It would appear that Pope Francis has taken to heart criticism for his lackadaisical attitude on sex abuse, as well as a scorching report from the UN. With bold rhetorical flourishes like comparing sex abuse by priests to a "black mass," he suddenly seems more proactive on the issue. Whether it's a lot of political theater or a genuine effort to address the biggest issue facing the Catholic Church remains to be seen.
Pope Francis announced Monday he would meet soon with a group of sex abuse victims at the Vatican and declared "zero tolerance" for any member of the clergy who would violate a child.
Francis also revealed that three bishops are currently under investigation by the Vatican for abuse-related reasons, though it wasn't clear if they were accused of committing abuse itself or of having covered it up.
"There are no privileges," he told reporters en route back to Rome from Jerusalem.
The meeting with a half-dozen victims will mark the first such encounter for the pope, who has been criticized by victims for not expressing personal solidarity with them when he has reached out to other people who suffer.
Reaction from victims groups has been mixed.
"A welcome and overdue change," said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a prominent activist pushing the Catholic church to overhaul its policies and practices on clergy abuse.
"Good to hear Pope Francis speak out and meet survivors," tweeted Marie Collins, an abuse victim whom Francis named to a Vatican commission to promote reforms, on hearing that the pope compared clergy abuse to a priest celebrating a "black mass."
Members of SNAP are less optimistic, expressing concern that this "stagecraft" and "window dressing."
"His upcoming and self-serving meeting with victims is more of what we've seen for decades -- more gestures, promises, symbolism and public relations," Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a statement shortly after Francis announced the meeting during an in-flight press conference Monday night on his return from a visit to the Holy Land.
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"I would challenge anyone to point to a single tangible sign of progress that has emerged from any of these meetings," [David] Clohessy said, citing Pope Benedict XVI's various encounters with victims as well as other meetings between victims and church leaders.
Of note, this proposed meeting has already been deferred from early June to sometime in the next few months.
That three bishops are currently being reviewed is an optimistic sign. Calling bishops to account was one of the primary recommendations made by the UN.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture urged the Vatican to impose "meaningful sanctions" on any church authority who fails to follow church law in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and asked that church officials worldwide be required to report abuse allegations to local police.
. . .
In a statement Friday, the Vatican said it would "give serious consideration" to the committee's recommendations, although it said the committee mistakenly gave "the impression that all the priests serving around the world are directly, legally tied to the Vatican as a sovereign."
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva, had tried to explain to the committee that the Holy See had direct juridical control only over Vatican City State, its citizens and employees, but not over all bishops and priests around the world. "It is one thing to be able to exercise jurisdiction and another to encourage a certain type of activity" or adoption of certain policies in Catholic communities around the globe, he had said.
It's funny how bishops and priests aren't under Vatican control when it comes to sexual abuse of children but are when they violate those really sacrosanct Church policies that make women and gay people second class citizens.
Some bishops are more equal than others, I guess. That said, there is much speculation as to which three of the plethora of completely outrageous bishops are currently under investigation.
But the pope did not name names, and Vatican officials on Tuesday declined to comment.
So who are the three bishops under Vatican investigation? The speculation is that the pope likely was referring to three clerics:
- Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who resigned in February 2013 on the eve of the conclave that elected Francis. O'Brien later admitted that "there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."
- Polish Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, who was accused of child abuse in Poland and during his period as papal nuncio in the Dominican Republic until his dismissal in August;
- Chilean Bishop Cristian Contreras, who has been accused of abuse by other priests in his diocese.
Let's hope the Vatican is just getting warmed up.