Pope Francis, ending a landmark conference on sexual abuse of children by clergy, has called for an “all-out battle” against a crime he said should be “erased from the face of the Earth”.
The Pope promised that guidelines used by national bishop conferences to prevent abuse and punish perpetrators will be reviewed and strengthened. He also said the Church’s legal definition of minor will be raised from 14, in order to “expand protection” of young people.
But disappointed advocates for victims said the pontiff merely repeated old promises and offered few, new concrete proposals.
Pope Francis vowed that the Roman Catholic Church would “spare no effort” to bring abusers to justice and will not cover up or underestimate abuse. He spoke at the end of a Mass in the frescoed Sala Regia of Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
However, he dedicated much of the half-hour speech to statistics from the United Nations, and from other organisations, showing that most sexual abuse of children takes place in families.
“We are thus facing a universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere and affecting everyone. Yet, we need to be clear that, while gravely affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church,” he said.
Anne Barrett-Doyle, of the US-based clergy abuse tracking group, bishopaccountability.org, called it a “stunning letdown” that did not sufficiently address the grief and outrage of the faithful.
“As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the Pope, instead, provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before.
“Especially distressing was the Pope’s familiar rationalisation that abuse happens in all sectors of society ... We needed him to offer a bold and decisive plan. He gave us, instead, defensive, recycled rhetoric,” she said.
Speaking later, in his traditional public Sunday address in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said past cover-ups in the Church, and the protecting of abusers, was “unjustifiable”.
The Vatican says follow-up measures will make sure all bishops return home knowing how to put anti-abuse procedures into place.
The conference brought together bishops from countries such as the United States, where cases of abuse have fallen dramatically, because of measures enacted nearly 20 years ago, and bishops from mostly poor countries that still have not come to terms with the problem. At the start of the conference on Thursday, the pope and the participants had watched a video of five victims telling their stories of abuse and cover-up.
The homily that formally ended the gathering of 200 top Church leaders was delivered by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, of Brisbane, Australia, whose words were more pungent than the pope’s. “We will not go unpunished,” Coleridge said. “In abuse and its concealment, the powerful (of the Church) show themselves not men of heaven, but men of Earth ... At times, however, we have seen victims and survivors as the enemy, but we have not loved them, we have not blessed them. In that sense, we have been our own worst enemy,” he said.