Pope Francis recently met with members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, an organisation which defends the rights and dignity of children worldwide. While addressing the Bureau, Pope Francis made a public plea for forgiveness for the sexual abuse of children by priests.
“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests – quite a few in number, [although] obviously not compared to the number of all priests – to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children.”
As the head of the Church it is the duty of the pope to take responsibility for the Church’s failed handling of abuse and its cover-up. However, it is not within his remit to take responsibility for the actions of others in a form of papal vicarious redemption. By doing so he is absolving guilty priests of their responsibility and deflecting moral culpability upon himself. Such an action is manipulative and only serves to deny victims of abuse the justice they seek.
A victim may forgive their abuser at his or her behest. But to ask forgiveness the offender must display authentic remorse and take all necessary steps to recompense the victim, financially and/or penally. The Church has simply not done so. The message the Church sends is one of remorse and atonement, however, its actions have yet to complement the message.
Abused victims groups have been particularity sceptical of the pope’s call for forgiveness.
“It’s nice to have expressions of concern. But actions need to happen, and people have been waiting an awfully long time for that to occur,”
said Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, which documents abuse cases.
“The best thing he could have done today would have been to step up to the microphone and announce that he is beginning to remove bishops who have behaved criminally in keeping priests in ministries where they don’t belong, moving them around so that they continue to be a danger to children.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Outreach Director warned against complacency.
“We beg the world’s Catholics: be impressed by deeds, not words. Until the pope takes decisive action that protects kids, be sceptical and vigilant.”
It is simply callous for the pope to seek forgiveness from abuse victims while the Church maintains roadblocks preventing them from attaining justice. There are still many bishops and other high-ranking Catholic officials who participated in the systematic cover-up of abuse that remain unpunished. These individuals shuffled abusive clergy from diocese to diocese allowing the priest to continue abusing children. Yet the worse punishment those complicit in the cover-up received, if they were indeed punished, was forced resignation. They, nor the priests they were protecting, were ever handed over to civilian authorities.
Just last year the Vatican refused to give information regarding clerical sex abuse to a UN committee on the rights of the child. Such a refusal to comply with an external investigator was described as “a slap in the face” for victims.
The Church is further injuring victims by forcing them to endure extensive and strenuous trials to receive compensation, even when liability is admitted. In some cases there is outright refusal to pay compensation such as in Poland where bishops argued that it is the duty of the perpetrator to compensate the victim, not the Church. In Ireland the Church rejected a 50-50 reparation scheme with the government leaving a €200 million shortfall.
Apologists often highlight the progress the Church has made over the years to address the abuse scandal and to ensure the future protection of children. And while it is true considerable advancements have been made, it has simply not been enough. Progressing from a high degree of failure to a lesser degree of failure is still failure. And it is clear that the Church is still failing victims.
The actions of the Church and the message they are trying to send are clearly at odds. For the Church to reconcile its actions with its message then it must release all information pertaining to abuse and its cover-up and hand them over to the relevant authorities, it must stop protecting individuals complicit in the abuse scandal, stop using the Vatican’s status as a state as an excuse for non-compliance, and fully compensate victims for the abuse they have received.
Until these actions are taken then any apologies are bluster and any calls for forgiveness an insult. Actions speak louder than words and, despite conciliatory messages, the Church’s actions are saying that abuse victims are still not a primacy.