Today, in an address to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE)--an NGO that works to protect the rights and dignity of children--Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the "damage [abusive] priests have done for sexually abusing children." Noting that the total number of abusive priests is high, "obviously not compared to the number of all the priests," Francis reassured the audience that "the church is aware of this damage; it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the church." He promised that "we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed--on the contrary, we have to be even stronger."
Is this earth-shaking? Not really. But given that the last time he spoke on the subject it didn't exactly go over too well, this is a marked improvement. And--significantly--these remarks were not part of the prepared text. Francis could have read through the speech as written and avoided the uncomfortable subject altogether, bringing headlines like, "Pope Speaks to Child-Protection Group, Ignores Sexual Abuse." But he didn't. And what he said carries some force.
Francis pledged not to "take one step backward." He referred to "sanctions that must be imposed." Of course, the question remains: sanctions for whom? For abusive priests? We're aware of those sanctions. What about the bishops who enabled abusers? Francis has made it clear that he's not afraid to investigate an accused cardinal. But is he willing to penalize bishops who have put kids at risk--even after the hard lessons of 2002? That's the great unfinished business of the sexual-abuse scandal.