Once again, the issue of sexual abuse on the part of clergy has emerged. Pope Francis has a long history of standing against such abuses. Recently, the Pontiff came out with, perhaps, his most powerful remarks to date.
In a letter sent on 28 December but released by the Vatican only on Monday, Francis said: “I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst.”
Since his election in 2013, Francis has taken some steps to root out sexual abuse in the church and to put in place practices to protect children. But victims’ groups say he has not done enough, particularly to hold to account bishops who tolerated sexual abuse or covered it up.
“The church recognizes the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests. It is a sin that shames us,” Francis wrote in the letter.
“I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst. Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to ‘zero tolerance’.
According to Breitbart, Pope Francis called for zero tolerance of the sexual abuse of children, telling Portuguese television that such crimes are “diabolical.”
Even if there were only one case of abuse in the Church it would be “monstrous,” the pope told host Maria João Avillez, “because priests and nuns are called to bring boys and girls to God while abuse destroys their lives.”
“A priest cannot remain a priest if he is an abuser,” Francis declared. “He cannot because he is either sick or a criminal.”
“A priest exists to guide people to God and not to destroy people in the name of God,” he said. “Zero tolerance. And it must stay like this.”
At the same time, the pope insisted that the phenomenon of abuse has nothing to do with the Church’s celibacy rule. “Then they come to you with questions, could it be that celibacy…? Nothing to do with celibacy,” he said, noting that abuse also happens in families where there is no celibacy.
“Abuse is a destructive thing, humanly diabolical, because in families there is no celibacy and it also happens,” he said. “It is a monstrosity for a man or a woman of the Church, who is sick in psychological terms or is evil, to use that position for his personal satisfaction. It’s diabolical.”
Francis, who has met victims of sexual abuse several times, both in the Vatican and on some of his foreign trips, said: “We join in the pain of the victims and weep for this sin – the sin of what happened, the sin of failing to help, the sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power.”
Anne Barrett-Doyle, founder of the US-based research and monitoring group BishopAccountablity.org, said in an email that the pope’s words were little more than rhetoric. “This pope keeps proclaiming zero tolerance but doesn’t enact it. He knows full well that church law contains no zero-tolerance provision. Zero tolerance is mere rhetoric. The sad fact is that the church still has not changed its system to make zero tolerance a binding reality,” she said.
Pope Francis, Anne Barrett-Doyle notwithstanding, is bringing up a powerful point and fostering awareness of this scourge on the Church. Action often starts with rhetoric and by consistently pounding this point, Pope Francis will be, hopefully, inspiring meaningful reform. Pope Francis is attacking two points. Many people will blame, what they see as, outdated celibacy orders. However, celibacy is part of the vocation, or calling, to the Priesthood. The basis of this is found in Matthew 19:12; “and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Clerics are to give up their sexual identities for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
More importantly, Pope Francis is lamenting over the fact that sexual abuse or misconduct hinders vocational development. Once the improper act is taken, the relationship between the young person and the Spiritual Advisor is never the same. Often complaints to the cleric’s superiors are met with indifference, silence, or an informal type of shunning, wherein the vocational process and steps are allowed to languish. Often lives are ruined or irreparably changed and damaged. Young men and women are sent into the world with no marketable skills and no survival skills that would shield them against scams and deceptions.
I applaud Pope Francis for, a least, acknowledging the problem. It does help, although Barrett-Doyle is correct in that it is not enough to simply raise awareness. Over the decades we have lost many good men who would have made exemplary Priests; one was a friend of mine who was lost in 9/11. How do I know some of these details? I experienced sexual misconduct from my Spiritual Director when I was pursuing a calling to the Priesthood.