Pope Addresses Sex Abuse Scandals, Urges Laypeople To Help Uproot Culture Of Cover-Ups

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter
  • Pope Francis responded to the Pennsylvania sex abuse report, condemning the clergy for their culture of clericalism and their failure to protect children.
  • Francis advocated for a church-wide effort to root out abuse, calling for the laity to help oversee that effort rather than leaving it to a small group of elites.
  • Advocacy groups criticized the letter as vague and too little too late.

Pope Francis responded to Pennsylvania’s sex abuse report Monday, condemning the church’s culture of “clericalism” and calling for laypeople to help root out abuse.

Francis issued the rebuke of what he identified as a widespread problem of entitlement and impunity among clergy in a letter to “the people of God.” He accused the church of showing “no care for the little ones” and urged “the active participation of all the Church’s members,” including the laity, in rooting out the culture of abuse and avoid the past mistakes of allowing only church hierarchy to oversee such efforts. (RELATED: Conservative Catholics Call For Purge Of Gay Priests In Light Of Sexual Abuse Scandals)

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.  We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis’s letter reads.

Francis also lambasted the culture of “clericalism,” saying that the attitude of unfettered privilege among clergy helped to perpetuate abuse.

“Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives,” he wrote.

“Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” the pope added.

He urged the involvement of the lay faithful in keeping the church accountable, preventing abuse and addressing instances of abuse and those who perpetrate it. He also called for the entirety of the church to “a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting” in order to orient the hearts of all faithful toward putting an end to all forms of abuse and elements of church culture that enable it.

Greg Burke, spokesman for the Vatican, said Francis’s response to the current sex abuse scandal is significant, as he labels both the abuses and their cover-ups as “crimes,” while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops referred to the actions listed in Pennsylvania’s report only as “sins and omissions.”

“This is a wake-up call for everyone,” Burke told The Associated Press.

Abuse survivors’ groups and advocates criticized the letter, which came in the wake of mounting pressure from Irish and U.S. faithful for Francis to respond unequivocally to abuse, as too little too late. Words without specific strategies were not enough, they said, in light of Francis’s past reticence to listen to sexual abuse victims in Chile and the fact that he retained several high-ranking church leaders on his personal cabinet who have been accused of covering up or implicated in abuse scandals, such as Cardinal George Pell and Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa.

“Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of Bishop Accountability, according to The AP.

The letter struck a particularly bitter chord with Irish victims advocacy groups, given the history of rampant child sexual abuse and rape committed by members of Irish Catholic clergy.

Other catholic leaders and lay faithful have responded to the sex abuse crisis by calling for a purge of gay priests, saying that aiming only at clericalism misses the mark. Those calling for the purge, led mainly by theologically conservative leaders like Cardinal Raymond Burke, point out that the vast majority of abuse victims are post-pubescent males and that there is evidence of a homosexual subculture among the clergy that both perpetuates abuse and silences those who try to bring it to light.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” Francis wrote. “The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”

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