The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pope asks for forgiveness on sex abuse. But he refuses to act.

Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Friday.
Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Friday. (Luca Zennaro Epa-Efe/Shutterstock)

ON A RECENT trip to Chile, Pope Francis apologized, once again, for clerical sex abuse, expressing the “pain and shame, shame I feel over the irreparable harm caused to children by church ministers.” He then proceeded to compound that shame by dismissing credible accusations that a Chilean bishop was complicit in hiding abuse committed by a priest who was once his mentor.

The episode was emblematic of the pope’s apparent inability to come to terms with revelations about pedophile priests and the bishops and cardinals who cover for them. “Is it fair to ask for forgiveness?” he wondered, on arriving in Chile.

Well, no, it’s not fair — not when the church has failed to fully uproot the moral rot that the abuse scandal has planted at its core.

The case of Juan Barros, the Chilean bishop to whose defense the pope leaped, is illustrative. He was elevated to his current position in 2015 by the pope, who ignored reports that Mr.Barros helped cover up abuse committed by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a priest whose misdeeds were deemed credible by the Vatican. The pope, who called the concerns “stupid,” said in Chile “there is not one shred of proof against” the bishop — an assertion that Mr. Karadima’s victims bitterly dispute.

The Vatican has long taken cover behind the hoary defense that the church is no better or worse than society at large. That line has long been hollow, bordering on self-justifying; it was recently eviscerated by a royal commission in Australia that spent five years investigating sexual abuse of children there, dating back decades. Its findings , the most comprehensive in any country to date, surveyed thousands of institutions — from the military to yoga ashrams to swimming clubs — but singled out the Catholic Church and its institutions because that’s where so much of the abuse occurred.

In a country where just over a fifth of the population is Catholic, a hugely disproportionate number of those accused of abuse were priests and other authority figures in the church. Nearly 60 percent of victims alleged that they had been abused by someone in a religious institution; of that number, nearly two-thirds said the abuse involved the Catholic Church. About 7 percent of all priests who worked in Australia from 1950 to 2010 were accused of sexually abusing children, the commission concluded — an incidence in line with that in other countries.

Yet even in Australia, the pope turns a blind eye. Cardinal George Pell, an Australian prelate formally charged with sexual offenses by that country’s police in June, continues to occupy one of the most senior positions in Rome as Pope Francis’s czar for Vatican finances.

At the Vatican, the pope’s tribunal to deal with bishops implicated in child sex abuse, announced to much fanfare in 2015, was stillborn. A commission of experts to advise the Vatican on the protection of minors, established by the pope, was impeded at every turn by bureaucrats, and has now lapsed. The pope himself granted mercy to some notorious pedophile priests, sparing them from defrocking and ordering them to a life of prayer and penance. And just before Christmas, the pope dignified the late Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston and remains the most notorious symbol of the church’s indifference to the victims of abuse, by blessing his coffin at an extravagant funeral in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

How can there be forgiveness in the face of such impunity?

Read more on this issue:

The Post’s View: Still waiting on the pope’s promises

The Post’s View: Pope Francis’s toleration of sexually abusive clergy leaves a stain

The Post’s View: The Vatican drags its feet on accountability for clergy sex abuse