To many Roman Catholics worldwide, the very fact of senior bishops listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse and the pope condemning the evil in vivid language no doubt came as a shock. The main body of the church has long shifted away from the United States and Western Europe, and the faithful in Africa, Asia and Latin America have not yet confronted the blight of predatory clergymen and institutional deafness to the extent of Americans or Europeans.
That is likely to be the explanation given by the Vatican for the lack of concrete measures to combat the crisis after a meeting heralded as a mighty counterattack by hierarchy and its activist pope against the evil ravaging their church: The global flock needs to see and hear first, and the change must arise from their own episcopate, they’ll say.
It doesn’t wash.And not only because activists in the West are fed up with pledges of change in the 17 years since the Boston Globe revealed systematic abuse in the Boston diocese. The revelations have accelerated in recent years: the grand jury report from Pennsylvania of abuse by hundreds of priests over many years; a similar report from Illinois; nuns finally speaking out about what they’ve been subjected to.
As the revelations have escalated, so has the rhetoric. “Prepare for divine justice,” Pope Francis warned abusive priests at Christmas. “Ravenous wolves,” he called them in his speech to the Vatican gathering. But when it came to action, the talk was once again of changing hearts and minds, of changing a centuries-old culture.
It doesn’t wash because what is happening is not a personal moral lapse, to be treated as a sin to address through penitence and prayer, but a crime in which the church has been an accomplice. Priests who are credibly shown to abuse children should be thrown out of the pulpit and identified to civil authority; bishops who cover up their actions should be laicized and exposed, and the order to do so must come from the top, from the pontiff.
The church has always been harsh on matters of sex, whether demanding celibacy of its priests, condemning birth control or prohibiting homosexual sex. Once the pope publicly acknowledges that priestly pedophilia is prevalent, the shock will not be softened by deferring action. Pope Francis has demonstrated an admirable openness on many once-taboo issues, and his anguished remarks on the clerical abuse scandal no doubt come from the heart. But a malignancy whose primary victims are trusting children must be treated by immediate and radical measures, not by appeals or hand-wringing. The time for that is past.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES