THE WORLD HAS heard it again and again — heartfelt, ringing pledges by Pope Francis and his predecessors that the Vatican, at long last, has gotten the message on the global epidemic of clerical sex abuse. These often have been followed by half-measures, equivocations, inertia and even outright contempt for accusers, who in most cases were victimized as children.
Now, five years into his papacy, there are signs, at last, that Pope Francis is starting to get it.
In an extraordinary move, he summoned all 34 of Chile’s bishops to the Vatican last month for an emergency summit and dressing-down, accusing them of collective responsibility for systematically ignoring and covering up for pedophile priests over decades. The pontiff included himself in the problem — “me first of all,” he wrote to the bishops — having in January summarily dismissed as “slander” credible accusations that a Chilean bishop, Juan Barros, whom he appointed in 2015 despite warnings by other prelates, was complicit in misdeeds by a notorious abusive priest.
Upon the conclusion of the three-day session , every one of the Chilean bishops offered to resign — an unprecedented gesture. Then, on Monday, the Vatican announced the pope had accepted the resignation of Mr. Barros and two other bishops; an official described it as a first step in reordering the Chilean church.
In the past, resolute deeds have seldom followed the pope’s promises to hold senior church figures accountable for tolerating and enabling abuse. This time, the pope seems to understand that is not an option. The shake-up in the Chilean church, if continued, would send a message to the hierarchy around the world.
The pope was moved by a 2,300-page report by two Vatican investigators, based on scores of interviews with victims of Chilean clerics. The report, which he commissioned, prompted his turnaround and an invitation to the Vatican for three prominent Chilean abuse victims whose accounts had been attacked and minimized by senior clerics for years. Meeting with them last month, Pope Francis apologized, acknowledging to one of the victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, that as pope he had been “part of the problem.”
That is plainly true. The pope established a tribunal to hold to account negligent and complicit bishops, then let it lapse without action — but later reinstated it. He sent the wrong message by disciplining abusive priests with a slap on the wrist. He has yet to renounce Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and third-ranking official, now on a leave of absence, who faces trial on sex-abuse charges in his native Australia.
It has taken too long for the pope to look unblinkingly at the institutional failing that has created a crisis of confidence for so many of the church’s 1.3 billion adherents. Now, having admitted to personal “grave errors,” he looks to be on the verge of following through in Chile and possibly setting a new course for both his papacy and the Catholic Church.