POPE FRANCIS called for an “all-out battle against the abuse of minors, both sexually and in other areas”, in a speech on Sunday at the close of a conference on clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
More than 150 senior bishops and cardinals from around the world had gathered at the Vatican for the four-day Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church.
The Pope said: “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church; for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility. . . The Church feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.
“If in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — which already in itself represents an atrocity — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness.”
Pope Francis vowed to “combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission”.
Participants at the summit heard from survivors of child sexual abuse, and were told of the failures of the Church to tackle it. The RC hierarchy has been criticised for its lack of concrete action to address the issue.
Expectations of a culture change were high before the conference, after Theodore McCarrick, a former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, was laicised earlier this month over the sexual abuse of minors.
A list of 21 “Reflection Points”, formulated by various commissions and episcopal conferences, was handed out by the Pope to participants on the first day of the conference. They included drafting specific protocols to deal with bishops accused of abuse; forcing priests found guilty to leave the ministry; and establishing an easy, accessible way of reporting crimes.
The Archbishop of Malta, the Most Revd Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s senior sexual-abuse investigator, told a press conference on Thursday of last week that the 21 points were a “road map for our discussion”. He said: “It’s an understatement to say that they have to be taken seriously.”
On the third day of the summit, participants came together in a penitential prayer: “We confess that bishops, priests, deacons, and religious in the Church have done violence to children and youth. . . That we have shielded the guilty. . . That we have not acknowledged the suffering of many victims. . . That we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities.”
Vatican News reported that a survivor then told them: “What hurts the most is that nobody will understand you. That lives with you for the rest of your life. I now manage to cope with this better. I try to focus on the God-given right to be allowed to live. I can and I should be here. This gives me courage.”
Fr Federico Lombardi, who organised the summit, admitted that there had been some “resistance” from bishops. He said, however: “If we don’t commit ourselves to fight against these crimes, in society and in the Church, then we are not fulfilling our duty.”
At a press briefing on Sunday, Fr Lombardi announced four measures that the Vatican would introduce. First, the publication of a papal edict with rules and regulations about safeguarding minors and vulnerable adults within the Vatican; second, the distribution of a rulebook to bishops around the world, outlining their responsibilities in dealing with child sexual abuse.
Third, the creation of a task force that could be sent to regions that lacked the necessary resources or expertise with regard to safeguarding; and, fourth, a meeting between the organising committee of the summit and relevant members of the Curia to discern what further steps needed to be taken.
These measures were not enough for some critics and campaigners. Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks incidents of abuse in the RC Church, said: “Pope Francis’s talk today was a stunning let-down — a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful.
“As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the Pope instead provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before.”
Francesco Zanardi, the founder of Rete l’Abuso, the only network of clerical-abuse survivors in Italy, told The Guardian: “We’re being taken for a ride. We expected a concrete response, but nothing useful has come out of this. In this speech, the Church makes itself out to be the victim — but we are the victims.”