Pope Francis gave some unusually direct comments on the Catholic Church's decades-long clergy abuse epidemic on Friday. Francis "personally ask[ed] for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children" in a short speech on Friday to a Catholic children's NGO. The remarks, according to the Vatican Radio write-up, were at least partially off script.
Although he has taken some steps to address the scandal, and the calls for church reform that it created, Francis has faced criticism from victim advocates for failing to fully address the child abuse epidemic in his first year as pope. Today's remarks could be, in part, an attempt to convince advocates that he takes the spiritual aspect of the abuse scandal seriously. Francis said:
I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children.
Francis didn't elaborate on what he meant by "sanctions." In March, however, the Pope appointed eight clergy and lay members of the church — including one senior cardinal known for taking a hard line on church abuse — to a committee designed to advise the church on steps and reforms needed to address the scandal.
At least one victim advocate group greeted Francis's remarks with caution. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Outreach Director Barbara Dorris urged Catholics to "be impressed by deeds, not words," adding, "until the Pope takes decisive action that protects kids be skeptical and vigilant." In a statement, Dorris added: "This may be the first time a Pope has talked of sanctions against complicit bishops. But that is all it is: talk."
Despite over a decade of focus on uncovering the clergy child abuse scandal, we still don't know the full scope of it, in part thanks to the Vatican's characteristic opacity on internal matters. But over the past few months, the Vatican has come under increasing international pressure to address the ongoing crisis.
In February, for example, the UN issued a report slamming the church for its failure to enact meaningful reform to address the scandal and its initial cover-up by those in the church hierarchy. The report said that the church had "not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children," and that it "adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators." The Pope defended the church's response by saying that “no one has done more” to fight child abuse than the Catholic Church.
The U.N. investigation was the first public questioning the church has faced from the crisis by an international body. As part of the investigation, the Vatican provided documents indicating that it had defrocked 384 priests in connection to child abuse — in the years 2011 and 2012 alone. Pope Benedict XVI was pope at the time of that defrocking. His record on handling the abuse scandal was mixed. While Benedict issued the first public Vatican guidelines for disciplining clergy suspected of abuse, those guidelines were too little, too late for many advocates. He also drew criticism for seeming overly defensive of the church in public remarks on the subject.