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Pope Francis on Sexual Abuse: Part of Reforming the Church?

© FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP

Carly Andrews - published on 07/14/14

Papal conversation with founder of Italian online journal keeps issue in the foreground.

Pope Francis has been particularly vocal over the past week, but also throughout his pontificate, on the need for a radical reform with regards to the problem of clergy sexual abuse. Though the Church has made great strides in addressing the problem, the issue has left many wounds in recent years.  

On Sunday, Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the major Italian online journal La Repubblica, published the contents of a tète-a-tète he had with the Pope at Casa Santa Marta, in which the journalist quotes (informally) Francis’ heartfelt abhorrence of the “leprosy” of sexual abuse.

"The corruption of a child is the most terrible and unclean thing imaginable, especially since, as it is clear from the data that I was able to examine directly, most of these abominable cases happen within the family or in a community with old friends,” Scalfari quotes Francis.  
He also said Pope Francis asserted the Church’s fight against the phenomenon but admitted, “We too have this leprosy in house.”

Scalfari said Pope Francis revealed his discontent with the Church’s level of sexual abuse standing at what he says is 2%: “This finding should reassure me but I must tell you that it does not reassure me at all. On the contrary I find it terribly serious…I find this situation intolerable and I intend to tackle it with all the severity it requires.”

He said that Pope Francis particularly denounced the clergy involved in covering up abuse scandals, and that he referred to Jesus “using the stick to drive away the devil.”

"We do not judge, but the Lord knows and judges,” Scalfari quotes the Pontiff. “His mercy is infinite, but will never fall into a trap. If repentance is not genuine, mercy cannot exercise its role of redemption."

A week earlier, July 7, Pope Francis received victims of clerical sexual abuse at his home at Casa Santa Marta. Celebrating Mass with three men and three women from the UK, Ireland and Germany, he begged them for forgiveness and spent about half an hour with each, listening to their stories. He accused the abusers of “betraying their mission and profaning the very image of God” and thanked each of them for “shedding light on a terrible darkness in the life of the Church.”

Despite being dismissed by some as a mere media stunt, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi insisted on the contrary, describing it as a "profound spiritual encounter." Indeed, the whole meeting was intensely private, with no media access, and the victims’ identities remained protected.

Marie Collins, abuse victim and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors who accompanied the six, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that the Pope’s “one-on-one” with victims is a “win-win situation” because it is both “healing” for the survivors and “from the point of view of the clerical side, they learn more about the effects, and that can help in dealing with it.”

So are we witnessing a major reform in the life of the Church?

While Pope Francis’ actions to take the abuse problem head-on are both commendable and necessary, his work could better be described as a continuation rather than correction of his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

After the problem exploded in 2002 when a series of exposés were published in the Boston Globe, the US Bishop’s Conference issued a “zero tolerance policy,” introducing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In 2003, John Paul II stated "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." Benedict XVI also met with abuse victims and apoloized on behalf of the Church during a visit to Australia in 2008.


The Church has come under particular fire with regards to the various cover-up attempts at both the diocesan and episcopal levels during the second half of the 20th century, which is something that Pope Francis in particular has been extremely open and vocal in denouncing. On 26 May 2014 he likened clerical sex abuse of children to “celebrating a black mass,” and asserted the need for a “a zero tolerance approach.”

Restoration, Not Reduction

Pope Francis’ frankness and insistence on addressing the issue and any attempts at hiding the crime have done much in the way of journeying towards healing the wounds inflicted both on the victims and the Church herself. However it is important to remember, when talking about “reform,” that reform in the Church is not like that of a political or financial institution, because the Church is neither of the sort.

What’s so different about the Church? The answer is: the body of Christ.

Pope Paul VI wrote in Ecclesiam Suam: there can be no question of reforming the essential nature of the Church or its basic and necessary structure. To use the word reform in that context would be to misuse it completely. We cannot brand the holy and beloved Church of God with the mark of infidelity. We must consider our membership in it as one of our greatest blessings. It testifies to our spirit "that we are the children of God." No, it is not pride nor arrogance nor obstinacy nor stupidity nor folly that makes us so sure of being living, genuine members of Christ’s Body, the authentic heirs of His Gospel, the lawful successors of the Apostles. It is a firm faith, a joyous conviction. We hold in our possession that great heritage of truth and holiness which characterizes the Catholic Church of the present day, preserving intact the living heritage of the original apostolic tradition.”

He explains therefore, that when we say “reform,” rather than “to change” the nature of, we are concerned more “to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on His Church. Or rather, we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image, and that is at the same time consistent with its necessary, normal and legitimate growth from its original, embryonic form into its present structure.”

Pope Francis’ actions on the issue of sexual abuse may be understood in this light, namely, of continuing to strive—like his predecessor Benedict XVI—towards restoring to the Church this original image. 

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