On sex abuse, Francis - alas - sings a familiar tune

If there's an area in which Pope Francis has been a disappointment, it's in responding to the sex-abuse crisis. In most ways he strikes me as a hierarch who is unusually aware of how the Church is perceived by the broader world, and he has done a lot indirectly to repair the damage to the church's credibility that resulted from the sex-abuse scandal. But he has said and done little about the scandal itself, despite his refreshing frankness on so many other issues. And now that he has spoken about the issue, in the interview just published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, his take is not exactly encouraging.

Here's the relevant excerpt, as reported in Vatican Insider's account:

Speaking about the horrific abuse of children by priests, Francis said “the cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very deep wounds”.  Benedict XVI “was very courageous and opened a road, and the Church has done a lot on this route, perhaps more than all others”, he stated. He noted that the statistics reveal the tremendous violence against children, but also that the vast majority of abuse takes place in the milieu of the family and those close to them.  The Church is the only public institution to have moved “with transparency and responsibility”, he said; no one else has done as much as it, “but the Church is the only one to be attacked”.

Oh brother.

Francis is not the first defender of the church to speak as though it's obvious that sexual abuse is rampant in any organization you can name, and we just don't hear about it because the media hates the Church. There have been revelations of abuse and cover-up in other institutions: scouting, private schools, Hasidic communities. But it isn't just distorted perspective that makes the church's sex-abuse problems stand out: it's the scale of the abuse and the mishandled response, the persistence of the problem, and the lack of transparency and responsibility that has made the church's scandal such a mainstay in the media for so long. Then, too, there's the fact that the church is a church, which ups the conscience-shocking factor. And it's a church with a very strong, very visible authority structure, so when leaders commit crimes -- or fail to admit mistakes -- it reflects badly on everyone and everything.

If the church's leaders have responded with compassion, transparency, and a willingness to reform -- and some have, but not everywhere, and not consistently -- it was only after decades of foot-dragging and an understandable but regrettable impulse to downplay from the enormity of the problem. The extent to which the Catholic Church today represents a threat to the well-being of children is often exaggerated, and the subject of sexual abuse is exploited by people eager to discredit religion in general and Catholicism in particular. It's frustrating. But it's a situation we brought on ourselves, and complaining about it now is no way to fix things. And make no mistake: things haven't been fixed. I'm hoping the pope knows that, or will soon speak to someone who can tell him so.

Speaking of missed opportunities:

Asked why he doesn’t speak about the so-called “non-negotiable values”, particularly in the field of bioethics and sexual morality, Pope Francis stumped the interviewer by telling him, “I have never understood the expression ‘non-negotiable values’.  Values are values. Full stop! I cannot say that among the fingers of a hand there is one more useful than another. So I do not understand in what sense there can be negotiable values”.

If only he had thought to ask George Weigel about that when he met with him earlier this week!
Surely Weigel would have been happy to explain.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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