Pope Francis: All Must Help Root Out Culture of Abuse
In a letter addressed to the ‘People of God,’ the Pope responds to the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other recent cases of clerical sexual abuse and cover up by bishops. He calls on the faithful to conversion, prayer and penance.
Pope Francis has personally responded to the grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses by calling on “all members of God’s People” to help “uproot the culture of abuse” in the Church and urging “every one of the baptized” to “feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.”
In a letter addressed to the “People of God” published Monday, the Pope said with “shame and repentance” the Church authorities were “not where we should have been,” did not act in a “timely manner,” and failed to realize the “magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”
“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” the Pope wrote.
He noted that even though most of the cases in the grand jury report belong to the past, “we have come to know the pain of many of the victims” and have realized that “these wounds never go away.”
The grand jury report, published Aug. 14, identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests and efforts made by Church authorities to ignore or cover up the allegations between 1947 and 2017. Among those implicated is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years from 1988 to 2006.
The cardinal has said he did “everything” that he “possibly could” and that he “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
But Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, told CNN on Sunday that “many” of the cardinal's statements in response to the grand jury report “are directly contradicted by the Church's own documents and records.”
The grand jury report came amid a raft of other recent allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, including situations in Chile, Honduras and the U.K. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke suggested to reporters that the letter, simultaneously published in seven languages, has a broad audience, saying: “Pope Francis has written to the People of God, and that means everyone” (hear his full comments below).
The Pope wrote that “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.”
“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” he continued, adding that their “outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it.”
“The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands,” Francis said. “Mary’s song is not mistaken and continues quietly to echo throughout history.”
He stressed that the “extent and gravity” of what has happened requires “coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way.”
Francis noted the importance of prayer, fasting and conversion, which can “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that said ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”
The Pope did not share practical details on how to prevent future abuse, nor did he mention the words “homosexuality” or “bishop,” but said he was “conscious of the effort and work” currently being carried out to “ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.”
“We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future,” the Pope wrote.
He also warned against a “peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority” that tries to replace, silence or ignore the People of God.
“To say ‘No’ to abuse,” the Pope wrote, “is to say an emphatic ‘No’ to all forms of clericalism.”
The letter began with St. Paul’s words in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” and the Pope’s missive strongly asserted that all the faithful must be involved if the Church is to be “renewed from within.”
“Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change,” he wrote.
He closed by inviting the faithful to look to Mary to know how to move forward and called on the Holy Spirit for the “grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.”
In his comments to reporters, Burke said it is “significant” that the Pope refers to such abuse as “a crime and not only a sin” and that he “asks for forgiveness,” while acknowledging that “no effort to repair the damage done will ever be sufficient for victims and survivors.”
Burke also pointed out the Pope’s call for “greater accountability,” which is urgently needed “not only for those who committed these crimes, but also for those who covered them up, which, in many cases, means bishops.”
Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). These words of St. Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons: crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, 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. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.
1. If one member suffers …
In recent days, a report was made public that detailed the experiences of at least 1,000 survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately 70 years. Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless, as time goes on, we have come to know the pain of many of the victims. We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it, by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. Mary’s song is not mistaken and continues quietly to echo throughout history. For the Lord remembers the promise he made to our fathers: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite.
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. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. I make my own the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison — Lord, save us! (Matthew 8:25)” (Ninth Station).
2. … all suffer together with it
The extent and the gravity of all that has happened requires coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way. While it is important and necessary on every journey of conversion to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough. Today we are challenged as the People of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit. If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history. And this in an environment where conflicts, tensions and above all the victims of every type of abuse can encounter an outstretched hand to protect them and rescue them from their pain (Evangelii Gaudium, 228). Such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person: a solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption. The latter is “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14)” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 165). St. Paul’s exhortation to suffer with those who suffer is the best antidote against all our attempts to repeat the words of Cain: “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.
Together with those efforts, every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does. For as St. John Paul II liked to say: “If we have truly started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49): to see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.1 This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again” to every form of abuse.
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. 2 This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people.”3 Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by laypersons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “No” to abuse is to say an emphatic “No” to all forms of clericalism.
It is always helpful to remember that “in salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in the human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 6). Consequently, the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. In this way, we will come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel. For “whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.
Likewise, penance and prayer will help us to open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s sufferings and to overcome the thirst for power and possessions that are so often the root of those evils. May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled: a fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary; a fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of goodwill, and with society in general, to combating all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.
In this way, we can show clearly our calling to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” said St. Paul. By an attitude of prayer and penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation. Mary chose to stand at the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’ side. In this way, she reveals the way she lived her entire life. When we experience the desolation caused by these ecclesial wounds, we will do well, with Mary, “to insist more upon prayer,” seeking to grow all the more in love and fidelity to the Church (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 319). She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.
May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.
Vatican City, Aug. 20, 2018
1 “But this kind [of demon] does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
2 “Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Chile” (May 31, 2018).
3 “Letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America” (March 19, 2016).
[01246-EN.01] [Original text: Spanish]
Greg Burke's comments to the media: