While visiting Pennsylvania three years ago, Pope Francis promised a group of victims of sexual abuse by clergy that bishops who “failed in their responsibility to protect children” would be held accountable. “I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” he told three women and two men he met at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
They were stirring words that seemed to promise a turning point. It hasn’t arrived, and it continues to be left to the legal system, the news media and advocacy organizations to fill the gap. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania took part in that quest, producing a grand-jury presentment that, as Francis described it in a letter he released on August 20, “detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years.”
Once again, Francis promises accountability:
I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.
For some twenty-five years, American Catholics have been hearing from confident church leaders that they were addressing the evil of clergy sexual abuse. So it’s no surprise that Francis, who likewise made such promises in the past, is being greeted with skepticism. After the Boston Globe’s reporting in 2002 showed news organizations around the country how to uncover the story in their own cities, the bishops responded to the scandal like corporate executives who were trying to save their jobs. They cracked down with their 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and norms for dealing with “priests or deacons” who sexually abuse minors, but spared themselves from scrutiny.