ROME — Pope Francis acknowledged that the Catholic Church was slow to address the sex abuse crisis, including its widely criticized but not publicly acknowledged practice of moving priests who had abused children to other churches instead of reporting them to the police, saying “the church’s conscience came a bit late.”
The pope gave off-the-cuff remarks to a commission he created to tackle the issue, acknowledging the slow pace of church trials and an overall lack of awareness of the problem inside St. Peter’s walls.
“Pedophilia is a sickness,” Pope Francis said. “Today one repents, moves on, we forgive him, then two years later he relapses. We need to get it in our heads that it’s a sickness.”
The pope announced he would do away with Vatican appeal trials for cases where evidence of abuse against minors is proven. “If there’s evidence, that is final,” he said.
“Those who’re sentenced because of sexual abuses against minors can indeed appeal to the pope and ask for a pardon, but I’ve never signed one of those, and I never will,” he said. “I hope this much is clear.”
The pope’s rationale for doing away with an appeal process — according to Italian news outlets’ transcripts of his words — lies in his own experience. Faced with such a case at the very beginning of his papacy, he said he’d opted for “the more benevolent path” instead of defrocking a priest. “After two years, though, the priest relapsed,” he said, which became a learning experience for the pope.
A well-placed Vatican source confirms that these words convey the pope’s own “personal bitterness, as well as the difficulty of curing [pedophiles], as it was once thought possible, which instead ended up being quite a failure.” According to the source, the pope was probably specifically referring to the case of Mauro Inzoli, whom he “definitively” defrocked earlier this summer. An appeal trial for Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex abuse in an Italian court, began Thursday.
The pope’s comments and recent events draw attention to his larger efforts to strengthen the church’s fight against abuse, as advocacy groups have called for sweeping changes within the Vatican hierarchy.
Last week, the Catholic Church recalled diplomat Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella back to the Vatican because U.S. investigators suspected him of crimes involving child pornography.
And earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican, was charged by Australian police for “historical sexual assault offenses,” and returned to his home country “to clear his name,” according to a statement from the archdiocese of Sydney.
The Catholic Church in some countries, including in the United States, put systems in place to protect children, and after he became pope, Francis created an ambitious reform commission addressing sex abuse.
He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who inherited the clergy abuse scandal from Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, as president of the commission, calling him one of the church’s “prophets.”
Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse, quit Francis’s commission in March because she thought that few of the changes they recommended were being implemented by the Vatican hierarchy. She said that when the pope makes a statement like this, it helps to break down denial from many church leaders.
“I suppose [Pope Francis is] stating what is obvious,” Collins said. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has spoken of the horrors of abuse and spoken to survivors of abuse, asking for forgiveness several times.
However, Collins believes this may be the first time the pope has addressed how the church handles priests. Some bishops would move priests accused of abusing children to other churches, allowing them to continue their abuse.
“We’re getting an admission of problems that were there,” she said. “The less denial there is, the more chance there is for change.”
Francesco Zanardi, an Italian survivor of clergy sex abuse, said he believes it’s the first time the pope has acknowledged the practice of moving priests around.
“It’s an admission all right, but it comes a bit too late, I just can’t be optimistic about it,” said Zanardi, president of “Rete l’Abuso” or Abuse Network, an Italian association of’ survivors of abuse by clergy.
Many people are beginning to wonder whether the pope’s rhetoric will turn into Vatican action, such as the idea of tribunals, said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries” and who was a longtime correspondent for the Catholic News Service.
“The question is whether he institutionalizes some forms of closer control over bishops who have made bad decisions,” he said. “That seems to be a sticking point.”
The pope’s defenders say he has made strides to hold bishops and priests accountable. Last summer, Francis issued a decree that diocesan bishops could be removed for failure to report suspected abuse. In 2014, he fired a bishop in Paraguay who was accused of covering up abuse, and in 2015, he accepted the resignation of a bishop in Kansas City who was convicted of covering up abuse.