In a moment of extreme contrition, Pope Francis begged forgiveness from victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic Church clergymen. The Pontiff delivered his message of guilt and sorrow on Monday in a homily at a Mass with adult victims of sexual crimes.
Cases of sexual abuse by members of the Church have been discovered in many American, European and Asian dioceses over the last few years. The Pope said that the abuses were unacceptable in the Church and that bishops would be held accountable for shielding those who committed sexual abuse. There is no place in the ministry, the Pope said, for these criminals.
The Church’s detractors have criticized its failure thus far in fighting against sexual abuse, and faulted the Pope for failing to meet with victims of sexual abuse earlier in this 16-month-long tenure as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. They responded to his statements on Monday by declaring that the Pope must follow up with swift and decisive action in order to prove that the Mass was not simply a collection of hollow words.
The Pontiff delivered his request for forgiveness to six victims of abuse during Mass at his residence next to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. This was the first time that Pope Francis had met with victims inside the Vatican. Two of the victims were from Germany, two from Britain and two from Ireland. After speaking with them collectively, he met with each person individually for at least 30 minutes. He called sexual abuse “a grave sin” and said that there was a need to make reparations on behalf of those who had “betrayed their mission” as members of the clergy.
Pope Francis, in begging forgiveness for sexual abuse, addressed a dark specter in the Catholic Church’s recent history. Sexual abuse scandals have steadily continued to tarnish the Church’s reputation as more and more of them came to light. The issue has affected local churches in Europe for over twenty years but was only brought to the fore in the United States about a decade ago.
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director at a website called Bishop Accountability, called the meeting a positive, if long overdue, step. The U.S. based organization documents cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She urged Pope Francis to discipline Church leaders who have enabled, either through negligence or outright cover-ups, the sexual abuse of children. Another American group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), made a similar statement on Monday, demanding that the Pontiff take immediate action to reveal and remove those who have committed and concealed heinous crimes against those who are the most vulnerable.
In late 2013, Pope Francis completely reworked Vatican law, broadening the scope of child abuse to include child pornography and child prostitution as well as sexual acts with children. He also made these crimes punishable by up to 12 years in jail. He then established a panel of experts for advising him on how best to tackle the issue of clergymen engaging in the reprehensible behavior.
Support groups for victims of sexual abuses were especially upset with Pope Francis when he stated earlier this year that the Catholic Church had done more than any other organization to uncover and expunge pedophilia within its ranks. According to the Vatican, officials have investigated 3,420 credible cases of sexual abuse in the last decade, and 824 clerics have been defrocked for their actions. The Church’s United States division has doled out $2.5 billion in compensation payments to victims.
Pope Francis’s efforts in begging forgiveness from victims of sexual abuse by Church leaders was a significant step on the “path of healing and reconciliation,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi. However while the Holy See’s statements represent a necessary measure in eradicating sexual abuse in the Church, the Pontiff’s critics now will judge him not by the contrition of his words but by the conviction of his actions.
By Yitzchak Besser