WHEN POPE Francis established a commission in 2014 to address sexual abuse by clergy members, he picked two survivors, victims themselves, to serve on the 17-member panel. Now, three years later, both are gone, having denounced foot-dragging and official intransigence inside the Vatican.
The fact that no survivors now serve as active members of Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is a measure of the Holy See’s resistance to change, and of its apparent inability to come to terms with the moral challenge posed by pedophile priests and bishops who enabled them. Sadly, the resignation this month from the commission of one survivor, which followed the forced ouster a year earlier of another, is only one among the more recent indications that the pope’s public pledges of zero tolerance for abuse and expressions of sympathy for victims are unmatched by institutional transformation.
In 2015, it was the pontifical commission that recommended establishing a tribunal to hold accountable bishops who turned a blind eye to abuse within their dioceses by shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish. Francis adopted the recommendation, then dropped it a year later in the face of bureaucratic impediments. He said bishops would be dealt with under existing Vatican rules, but none have been explicitly disciplined for negligence involving sexual abuse.
Marie Collins, the survivor who resigned from the commission this month, was widely respected as a potent moral voice for reform. Her frustration was evident in a statement she gave to the National Catholic Reporter, in which she detailed how even minor steps toward reform, urged by the commission and adopted by Francis, have been met with official contempt. Among ignored recommendations is one that every victim of abuse who contacts the Vatican should receive a response.
“I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!” wrote Ms. Collins, who is Irish. “It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the Church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”
Among the last straws for Ms. Collins was that Francis, despite his zero-tolerance policy, quietly eased discipline for some abusive clergymen, allowing them to remain in the priesthood, albeit without ministering to congregants, rather than defrocking them.
In a meeting this month with Washington Post reporters and editors, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said the church has embraced reforms, dismissing as “secondary” the question of whether the church publicly disciplines negligent bishops and abusive clergymen. In fact, clear and convincing accountability is central to reform.
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