United States and Australia following claims of abuse and cover-ups, and the detention of an ailing former Australian archbishop, the most senior cleric convicted of concealing child sex abuse.
It has all prompted the pope to issue an unprecedented letter to the “People of God”, the first to his 1.2 billion global flock on the subject. The letter condemned the “crime” of priestly sexual abuse and its cover-up, demanded accountability, begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be involved in any effort to root out such behaviour. He blasted the clerical culture blamed for the crisis, with church leaders more concerned about their reputation than the children. “No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he said.
It was his strongest response yet, and for a reason – the scandals have the potential to undermine his pontificate. If he lives up to it, he could advance an agenda of church reform and renewal, but he gave no indication of concrete measures to sanction bishops guilty of cover-ups. Spokeswomen for a survivors’ organisation and a clerical abuse tracking website dismissed the letter as “too little, too late” and called for “more action, less words”.
To restore the church’s moral authority Francis needs to go on the attack to expose and root out abuse and cover-ups. The Vatican issued the letter before his trip this weekend to Catholic Ireland, where the church’s credibility has been damaged by revelations of such behaviour. There is criticism from some quarters because he will share a platform at the World Meeting of Families with cardinals who have questions to answer about cover-ups.
His host, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, says Francis has to speak frankly about the church’s past in Ireland and its future. The Vatican has said he is on the side of the victims. He will be under pressure to meet them and talk about the horrors they have endured. To make good the claim he is on their side, he should do both.