IN NATION after nation, and diocese after diocese, the Roman Catholic Church’s clerical sex-abuse crisis has struck with devastating force, a decades-long scandal as pervasive as it is poisonous. Countless lives have been damaged and ruined, especially those of victims who were children when they were assaulted and molested by priests. Countless calls have been made for reforms that would subject the church to real accountability and provide authentic redress for its victims.
Sixteen years after the scandal burst onto the world stage, the Vatican, and Pope Francis, have failed to meet the challenge. So far, the church has failed to get it right — a massive shortcoming that threatens the legacy of a third consecutive pontiff and the authority of the institution itself.
Now it appears Pope Francis may have been forced to a reckoning by the drumbeat of new revelations, especially the devastating report by a Pennsylvania grand jury last month detailing seven decades of clerical sex abuse involving more than 300 priests who molested and assaulted more than 1,000 children. On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that the pope has summoned to Rome top bishops from virtually every country in the world with a significant Catholic population for an unprecedented four-day meeting in February to grapple with the scandal.
On Tuesday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said he would be traveling to Rome in the near future to ask the pope to accept his resignation . Mr. Wuerl, who before coming to Washington was the bishop of Pittsburgh, has been under increasing pressure since the Pennsylvania grand jury report found he had allowed some priests to continue in ministry after they had been accused of abusing children.
The convocations give the pope a new opportunity to act decisively. He has sometimes found the right words to respond to the scandal and sometimes not. He has disciplined and removed some bishops, and in July he forced the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, Mr. Wuerl’s predecessor in Washington, from the College of Cardinals. But so far the pope has balked at more sweeping action that would mean the church has turned a corner. Now his own moral authority to grapple with the issue has been questioned, though the challenge is bound up and tainted by internecine doctrinal tensions within the church.
Those schisms are of little interest to many parishioners, let alone to victims of clerical abuse and institutional coverup. Far more convincing to them would be concrete and, yes, painful steps that the pope could take — and the time to take them is now.
In the United States, those steps would include an order — to every diocese and parish — to stop impeding state legislative efforts to lift and extend time limits that block child victims of sex crimes from pursuing criminal charges and lawsuits against their abusers. They would include the removal of more bishops irredeemably compromised by having done nothing, or too little, to stop pedophile priests from preying on children.
The cascading scandal has prompted suggestions that the church is beyond reform. The pope has had ample opportunity to disprove that. Time is running out.