Since 2001, when Pope John Paul II first apologized for sexual abuses committed by members of the Catholic clergy, new revelations of allegations and their cover-ups have compelled shows of contrition again and again.
But this week’s formal apology from Pope Francis, his third since 2015, stood out for being the first to address to all Catholics around the world and, more importantly, for its tone.
In contrast to past glossing over of the scale of the Church’s complicity, his 2,000-word letter – which followed the release of a Pennsylvania grand-jury report that found a cover-up of abuses by more than 300 priests against more than 1,000 minors – seemed to take ownership. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them” Francis wrote, vowing to “create a culture” that would prevent both the abuses and “the possibility of their being covered up.”
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That message should not still need to be heard, yet it evidently does: Last week the Catholic League, a pro-Church lobby in the United States, replied to the Pennsylvania allegations by saying “there is no ongoing crisis – it’s a total myth.”
But if Francis deserves credit for challenging such attitudes, he also must confront his own failure to uproot what he now calls “this culture of death.” Meaningful as his words may be, it’s time for details of reform that are lacking from them.
He might start, low bar though it is, by cutting ties with members of his inner circle wrapped up in the scandal, such as a Chilean cardinal accused of covering up for pedophile priests.
And systemically, the Vatican might institute its own investigative tribunal to prosecute senior clergy members for cover-ups, which Francis previously proposed but abandoned.
Encouragingly, there may be growing pressure from within the Church’s leadership to take such actions.
“It is not enough just to say sorry,” the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said in response to the latest apology. “Structures that permit or facilitate abuse must be broken down and broken down forever.”
Francis, as it happens, will be in Ireland this weekend. Seizing the occasion to show he is heeding the Archbishop’s call might continue the work of regaining Catholics’ faith.