Pope Francis: ‘Uproot the Culture of Abuse’

Holy Father responds to U.S. crisis, but further action requested.

Pope Francis, shown during a gathering of Italian youth in St. Peter’s Square Aug. 12, issued an Aug. 20 letter to the People of God on the clerical scandals.
Pope Francis, shown during a gathering of Italian youth in St. Peter’s Square Aug. 12, issued an Aug. 20 letter to the People of God on the clerical scandals. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis personally responded to the grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses by sending a letter to “all members of God’s People,” calling on them 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.”

Days before the Holy Father’s arrival in Dublin, Ireland, Aug. 25, where he was expected to meet with victims of sexual abuse, the Pope said with “shame and repentance” that 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 in the Aug. 20 letter, and 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.

The letter followed an Aug. 16 Vatican statement that described the abuses in the report as “criminal and morally reprehensible.” It also said the Church “must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

The grand jury report came amid a raft of other recent allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, including in Chile, Honduras and the U.K., and the revelations of sexual abuse by the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke suggested to reporters that the Pope’s letter, simultaneously published in seven languages, has a broad audience, saying: “Pope Francis has written to the People of God, and that means everyone.”

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.”

Francis noted the importance of prayer, fasting and conversion to “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity.”

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 clericalism, saying that “No” to abuse means an “emphatic ‘No’ to all forms of clericalism.” 

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.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said in an Aug. 22 statement he was “grateful” for the letter and especially appreciated the Pope’s call for prayer and penance, saying such words “must provoke action — especially by the bishops. We bishops need to — and we must — practice with all humility such prayer and penance.” Such acts of faith, he said, “can move mountains and can even bring about true healing and conversion.”

On Aug. 16, the U.S. bishops’ conference called for a Vatican-led investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, new abuse-reporting processes when complaints involve bishops, and more effective resolution of future complaints.

“These goals will be pursued according to three criteria: proper independence, sufficient authority and substantial leadership by laity,” read the Aug. 16 letter.

In an Aug. 21 statement, members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said they were “encouraged” by the Pope’s words and thanked him for recognizing the “pain and suffering” endured by abuse victims. They also said they felt “supported” by the Pope’s call for zero tolerance and to make accountable those who perpetrate or cover up such crimes. Zero tolerance and accountability, they said, “are a prerequisite in safeguarding vulnerable people from abuse.”

Commission member and canon lawyer Myriam Wijlens said in the statement the Pope made a connection many do not wish to recognize, which is the link between “sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience.” She also noted that in order to achieve “the radical change of culture” needed to protect children in the future, the Holy Father had also highlighted that clergy in “humility” will have to request the involvement of the entire Church community. In comments to CNA Aug. 21, Wijlens said although Francis does not mention the words “bishop,” “superior” and “leadership,” it was implied. But “necessary conversion requires that these words find explicit articulation.”

“It is an important step in creating a culture of accountability,” she noted.

Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor and a former member of the Vatican commission, welcomed the letter but said in a tweet that she was “a little puzzled” by the Pope’s reference to “work being carried out” to make those who cover up abuse accountable, as “we have been told only the Pope can hold bishops accountable.” She said that “sadly” there was nothing to indicate a concerted “plan of action in this letter.”

Yet canon lawyer Father Joseph Fox disputed the assumption that nothing is being done to hold bishops accountable for their failures.

“Something can be done without any additional reforms,” said the Dominican priest, who is vicar for canonical services in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “Nothing prevents a victim or anyone else from reporting [episcopal] abuse, and this, in fact, happened when two U.S. bishops were accused of sexual abuse and removed in Palm Beach, and in Austria and Guam.

“The question now is: How can we do this better and make sure victims and whistleblowers know they will be protected and their allegations addressed in a transparent, accountable manner?”

Father Fox also emphasized that there may not be a one-size-fits-all response from the Vatican. “There are distinctly separate issues regarding what should be done in Chile, in the U.S.A., and what needs to be introduced into the legislation and practice of the whole Church. We should not be surprised that the Pope is not reporting all the steps of his efforts to address each aspect of the matter.”



Speaking to the Register Aug. 23, Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy said the Pope’s letter was “good as far as it went,” and it was obvious he was “trying to take seriously the crisis that has so engulfed” the U.S. Church, but he was concerned about the lack of any mention of the word “homosexuality.”

Noting that the 2004 John Jay Report into clerical sex abuse in the U.S. found that 81% of offenses were perpetrated against young teenagers and young men, he said “it seems to me the heart of the problem is actively homosexual priests and bishops.” If the Church is “really going to be rectified, this issue has to be brought up,” he said, and it must also involve not only priests and bishops, but also religious.

Father Weinandy, a member of the International Theological Commission who served as executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices from 2005 to 2013, said laity of all stripes are “tired of platitudes” and want action.

“I hope the bishops realize just how angry and upset the faithful are,” he said, and he urged a change in the relationship between bishops and the laity. “The bishops can’t continue to talk to the laity as if they’re unintelligent children who can be manipulated,” he said.

But he was hopeful that Cardinal DiNardo, in his leadership of the U.S. bishops, would act appropriately. “I have great confidence in his ability to work this thing through,” he said.

Robert Royal, director of the Faith and Reason Institute, said the Pope had written a “heartfelt letter” and “rightly suggests that the Church must now manifest its solidarity with all touched by this crisis.” He said it was also “necessary and right for a Pope to send a message in current circumstances.”

But he said the focus now needs to be on the hierarchy. “The McCarrick case shows breakdowns — and perhaps something worse. Denials by several of those responsible that they never knew anything are extremely hard to believe.”

“Sympathy for victims is right,” Royal said. “But we urgently need structural reforms that will hold bishops, archbishops, even cardinals responsible, whether they are abusers themselves or protectors of those in the Church who have perpetrated abuse.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.