IN THREE years at the helm of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been a source of inspiration for millions of faithful around the world. In one critical respect, however, he has fallen short of his own promise: to come fully to terms with decades of child sex abuse by clergymen and the institutional cover granted to them by bishops and cardinals.
Francis has pledged “the zealous vigilance of the Church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.” Yet there has been scant accountability, particularly for bishops. Too often, the church’s stance has been defiance and obstruction.
In his trip to the United States in the fall, Francis told victims that “words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered.” Yet his initiative to establish a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops who enabled or ignored pedophile priests has come to naught. Not a single bishop has been called to account by the tribunal, which itself remains more notional than real.
Meanwhile, church officials have fought bills in state legislatures across the United States that would allow thousands of abuse victims to seek justice in court. The legislation would loosen deadlines limiting when survivors can bring lawsuits against abusers or their superiors who turned a blind eye. Many victims, emotionally damaged by the abuse they have suffered, do not speak until years after they were victimized; by then, in many states, it is too late for them to force priests and other abusers to account in court.
Eight states have lifted such deadlines, known as statutes of limitations, for victims who are sexually abused as minors. Seven states have gone further, enacting measures allowing past victims — not just current and future ones — to file lawsuits in a finite period of time, generally a two- or three-year window.
In many more states, however, the bishops and their staffs have successfully killed such bills, arguing that it would be unfair to subject the church to lawsuits in which memories and evidence are degraded by the passage of time. Quietly, they also say the church, which has suffered an estimated $3 billion hit in settlements and other costs related to clergy sex abuse scandals nationwide, can ill afford further financial exposure.
A typical case is Maryland, where bills to extend the statute of limitations until the alleged victim turns 38 have failed even to come to a vote, owing to opposition from House of Delegates Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and the Catholic Church, among others.
In his trip to the United States, Pope Francis praised bishops for what he called their “generous commitment to bring healing to victims” and he expressed sympathy for “how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you.” Yet by its actions, the church’s “commitment to bring healing” has seemed far from generous. And it seemed perverse to address the bishops’ “pain” when the real suffering has been borne by children.