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‘Hand yourself over to human justice’: Pope Francis tells priests guilty of abuse the church won’t shield them

During his annual Christmas address at the Vatican on Dec. 21, Pope Francis urged priests guilty of sexually abusing minors to turn themselves in. (Video: Reuters)

Pope Francis used one of his major annual Christmas speeches to offer some of his strongest words about this year’s heightened sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church, telling guilty priests the church will not protect them and they should turn themselves in.

“To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” Francis said in a speech at the Vatican on Friday.

Speaking to the Roman Curia — the central governing leadership of the Vatican — Francis described at length the sinfulness of priests who prey on children. “Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls,” he said, in remarks that drew often on the example of the sinful biblical King David. “Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.”

Survivor advocates slammed Francis for focusing on the abusers rather than the leaders and system that protect them, while other Vatican observers praised his comments as a dramatic acknowledgment of the scope of the problem.

Francis’s call for abusers to turn themselves in “is silly. To command psychologically sick people to do the right thing? It’s also deceptive,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, which documents abuse. “This speech represents a regression to the defense we heard from John Paul II, that the problem was with the perpetrators. We now know the more fundamental problem is with the complicit and deceptive hierarchy.”

Other church-watchers saw Francis’s comments as groundbreaking for implying a role for civil officials, not just the church, to hold priests accountable. “Francis has sought to drive a stake through the heart of a clericalist mentality in the Church that protected abusers,” wrote Christopher Lamb, an analyst for The Tablet, a progressive Catholic news site. Francis, he wrote Friday, is “ending an ‘in house’ approach to handling abuse.”

Francis acknowledged in his address that the church has “treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole church.”

He was speaking Friday morning to global leaders of a church that has seen abuse scandals break out on nearly every continent in recent years, from Australia to Chile to Ireland to the United States, plunging the church into fresh crisis. The Vatican has called a first-of-its-kind global meeting in February to address sex abuse by priests, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will soon hold a week-long spiritual retreat to address the topic.

In the United States, two developments drew attention to the problem this summer: a major Pennsylvania grand jury report, which documented allegations of crimes by more than 300 priests involving about 1,000 children and inspired similar criminal and civil investigations in more than a dozen states; and the removal of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a longtime leader in the church who was publicly accused this year of sexual misconduct toward minors and adults.

The U.S. bishops all convened in November for a meeting in which they pledged to draft policies for preventing abuse, but then they received a letter from the Vatican in the hours before the meeting began, telling them not to take any action. The bishops were stunned by the Vatican’s directive that they wait for a global meeting of bishops on the abuse crisis in February.

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That February meeting, Francis promised in his Christmas speech, will make progress on the issue. He said the meeting will include experts on preventing the abuse of children. “An effort will be made to make past mistakes opportunities for eliminating this scourge,” he said.

Advocates for victims, who have long criticized Francis’s handling of the issue, were skeptical.

“While refusing to reveal the name of one cleric who committed or concealed child sex crimes, Francis gives yet another promise about ending cover ups,” David Clohessy, the former director of the victims' group SNAP, or the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, wrote in an email to reporters. “Just this week, in one US state alone, Illinois, we learned there are 500 accused priests whose identities are being protected by bishops. Across the globe, there must be tens of thousands . . . If he’s serious, Francis could show it by suspending all Illinois bishops until they ‘come clean’ or the attorney general’s investigation clears them of wrongdoing. The pope could end this reckless secrecy but just continues pontificating.”

Illinois attorney general accuses Catholic church of lowballing scope of sexual abuse allegations

The Vatican removed a Los Angeles bishop this week for credible abuse of a minor; the cleric was first accused in 2005. Also, this week, the New York Times reported the church has paid out settlements for a priest accused of abuse who is still in ministry in Upstate New York.

Francis has commented on the clergy sex abuse scandal multiple times since becoming pope in 2013. In July 2014, when he met for the first time as pope with victims, he pledged bishops who cover up abuse would be held accountable, likening abuse to a “sacrilegious cult.” The church should “weep” for its “sins and grave crimes,” he said. “I humbly ask for forgiveness.”

In February 2015, at the first meeting of a commission he created to protect minors, Francis called for the “close and complete cooperation of the church at every level.” He said “there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.”

In September 2017, he vowed to never give clemency to abusers. Abuse is a “horrible sin, completely opposite and in contradiction to what Christ and the Church teach us. . . . The Church at all levels will respond with the application of the firmest measures against all those who have betrayed their call.”

But this year, as the scandal deepened, Francis has rarely given such stern pronouncements and has often left critics wondering whether he takes the issue seriously enough. He initially defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse, then later confessed to “grave errors” in his approach to that country’s abuse scandal. Many were stunned in October by Francis’s letter to Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who stepped down before his retirement amid complaints about his handling of abusive priests while he was bishop in Pittsburgh, which was revealed in a Pennsylvania grand jury report. Francis told the cardinal he had “sufficient elements” to justify his actions and praised his “nobility.” When a furious archbishop wrote a much-discussed letter accusing Francis of knowing about McCarrick’s harassment of adult seminarians and young priests, Francis refused to directly respond to the allegation.

Pope Francis accepts Cardinal Wuerl's retirement, while offering him a soft landing

In his remarks Friday, Francis pointed out that many defenders of the church have blamed journalists who cover priests' crimes, including accusing reporters of focusing unfairly on Catholic abusers and not on those in other denominations and professions. “I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard,” he said.

Sexual abuse was only one topic Francis dealt with in his lengthy Christmas address. He has used this annual speech to the Roman Curia to take Vatican leaders to task before; in 2014, he used the speech to list 15 “ailments” of church leaders, including one he termed “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”