ROME – Pope Francis acknowledged Thursday that the Catholic Church was slow to address the sex-abuse crisis, including its widely criticized but not publicly acknowledged practice of moving priests who had abused children to other churches instead of reporting them to the police. “The church’s conscience came a bit late,” he said.
The pope gave off-the-cuff remarks to a commission he created to tackle the issue, acknowledging the slow pace of church trials and an overall lack of awareness of the problem inside St. Peter’s walls.
“Pedophilia is a sickness,” Francis said. “Today one repents, moves on, we forgive him, then two years later he relapses. We need to get it in our heads that it’s a sickness.”
The pope announced that he would do away with Vatican appeal trials for cases where evidence of abuse against minors is proven. “If there’s evidence, that is final,” he said.
“Those who are sentenced because of sexual abuses against minors can indeed appeal to the pope and ask for a pardon, but I’ve never signed one of those, and I never will,” the pope said.
The pope’s rationale for doing away with an appeal process lies in his own experience. Faced with such a case at the very beginning of his papacy, he said he’d opted for “the more benevolent path” instead of defrocking a priest. “After two years, though, the priest relapsed,” he said, which became a learning experience.
According to a Vatican source, the pope was probably specifically referring to the case of Mauro Inzoli, whom he “definitively” defrocked earlier this summer. An appeal trial for Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex abuse in an Italian court, began Thursday.
The pope’s comments drew attention to his larger efforts to strengthen the church’s fight against abuse as advocacy groups have called for sweeping changes in its hierarchy.
Last week, the church recalled diplomat Carlo Alberto Capella back to the Vatican because U.S. investigators suspected him of crimes involving child pornography.
And earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican, was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offenses” and returned to his home country.
The Catholic Church in some countries, including in the U.S., put systems in place to protect children, and after he became pope, Francis created a reform commission to address sex abuse.
He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who inherited the clergy abuse scandal from Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, as president of the commission.
Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse, quit Francis’ commission in March because she thought that few of the changes they recommended were being implemented by the Vatican hierarchy. She said that this may be the first time the pope has addressed how the church handles priests. Some bishops moved priests accused of abusing children to other churches, allowing them to continue their abuse.
“The less denial there is, the more chance there is for change,” she said.
The pope’s defenders say he has made strides to hold bishops and priests accountable. Last summer, Francis issued a decree that diocesan bishops could be removed for failure to report suspected abuse.