Swift action needed from Pope Francis on child sex abuse

pope francis on steps
pope francis on steps

Vatican Law Respects Italian Law – To the Detriment of Vulnerable Children

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, has defended the Vatican’s policy of not requiring clergy to report child sex abuse to the authorities. “The Vatican requires national laws to be respected, and we know that there is no such duty (to report abuse) under Italian law,” he told reporters.

The decisions was a disappointment, because Pope Francis had just appointed a commission to advise him on sex-abuse policy. Bagnasco’s comments sounded like business as usual. The comments also ignore the scathing report issued by a United Nations human-rights committee in February, which rebuked the Vatican for its long-standing and systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children around the world and made concrete suggestions for ways to protect children in the future.

Calling On The Pope to Make This Right

I call on Pope Francis and his newly formed committee to respond to Bagnasco’s words by showing they take the U.N. report seriously. To do so, he must take action now to acknowledge the Vatican’s leadership role and initiate a worldwide process to end priest sexual abuse of children and to begin healing the Catholic Church. Pope Francis can begin by conducting the sweeping investigation of all cases of abuse that the U.N. committee on human rights has requested. He can require the mandatory reporting of abuse to police. He can encourage victims to come forward even if statutes of limitation have expired. He can compensate victims and hold accountable those who covered up clergy abuse.

For starters, Francis could defrock, demote or discipline Bishop Robert Finn, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St.Joseph, who was convicted of shielding an abusive priest. The pope should extradite Archbishop Józef Wesolowski of Poland, who is wanted by law enforcement for allegedly molesting five children. Action against both prelates would scare other bishops into obeying secular laws and helping, rather than hindering, the prosecution of predators.

Pope Francis should order all bishops to post on their websites — as 30 U.S. bishops have done — the names, photos, whereabouts and work histories of proven, admitted and credibly accused child-molesting clerics. Then, publicly praise and promote the first few who do so. Francis should mandate bishops across the world to begin lobbying for better secular child-safety laws, then publicly praise and promote the first few who do.

Pedophile Priests Cannot Be Deterred – Complicit Bishops Can

Prayers, policies, pledges, apologies and meetings with victims aren’t enough. They are public-relations tactics, all said and done many times before. They don’t safeguard a single child, expose a single predator or deter a single cover-up. Symbolic moves are actually harmful because they support a sense of complacency and give people false hope that real reform will follow. It will take proven, public and practical steps that actually protect those at risk, expose those who commit clergy sex crimes and punish those who conceal them.

Only The Pope Can Take The Needed Steps

Pope Francis can make sure bishops who conceal child sex crimes are punished inside and outside the Catholic Church. He can do it quickly and simply, by defrocking or demoting pedophile priests and the bishops who shield them, and making it crystal clear why he is taking such actions. Consistent discipline is the missing piece. And that’s why the cover-ups continue.

If, however, Pope Francis insists on using only words and gestures, then some of those words should be words of praise for Jennifer Haselberger, the brave Minnesota whistle-blower whose disclosures have prompted pending police investigations and exposed numerous child-molesting clerics and corrupt church officials.

But words and gestures alone won’t end this plague. Pope Francis must find the courage to wield a stick. It’s time for him to get serious, protect vulnerable children and be the leader he is called to be.

A version of this article appeared in the Seattle Times, Friday, April 4, 2014

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