VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has acknowledged that there is resistance by some national Catholic Churches on implementing measures to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy, but said there is no turning back on an “irreversible” path.
Sexual abuse in the Church and measures to combat it were among one of the many Church and international topics the 85-year-old pontiff discussed in an interview at his Vatican residence.
Pope Francis issued a papal directive in 2019 ordering “public, stable and easily accessible systems for submission” of reports of sexual abuse in dioceses around the world.
Some countries, such as the United States, established procedures, sometimes known as “listening centres”, even before the 2019 directive, but others, particularly in the developing world, have been slow to conform.
“There is resistance, but with each new step there is growing awareness that this is the way to go,” Francis said.
The Church’s abuse crisis exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up.
Patterns of widespread abuse of children were later reported across the United States and Europe, in Chile and Australia, undercutting the moral authority of the 1.3 billion-member Church and taking a toll on its membership and coffers.
“(After Boston) the Church started zero tolerance slowly and moved forward. And I think the direction taken on this is irreversible,” said Francis, who became pope in 2013.
In 2019, Francis summoned presidents of all the world’s bishops conferences _ the leaderships of the national churches - to Rome for a summit on sexual abuse. By the end of that year he enacted two major pieces of legislation.
The first instituted new reporting procedures and made bishops more accountable. It also broadened the definition of sexual crimes to include vulnerable adults and abuse of office in sexual molestation of seminarians and women.
The second was the removal of pontifical secrecy around abuse cases.
In February this year, the pope restructured the Vatican’s doctrinal department to give the disciplinary section that deals with sexual abuse cases more clout, putting it at a par with the doctrinal section.
In the interview, the pope said that the change in the doctrinal office was “going well”.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a US-based organisation that tracks abuse, gave the pontiff’s anti-abuse measures a mixed report card.
She called the two 2019 legislations positive and long overdue. But she said there was still far too much insularity in the Church and too little external oversight, including from lay Catholics.
“The problem is that the pope wants trust restored on his own impossible terms ... the Catholic hierarchy cannot self-police,” she said in an email, adding that “the twin crises of child sexual abuse and cover-up remain unsolved”.
“The burden of cleaning the Church remains the task of those outside the hierarchy -- the victims, whistle blowers, the public, the media, and civil authorities,” she said.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2022