Pope Francis has publicly asked the sexual abuse victims of the Catholic Church for forgiveness, during a talk directed at members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE). This is the first time the Pope has made such a strong condemnation of the church’s sexual abuse scandals, and has promised to penalize the offenders.
“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope stated in front of an audience on Friday after receiving members of BICE. “The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.”
BICE is a non-governmental organization working for the rights of children across the world. In the address directed to its members, Francis emphasized the importance of “moral and religious education of children” as well as the rejection of “educational experimentation with children and young people.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, Francis has taken responsibility for the priests who have sexually abused thousands of children over the course of decades — at least partially. Barbara Dorris of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) isn’t impressed by his speech. “But that is all it is: talk,” she said. “We beg the world’s Catholics: Be impressed by deeds, not words. Until [Francis] takes decisive action that protects kids, be skeptical and vigilant.”
The Pope had previously been slightly more defensive about the Church’s sexual abuse history, stating that the Church “is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility” in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera back in March. “No one has done more,” he continued. “And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”
Pope Benedict XVI, previously head of the Church, had also condemned the crimes committed by sexually-abusive priests but had done little to punish the offenders or rectify the situation. The United Nations and children’s rights group worldwide have said the church tends to protect its own reputation more than it protects children from the abuses of priests. The UN urged the church to investigate the members of clergy who had molested children and open the files of those who had “concealed their crimes” and Francis did create a commission to investigate these crimes. But until now, he has made few public comments about it.
“You cannot interfere with children,” Francis concluded in his talk with BICE. But victim groups like SNAP, Bishop Accountability, and One in Four are waiting to see if the Pope’s remarks will make much difference. “If history is a guide, those complicit bishops should shudder,” David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, told the Daily Beast. “But they probably won’t. Hopefully [priest sex abuse] will truly be over one day, and then we can talk about forgiveness. But we aren’t there yet.”