Pope Francis told the media in his first general audience (which I attended) that he deliberately selected his papal name as a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, who received visions of Jesus telling him to “rebuild my Church.” Today, the new pontiff made clear what he intends to do in fulfilling that mission among others, at least in part. Reuters and CNN report today that Pope Francis made it clear to his doctrinal chief that he expects “decisive action” against clergy who have abused their trust and power in order to put an end to the sex-abuse scandals that have dogged the Catholic Church for two decades:
Pope Francis has told the Vatican to “act decisively” against sexual abuse and carry out “due proceedings against the guilty,” the Vatican announced Friday.
Francis last month took the helm of a Roman Catholic Church that has been rocked in recent years by allegations of priests sexually abusing minors.
Francis recommended that the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty,” the Vatican said.
The statement does not specify who “the guilty” are.
Francis didn’t take long to address the problems that the church’s earlier responses to the abuse scandals have created for its credibility:
Francis, in a meeting with the Holy See’s doctrinal chief, Archbishop Gerhard Muller, had declared that combating sexual abuse was important “for the Church and its credibility”, a statement said.
Francis inherited a Church mired in problems and a major scandal over priestly abuse of children. It was believed to be the first time Francis had taken up the issue of sex abuse with a senior member of his staff since his election on March 13.
Muller is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department which includes the office of the “promoter of justice”, or sex crimes prosecutor, which investigates cases of sexual abuse and decides if priests are to be defrocked.
Francis said the department should continue to “act decisively as far as cases of sexual abuse are concerned, promoting, above all, measures to protect minors, help for those who have suffered such violence in the past (and) the necessary procedures against those who are guilty,” a statement said.
It said the pope wanted Catholic bishops around the world to promote and put into place “directives in this matter which is so important for the witness of the Church and its credibility”.
Well … amen. Over the last decade, the Vatican has put into place new processes and standards for removing priests who commit abuse, although some of that has taken place under the radar. They now require training for all people, lay or clerical, who plan to minister to anyone considered potentially at risk, and have already cracked down on abusers.
This takes the scandal issue to a new level of visibility, though. Clearly, Pope Francis wants to establish more firmly that the Roman Catholic Church has learned hard lessons over the last couple of decades and is ready and willing to apply them. In a sense, this is also an example of Francis’ stress on simplicity. While the Vatican may have tried to offer a nuanced public approach in the past that balanced the need of action as well as due process, Francis seems to be cutting through the issue with a simple declaration that the “guilty” won’t be sheltered or tolerated within the ranks, period. That assumes due process, but explicitly puts the priority of the church on the protection of children and assisting the victims of abuse.
This example of simplicity and pastoral care shows true strength and character of both.