Pope Francis had grim tidings for predatory priests, in this life and the next.
“Hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” the pope said in a Christmas address at the Vatican, making clear that the church will no longer protect them, “hush up or not take seriously any case.”
The warning came after the release of the latest catalog of church horrors, a scathing report by the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, finding that nearly 700 priests had been accused of abusing children over the years, while the names of only 185 were made public. It’s terrible, and terribly familiar. Earlier this year, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused bishops of covering up seven decades of widespread clerical abuse of children, and at least 16 state attorneys general have opened similar investigations.
The words of the pope and the authorities — about justice, divine and human — should be of deep concern at two major gatherings that the Catholic Church hopes will initiate genuine change in an institution almost brought to ruin by cascading revelations of clerics’ sexual abuse of minors, and systematic cover-ups by their bishops.
Action at the meetings — first a gathering of all American bishops outside Chicago in early January, then a summit meeting of the heads of all the national bishops’ conferences in the Vatican in late February — will be crucial if the church is to overcome broad skepticism after years of denial, obstruction of justice and callousness toward victims of predatory priests.
The depth of the problem was revealed nearly 17 years ago when The Boston Globe published its pioneering report on abuse in the Boston diocese.
That the law is finally catching up with this long trail of horror and impunity can only be welcomed, though it is shameful that it has taken this long.
Alas, there’s only so much the law can do. Many of the predatory priests have died, and the statutes of limitation on many others have expired. But at least the victims can receive long-denied recognition of their suffering, and perhaps seek compensation for the damage done to them.
That alone will not resolve the crisis. The Church must confront the clerical culture that spawned the crisis before it destroys the Catholic Church. At risk is the faith of millions around the world and a great many schools, hospitals and charitable institutions founded and supported by the Church.
In his address, Pope Francis harshly denounced abusive priests. “They perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing had happened,” he said. “They have no fear of God or his judgment, but only of being found out and unmasked.”
With “their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces,” he said, “they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls.”
He has only belatedly recognized the enormity of the crimes. He was oddly gentle in accepting the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, who as bishop of Pittsburgh kept acknowledged cases of sex abuse secret from parish communities and avoided reporting the abuse to police. In January, the pope refused to meet with victims of a pedophile priest and dismissed allegations of inaction by bishops as “slander.”
But he has also met regularly with victims. It was he who called on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to gather for the retreat, which will be held Jan. 2 to Jan. 8 at Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago.
The pope has summoned presidents of every bishops’ conference in the world for the meeting in the Vatican, the first of its kind, a recognition that the crisis is global and requires a global response.
But can Pope Francis and his bishops investigate themselves and effect the change that is needed? That, after all, is at the heart of the problem the Pennsylvania grand jurors and Ms. Madigan discovered — that “the priority has always been in protecting priests and protecting church assets,” as Ms. Madigan said.
Every new disclosure makes clear that hierarchs were aware of the abuses for many decades. When Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, was finally revealed as the abuser and enabler of abuse that he was, and stripped of his titles, it emerged that his activities were well known to many in high places.
Now there is no place left for the bishops to hide. When they meet, they need to go beyond contrition and promises, and radically transform the secretive, privileged, all-male clerical culture that controls the Church and that allowed the abuse to proliferate and persist.
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