Vatican City • Pope Francis issued a letter to Catholics around the world Monday condemning the crime of priestly sexual abuse and its cover-up and demanding accountability, seeking to respond to new revelations in the United States of decades of misconduct by the Catholic Church.
Francis begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be involved in the effort to root out abuse and cover-up. He criticized the clerical culture that has been blamed for the crisis, with church leaders more concerned for their reputation than the safety of children.
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Francis wrote.
“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The Vatican issued the three-page letter ahead of Francis’ trip this weekend to Ireland, a once staunchly Roman Catholic country where the church’s credibility has been devastated by years of revelations that priests raped and molested children with impunity and their superiors covered up for them.
For Irish survivors, the letter was little more than strong words and recycled rhetoric that failed to acknowledge the Vatican’s own role in turning a blind eye to predatory priests and fomenting the culture of secrecy and cover-up that allowed the crimes to go unpunished.
“That culture was overseen by #Vatican & codified into its laws,” tweeted Colm O’Gorman, a prominent Irish survivor who is organizing a solidarity demonstration of survivors in Dublin during Francis’ visit. “He needs to name & own that.”
Priestly sex abuse was always expected to dominate the pope’s Irish trip, but the issue has taken on new gravity after revelations in the U.S. that one of Francis’ trusted cardinals, the retired archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused and harassed minors as well as adult seminarians.
In addition, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania last week reported that at least 1,000 children were victims of some 300 priests over the past 70 years, and that generations of bishops failed repeatedly to take measures to protect their flock or punish the rapists.
And it comes on the heels of Francis’ efforts to address a spiraling sex abuse scandal in Chile, which erupted during his problematic January visit. Francis has recently accepted the resignations of five of the 31 bishops who offered to step down over their disastrous handling of abuse cases.
In the letter, which was issued in seven languages, Francis referred to the Pennsylvania report but the Vatican stressed that its message was intended for a much broader, global audience. In it, Francis acknowledged that no effort to beg forgiveness of the victims will be sufficient but vowed “never again.”
Looking to the future, he said, “no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
Francis didn’t, however, provide any indication of what concrete measures he is prepared to take to sanction those bishops who covered up for rapists in their priestly ranks. Francis several years ago scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops, and he has refused to act on credible reports from around the world of bishops who have failed to report abusers to police or otherwise botched handling cases, and yet remain in office.
Francis also has kept on his nine-member kitchen cabinet a Chilean cardinal long accused of covering up for pedophiles, an Australian cardinal currently on trial for historic sex abuse charges and a Honduran cardinal recently implicated in a gay priest sex scandal involving his trusted deputy.
As a result, advocates for victims found his letter wanting.
“Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of the research group Bishop Accountability, which on Monday released a database of credibly accused or convicted Irish clergy.
What Francis should do to protect children, she said, is to order the Vatican to release the names of all priests who have been convicted under canon law of abusing minors.
Unlike the U.S. bishops’ conference, which has referred only to “sins and omissions” in their response to the Pennsylvania report, Francis labeled the misconduct “crimes.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said it was “significant” that Francis had used the term “crimes” and had called for accountability, “which in many cases means bishops.”
“This is a wake-up call for everyone,” he told The Associated Press, citing those in positions of responsibility for the church as well as Catholic laity.
It was the second Vatican response in recent days to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which has sparked a crisis in confidence in the U.S. Catholic leadership and led to calls for ordinary faithful to withhold donations.
Last week, Burke issued a statement calling the abuses described in the report “criminal and morally reprehensible” and said there must be accountability for those who raped children “and those who permitted abuse to occur.”
Subsequently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would ask Francis to authorize a Vatican investigation into the McCarrick scandal, since it was apparently an open secret in some Catholic circles that the cardinal regularly invited seminarians to his New Jersey beach house, and into his bed.
The Vatican hasn’t said if Francis would approve such an investigation. The question is delicate, given there is evidence that Vatican officials knew as early as 2000 of McCarrick’s penchant for seminarians, yet still appointed him as Washington archbishop and a cardinal.
The Vatican has long been loath to investigate its own, and any investigation into McCarrick that goes to the top would likely implicate St. John Paul II and his closest advisers. They have already been implicated in the decadeslong cover-up of one of the 20th century’s most notorious priestly pedophiles, the late founder of the Legion of Christ, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, but have never been held to account.