Last week Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the damage done to children who have been abused by members of the clergy and asserted that sanctions must be imposed to tackle the problem of child abuse within the Church. It is the first time a pope has ever taken personal responsibility for the abuses committed by the Church’s priests.
In a speech made during a meeting with the International Catholic Child Bureau, a non-governmental child rights group, Pope Francis stated, “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 statement is being described as Pope Francis’ strongest stance on the issue thus far. It comes after a scathing United Nations report lambasted the Vatican earlier this year for failing to protect children from child abusers within its ranks and for turning a blind eye or covering up cases of molestation and rape over the decades.
Measures taken by the Church to stop child abuse
The Vatican confirmed in January that Pope Benedict XVI had defrocked almost 400 priests in a two-year period due to child abuse allegations. Since taking over the papal office Pope Francis has vowed to continue the changes instigated by his predecessor.
To support this promise, in December 2013 Pope Francis announced the creation of a Vatican commission that would recommend practices to combat clerical sexual abuse and organize help for victims. Pope Francis also strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse last year by specifically including child prostitution, sexual violence, sexual acts with children and indecent images of children in a broader definition of ‘crimes against minors’.
Despite these efforts, the Vatican continues to be accused of inadequately addressing the long-standing problem within the Church, the toll it has taken on victims and for failing to hold priests accountable for the crimes they have committed.
During an interview last month with an Italian newspaper called Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis defended the Church’s response to child abuse allegations saying, “No one else has done more [to tackle child sexual abuse]. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked.”
U.N. report demands more action from Vatican
Pope Francis’ defense of the Church continued in the Vatican’s reaction to a report released earlier in the year by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which argued the Vatican had “systematically” adopted policies that enabled priests to molest and rape tens of thousands of children worldwide over the course of decades.
The U.N. report was the product of an intense grilling of Holy See representatives by the U.N. Committee in Geneva on January 16, 2014.
Calling for priests who have abused children to face civil prosecution and justice, the report urged the Vatican to “immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes.”
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who headed the Holy See delegation to the U.N. meeting in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that the Committee was trying to interfere in the freedom of religion and the Church’s moral teachings. He added that the Committee had not taken into account the actions the Vatican has taken to remedy the problem of child abuse and to protect children in the future.
“The Holy See presented the concrete measures taken both at the level of the State of Vatican City and of the Church at large, taking into account that priests are not employees of the Pope but they are responsible citizens of the countries where they work and therefore accountable to the judicial system of those countries.”
Pope Francis’ year in office
Reacting to the U.N. report, Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told the BBC that the report “reaffirms everything we’ve been saying. It shows that the Vatican has put the reputation of Church officials above protection of children.”
“Church officials knew about it and they refused to stop it. Nothing has changed. Despite all the rhetoric from Pope Francis and Vatican officials, they refuse to take action that will make this stop.”
Since taking office just over a year ago, Pope Francis has been praised for his humble messages of inclusion and caring, becoming a beacon of hope for the revitalization of the Catholic faith and a Church described as out of touch with the modern era.
His easing of rigid doctrines and emphasis on helping the poor and dispossessed earned him the title of Time magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year. Perhaps equally telling of the high praise he has received, a popular LGBT magazine called The Advocate named Pope Francis their 2013 Person of the Year.
As such, the issue of child abuse within the Church and the Vatican’s perceived inadequate response to the problem represents a significant blight on Pope Francis’ record thus far.
Unfortunately, just as victims of abuse face long roads to recovery, it will likely be years before concrete evidence of positive change and healing within the Church can satisfy either critics or victims.