Pope Francis and Reform: Clergy Sexual Abuse

Part 1 of a five-year assessment of the papacy

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a Register assessment of the Pope’s efforts to reform the Vatican.


VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis was elected largely on the basis of reforming the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse and streamlining a Vatican beset with financial scandals, bureaucratic inefficiency and waste.

So as the Holy Father approaches the fifth anniversary of his pontificate, how has he fared in these areas?

When it comes to reforming the Vatican’s handling of clerical sex abuse, the verdict is mixed. Francis has created two important advisory groups and sought to improve communications, processes and accountability, but concerns have arisen over his own personal leniency, interference and inaction regarding individual cases.

“Sexual abuse is an element of shame for the Church, so we cannot speak of ‘progress’ because the goal is total eradication,” said Paloma García Ovejero, vice director of the Holy See Press Office. “In this sense, Pope Francis has made great steps forward.”

García cited the establishment in 2014 of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, followed in 2016 by the Pope’s motu proprio As a Loving Mother, which sought to make bishops more accountable and address one of the most damaging aspects of the sexual-abuse crisis: the covering up of cases by the hierarchy.

She also highlighted a soon-to-be-launched International Survivor Advisory Panel, which will offer advice on abuse prevention from the survivor’s perspective, as well as the Pope’s own “personal pastoral care,” which she specified as: “listening to victims privately; asking for forgiveness in public; denouncing those who commit abuses; expelling the guilty.”

“In short,” García added, “the pontificate of Pope Francis faithfully follows the path marked by Benedict XVI: zero tolerance — victims first.”

A Vatican source involved in the reform told the Register on condition of anonymity that he gave the Holy Father “a lot of credit for these reforms,” adding that he has “put advisory groups in place where he can get real experts in the field to actually come to Rome and who can be consulted in between times.”


Father Zollner

As well as establishing the pontifical commission, the Holy Father has also “continued to strengthen the mission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF),” said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection, an organization set up under Benedict XVI in 2012 to provide educational resources for those working to safeguard minors.

Father Zollner, who is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, highlighted the importance of As a Loving Mother in enhancing the Vatican’s relations with bishops.

“We are focusing on two areas with them: strengthening their guidelines for protecting minors and on education,” he said, adding that commission members have conducted about 250 workshops on “intervention and prevention” for bishops’ conferences, religious, priests, teachers, Vatican officials and Church personnel throughout the world.

“From my point of view, this has put the sexual abuse of minors by clergy on the agenda of the Catholic Church worldwide, in a qualitatively different way compared to the situation in 2012,” he said. “This is a topic that can no longer be dismissed, and I see encouraging developments, especially in countries that I have visited and where I have seen progress over the last few years.”

Recently, the Pope allowed the pontifical commission to lapse after its members’ terms ended last year. But Feb. 17, he appointed nine new men and women, including Teresa Kettelkamp, a former executive director of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He also reappointed seven previous members, as the commission had recommended. Victims of clerical sexual abuse were also included among the members.

In a statement, the commission said the new international scope of the new members would reflect the “global reach of the Church” and the need to safeguard structures “in diverse cultural contexts.” It also stressed that it would continue a “victim/survivor first” approach.



That emphasis was notable for the fact that Pope Francis has been criticized for showing unjust preferential treatment toward some clergy and bishops at the expense of victims.

The Holy Father recently came under fire for defending Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, whom he appointed to a diocese in 2015 despite allegations he had been a witness as a young priest to abuse committed by convicted sexual abuser Father Fernando Karadima.

During his trip in January to Chile and Peru, the Pope said he had seen no evidence against the bishop and said the bishop’s accusers were guilty of calumny. It later emerged that in 2015 Francis had been given a letter from one of the victims detailing allegations against Bishop Barros.

Another case concerns Italian Father Mauro Inzoli, who was laicized after being found guilty in 2012 of abusing boys in the confessional. At the request of the priest’s friends, including Italian Curial Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, Francis in 2014 restored his priestly functions and reduced his penalty to a lifetime of prayer and a promise to stay away from children.

Police later reopened a case in 2016 against Father Inzoli, resulting in his imprisonment, after evidence came to light of more than 100 episodes of abusing boys aged 12-16. The Vatican then held a new canonical trial, which resulted in his laicization in June 2017.

The Associated Press reported last year that, at the request of Curial officials, the Pope has made similar acts of clemency to “several” other priests under canonical sanctions imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery usually charged with overseeing such cases.

The Pope also has come under criticism for his decision to personally appoint Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels to the two Synods on the Family, despite the cardinal's involvement in covering up an abuse case in 2010

He has also taken no concrete action regarding Honduran Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda, following accusations given to a papal investigation last year that the bishop had abused at least two seminarians and squandered large amounts of money.

The Pope is further accused of being too slow in acting on a request from deaf and mute children at a school in Italy who were abused by Father Nicola Corradi. The priest was left in the school for three years until Francis eventually referred the matter to the Italian bishops rather than heeding the victims’ request for an independent investigation.  

“These cases in which the Pope became personally involved call into question his commitment to eradicating clerical sex abuse,” a senior prelate told the Register Feb. 20. “Too often, no disciplinary action is taken, or it is too lenient.”

Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse and a former member of the commission, told the Register she believes the reforms in this area as a whole are “too slow, too limited, and that a great deal more radical change is needed.” Complaints have also been made that a tribunal the Pope proposed to try bishops accused of covering up or committing abuse was later abandoned, although one official close to the issue said it was never a specific proposal.


Lessons Learned

Father Zollner said the Pope has gone on record saying he followed the advice of the local bishop with regard to the Inzoli case, has “learned from this” and would never pardon such priests in the future.

He also said the Holy Father has “learned much” from the Bishop Barros case, pointing out that he has sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — who formerly served under Benedict XVI as the CDF’s procurator of justice, in charge of allegations of sexual abuse — to investigate.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said in January that the Pope’s comments on Bishop Barros had caused “great pain” to abuse victims. But he declined to respond to Register enquiries for comment about clerical sex abuse, directing such questions to the Vatican instead.

Father Zollner pointed out that Francis has written the preface to a book by abuse victim Daniel Pittet and regularly meets with victims.

“One can see that his heart goes out to them, and this does so much good for them, as they themselves have shared,” he said.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until last July, insisted the Pope “has fully and completely accepted and continued the policy of the so-called zero tolerance of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

There is “no alternative,” he told the Register, and he added that those who have praised Pope Francis “beyond measure” but are now “campaigning against him” on this issue are being “mendacious and unfair.” The Pope, he added, “is the representative of Christ and has always earned our highest respect. Above us all, only Christ is the judge.”

But Cardinal Müller was critical of the Pope’s decision to dismiss many officials of the CDF “for no reason, against my express will.” He was referring to at least three CDF officials the Pope gave marching orders to in 2016, two of whom had been assigned to disciplinary cases concerning abuse.

Noting the complaint of slowness in the Vatican’s handling of these cases, the cardinal said: “You cannot part with your best horses and at the same time demand the carriage goes faster. The laws of logic and physics are also valid in the Church.” The CDF, he said, “needs more canonically well-educated priests with different languages ​​who can perform the procedures in a timely manner.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.