Column: Pope Francis' words not enough for the sexually abused

Pope Francis talks to journalists during a press conference he held while en route to Italy, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Pope Francis returned to the Vatican Monday at the end of a 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

Progressives have a lot to appreciate in Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States with his thoughtful and faith-driven reflection on topics like climate change and income inequality. With an issue like the clergy-perpetrated rape of young people, however, talk is cheap. 

While addressing the issue of sexual abuse within the church over the past several decades last week, Francis praised U.S. bishops for their “courage” in “difficult moments,” but did little to resolve the concerns of victims and organizations seeking change.

“We’re sad that Francis claims U.S. bishops have shown ‘courage’ in the abuse crisis. Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now,” Barbara Dorris, the victims outreach director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said, according to the Guardian.

On Sunday, after a private group meeting with survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests, Francis spoke further on the issue at a chapel in Pennsylvania, saying he would “commit to the careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected,” according to the New York Times.

While Pope Francis told the group that “God weeps” at the sexual abuse of children, his approach to a very real problem in churches all over the world did little to assure victims of their safety going forward. The reality of this situation is that the Pope cannot talk about clergy-perpetrated rape the same way he talks about income inequality or climate change. As head of the church, he faces an important responsibility on this issue.

Pope Francis has used his spotlight wisely to try and redefine Catholic values, publicly embracing the disabled, washing the feet of the homeless, etcetera. Why have his interactions with victims of sexual abuse been so hidden and non-glorified? What kind of message does that send about the Pope’s intentions?

According to BishopAccountability.org, over $3 billion in settlements have been paid out by dioceses across the U.S. in response to sexual abuse.

Regardless of how God feels about rapists, sexual abusers and child molesters, the courts are more poised to deal with them than any diocese. Francis should make clear that priests found responsible for such crimes will not only face the judgment of God, but judgment through the criminal justice system.

It comes down to what is expected of the church on the issues. Priests should not be reporting allegations or accusations of suspicious activity to other priests or bishops, they should be reporting to law enforcement and ending the cycle of sexual abuse that rears its head far too often in places of worship. The church should commit, by any means necessary, and as a priority, to making these spaces safe for families and all children.

While many might ask, “What do you expect from the Pope?” the reality of Pope Francis’ record as an archbishop from 1998 to 2013 shows he did little to help those abused by priests in Argentina, and in many ways shielded priests from prosecution, according to a report by BishopAccountability.org. One article by the Global Post further claims that, while Francis was a Bishop in Argentina, he continuously refused to meet with abuse victims and representatives seeking his help.

Studies by organizations such as BishopAccountability.org have previously estimated 17,200 instances of sexual abuse committed by clergy in America. While Francis claims he oversaw no abusive priests while heading the diocese in Buenos Aires, the largest diocese in Argentina, conservative estimates more likely suggest there were over a hundred children abused from 1950 to 2013.

Any action focusing on protecting victims of sexual abuse is a step in the right direction, and so Pope Francis’ statements the other day should be followed with some substantive, targeted work to affect change. According to the New York Times, Francis has already established a commission on sexual abuse to organize a process for holding bishops accountable, but many have written off this action as surface-level and ineffective.

In the coming weeks, progressives and conservatives are likely to continue fighting over whether the Pope’s wide array of statements during his week in the United States fall more behind religious liberty or economic inequality and climate change. Going forward, however, activists for victims of sexual abuse should hold Francis and other church leaders accountable for making change to end the cycles of sexual abuse in the church. Something must be done.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.