There is no question that Pope Francis has put a shine on the tarnished Catholic church through acts of humility and courage in the first eight months of his papacy. Cold calls to Catholics and random acts of kindness—including rumors that he regularly sneaks out of Vatican City at night to help feed the poor in Rome—have endeared him to the most ardent naysayers. But the first Latin American pontiff hasn’t won everyone over quite yet.
Advocates of the clerical child sex scandal say the pope still has done little to address the church’s disgraceful record on child abuse. And on Monday, he seemed to miss another big opportunity to apologize for the church’s sins. In a meeting with 13 Dutch prelates in Rome, he apparently intended to flick at the issue. According to prepared remarks given to those who attended the meeting, he was planning to say, “I wish to express my compassion and to ensure my closeness in prayer to every victim of sexual abuse, and to their families; I ask you to continue to support them along the painful path of healing, that they have undertaken with courage.” But those in attendance said he veered off script and instead held an open conversation with the clergy present, failing to focus on the sex abuse problem in the Dutch church as he may have intended, according to the prepared remarks. Last year, the Dutch government issued a harsh report against the Catholic church after investigating more than 20,000 valid claims of child abuse by priests since 1945. They called out the Dutch church’s failure to “adequately deal with the abuse.”
Monday’s missed opportunity is not the first time this popular pontiff has punted on the issue. In a broad interview published in several Jesuit magazines in September, he also chose not to address the issue at all, which disappointed many Catholics who were hoping to hear from the new pope on this contentious topic. In another interview in October, this time with La Repubblica the pope again remained silent on the subject of sex abuse, missing what many Italians felt was a golden opportunity to put his views on the record.
Advocates like David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP -Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests say that the pope doesn’t need openings to make an apology or do more. “He needs no opportunity with his massive global bully pulpit,” Clohessy told The Daily Beast. “He could have apologized any time over the past eight months.”
Clohessy says that while the pope is a “master of symbolic gesture” he seems to lack the moral courage to effectively address the church’s most devastating crisis. “He comes from the developing world where this crisis is still percolating and has yet to burst into the public arena and force a real church response,” he says. “An effective pope must use both carrot and stick. He must be a pastor and a policeman. Compassion is wonderful but only goes so far. When dealing with predators and enablers, anger is also necessary.”
To be fair, Francis has a lot on his plate as he confronts the church’s mountain of problems, including allegations of financial corruption. In July, he did make child abuse illegal on Vatican grounds, including the creation and possession of child pornography and prostitution of minors. Apparently that law had never made into the Vatican legal code. But he also made it illegal to leak secret documents kept sacred in the Holy See, effectively enabling church officials to continue to hide any evidence of a cover-up when it comes to sex crimes that have been reported to the Vatican.
Hope is not lost for real changes in how the Church deals with this delicate issue. On Tuesday Francis began a two-day meeting with his papal posse of reforming cardinals who have been tasked with advising him about how to fix the ails of the global church. It seems impossible to think that better handling the child sex abuse problem would not be somewhere near the top of their agenda. Clohessy, who also worries that a papal apology would be a bandaid and only give the wrong impression that the Church is addressing the problem through dialogue rather than action, is not optimistic. “Papal apologies these days mean nothing,” he says. “One apologizes for harm when harm is done. But the abuse and cover-up crisis continues. Adults can heal themselves with or without church officials’ apologies. Kids, however, can’t protect themselves without church officials’ actions.”