Pope says church was late fighting abuse, promises ‘zero tolerance’

| Carol Glatz | September 21, 2017 | 6 Comments

Pope Francis listens as Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks during an audience with commission members at the Vatican Sept. 21. The pope told commission members that the church was late fighting abuse, and he promised a policy of zero tolerance for abusers. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, handout

 Pope Francis has endorsed an approach of “zero tolerance” toward all members of the church guilty of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults.

Having listened to abuse survivors and having made what he described as a mistake in approving a more lenient set of sanctions against an Italian priest abuser, the pope said he has decided whoever has been proven guilty of abuse has no right to an appeal, and he will never grant a papal pardon.

“Why? Simply because the person who does this (sexually abuses minors) is sick. It is a sickness,” he told his advisory commission on child protection during an audience at the Vatican Sept. 21. Members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, including its president — Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston — were meeting in Rome Sept. 21-23 for their plenary assembly.

Setting aside his prepared text, the pope said he wanted to speak more informally to the members, who include lay and religious experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, theology and law in relation to abuse and protection.

The Catholic Church has been “late” in facing and, therefore, properly addressing the sin of sexual abuse by its members, the pope said, and the commission, which he established in 2014, has had to “swim against the tide” because of a lack of awareness or understanding of the seriousness of the problem.

“When consciousness comes late, the means for resolving the problem comes late,” he said. “I am aware of this difficulty. But it is the reality: We have arrived late.”

“Perhaps,” he said, “the old practice of moving people” from one place to another and not fully facing the problem “lulled consciences to sleep.”

But, he said, “prophets in the church,” including Cardinal O’Malley, have, with the help of God, come forward to shine light on the problem of abuse and to urge the church to face it.

Typically when the church has had to deal with new or newly emerging problems, it has turned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to address the issue, he said. And then, only when the problem has been dealt with adequately does the process for dealing with future cases get handed over to another dicastery, he added.

Because the problem of cases and allegations of abuse are “grave” — and because it also is grave that some have not adequately taken stock of the problem — it is important the doctrinal congregation continue to handle the cases, rather than turning them over directly to Vatican tribunals, as some have suggested.

However, he said, the doctrinal congregation will need more personnel to work on cases of abuse in order to expedite the “many cases that do not proceed” with the backlog.

Pope Francis told commission members he wants to better balance the membership of the doctrinal team dealing with appeals filed by clergy accused of abuse. He said the majority of members are canon lawyers, and he would like to balance out their more legalistic approach with more members who are diocesan bishops and have had to deal with abuse in their diocese.

He also said proof that an ordained minister has abused a minor “is sufficient (reason) to receive no recourse” for an appeal. “If there is proof. End of story,” the pope said; the sentence “is definitive.”

And, he added, he has never and would never grant a papal pardon to a proven perpetrator.

The reasoning has nothing to do with being mean-spirited, but because an abuser is sick and is suffering from “a sickness.”

The pope told the commission he has been learning “on the job” better ways to handle priests found guilty of abuse, and he recounted a decision he has now come to regret: that of agreeing to a more lenient sanction against an Italian priest, rather than laicizing him as the doctrinal team recommended.

Two years later, the priest abused again, and Pope Francis said he has since learned “it’s a terrible sickness” that requires a different approach.


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  • Denny Block

    Ah, the “different approach” is to not protect the these priests but send them to jail. Pope’s promise to fix this? Yada, yada, yada, I’ve heard it all before over the last 10+ years. I’m not holding my breath, tired of the broken promises.

    • Mary Mahoney

      Denny, I totally agree! I have my own zero tolerance policy…I give zero money to the Church until they actually fix this. I refuse to support such crimes and Jesus would agree with me

      • Charles C.

        I’m curious. What does “Fixing it” mean to you?

    • Charles C.

      How are we doing in getting rid of active homosexual priests and bishops? That would help some.

      • Mary Mahoney

        Has that been something they are working on? That would take out 70% of the priests. What would also help is to get rid of the pedophile priests and bishops. When you say ‘get rid of’, I think you mean turn them over to the police instead of moving them on to abuse more kids.

        • Charles C.

          Dear Mary Mahoney,

          Thanks for asking for that clarification. You’re right, at least in part. Turning actively homosexual priests over to the police would not accomplish anything, sodomy is no longer a crime prosecuted in this country. They could, however, be as removed from the priesthood as Canon law allows. As homosexual activity is sinful, if not criminal, appropriate penance should be imposed.

          Sex with minors? Sure, call the police.

          There’s a huge overlap between priests who abuse minors and homosexually active priests. Just one more problem for Mother Church to deal with.

          Oh, about your first question. There was an order to identify homosexual priests while they were still in seminary and encourage them to find other ways to serve. I don’t know much about the current status of that program.

          Getting rid of active homosexual priests? My guess is that it only happens when too much negative publicity is attached to a particular individual.