Church Must Keep Clergy Sex-Abuse Reforms on Track

EDITORIAL: What is needed is a sensitive, transparent and systematic response to credible allegations.

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 24.
Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 24. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)
Pope Francis’ pledge to protect the Church from sexual predators and hold negligent bishops accountable rightly earned him praise early in his pontificate. He inherited a foundation of reforms first crafted under Pope Benedict XVI, including the Church’s stern zero-tolerance policy against abusers, clear legal processes for handling abuse cases, and a powerful willingness to meet with victims around the world.

But recent events suggest that Francis is on a steep learning curve in furthering these efforts. Victims’ advocates have been alarmed by his failure to secure his own reform initiatives, including a proposed tribunal for bishops accused of abuse or negligence that was scrapped in 2017. Critics have also pointed to the Pope’s decision to intervene in some high-profile cases and his inconsistent response to Church leaders accused of covering up abuse.

In January, public scrutiny of the Pope’s handling of abuse cases came to a head during his apostolic visit to Chile. On the eve of his arrival, a 2015 papal letter to the Chilean bishops’ conference was leaked to the media.

The letter referred to an effort by the Holy See to arrange for the resignation of three Chilean bishops, including Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, accused of shielding a priest who had an established history of sexually abusing minors. All three insisted on their innocence; Bishop Barros agreed to resign, but the others apparently did not. The plan was dropped, and the Pope promoted Bishop Barros, over the protests of Chile’s bishops.

The publication of the papal letter deepened local outrage over Bishop Barros’ appointment to the Diocese of Osorno. The Pope sought to defend his actions, telling a reporter, “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny.”

A day later, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a member of the Holy Father’s “Council of Cardinals” and perhaps the most trusted U.S. Church leader on abuse issues, drew a line in the sand.

“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” read the cardinal’s Jan. 20 statement.

It was a clear rebuke of the Pope and an acknowledgment that Francis’ remarks had damaged the Church’s credibility with victims and the public.

Still, the cardinal insisted that the Holy Father recognized “the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones.”

Pope Francis apologized for his remarks and thanked the Boston archbishop for his correction. And in the same news conference on the flight from Peru to Rome, Francis expressed deep respect for Pope Benedict’s courageous response to the clergy-abuse crisis and willingness to confront challenging problems, like the prosecution of the founder of the Legion of Christ and the reformation of the religious order he founded.

Indeed, Francis has moved ahead with reforms advanced by Pope Benedict, who directed dioceses across the world to remove priests facing credible accusations.

Pope Francis has met regularly with abuse victims, as he did during his Latin American trip. Of equal significance, he has taken action against bishops. Last year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) dispatched Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former head of the Vatican’s highest court, to serve as the presiding judge at a 2017 Church trial investigating abuse allegations that date back to the 1970s against Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam. The verdict of that case has not been disclosed.

But the Pope’s record has been uneven, and he has continued to face headwinds within the Curia. 

Cardinal O’Malley’s commission, which serves an advisory role, has lost two members, both sexual-abuse survivors, who had expressed frustration with the slow pace of reforms, and was allowed to lapse in December. Details regarding a new commission have not been released.

And thus far, Francis has failed to secure the adoption of the commission’s key contribution — a policy template for dioceses that do not have a systematic, proactive approach for safeguarding children, similar to the guidelines outlined by the United States’ bishops in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The commission has posted this template on its website, but it has not been circulated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has official responsibility both for handling abuse cases and issuing guidelines for protecting children and vulnerable adults, to dioceses across the globe — a move that would give this effort far more weight.

Last year, Francis appointed Cardinal O’Malley to the CDF, and that will likely give the Boston archbishop more clout on such matters. But the weak collaboration between the commission and the CDF also needs attention.

Safe-environment training and prompt evaluation and reporting of allegations outlined in the policy template are essential ingredients of successful zero-tolerance policy at the diocesan level.

The demanding standards of this groundbreaking work take time to master, and they have posed a challenge for Pope Francis, as well.

A case in point is his 2014 decision to reinstate Father Mauro Inzoli, who had been laicized by Pope Benedict in 2012. Later, Francis reversed that decision, after an Italian court found Father Inzoli guilty on eight counts of sexual abuse of children.

Francis expressed regret for that decision. His supporters have applauded his desire to show mercy for accused priests and his insistence on hard evidence. And, indeed, there may be good reason for many of his decisions that seem to betray a lack of consistency.

But such information is provided sparingly by the Vatican. Too often, the lack of information has resulted in incomplete or even grossly inaccurate media coverage and damaged the Church’s credibility.

Further, the recent furor in Chile over the Pope’s remarks underscores the need for clear, precise language when dealing with this challenging and often painful subject. Likewise, the Holy See should offer a timely and transparent account of the progress and outcome of high-profile cases.

Healing and institutional change within the Church demand a deep sensitivity to the experience of victims and a firm demonstration of the belief that the protection of children must come first, even when that duty threatens a bishop’s paternal bond with his priests or a pope’s sympathy for an episcopal ally.

Cardinal O’Malley’s statement showed that he has learned this lesson after decades of hard-won experience. He has been Pope Francis’ closest ally on this sensitive issue, and we hope his correction will hit its mark.

What the Church needs now is a sensitive, transparent and systematic response to credible allegations of child sexual abuse and episcopal negligence. Pope Benedict’s reforms must be defended and furthered within the Holy See, and the commission’s child-protection guidelines should be repeatedly endorsed by the Pope and circulated to every diocese. This is what real reform looks like.

Nothing less will do.