ROME—Pope Francis has been criticized in the past for not taking a harder stance against pedophile priests. His Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has been slow to start, condemned for missteps surrounding the forced leave of absence for Peter Saunders, one of two commission members who is a victim of clerical abuse. And the group faced accusations last year that it was out of touch and irrelevant because it wasn’t even involved in training new bishops about how to handle clerical-abuse accusations. But writing in the preface of a hard-hitting new book, I Forgive You, Father by Swiss clerical sex-abuse survivor Daniel Pittet, Pope Francis makes it abundantly clear where he stands on this issue. In doing so, he asks the uncomfortable questions for which everyone familiar with the sordid history of clerical sex abuse have long wanted answers.
“How can a priest at the service of Christ and his church cause so much harm?” writes Pope Francis. “How can someone who devoted their life to lead children to God, end up instead to devour them in what I call a ‘diabolical sacrifice’ that destroys both the victim and the life of the church? Some of the victims have been driven to suicide. These deaths weigh on my heart, on my conscience and that of the whole church.”
Two years ago, Francis met Pittet, who was systematically raped for four years starting when he was just 8 years old by his parish priest in Switzerland. He supported Pittet’s desire to meet his abuser, who was never punished by secular or church authorities, but instead moved from Switzerland to France, where Pittet says he abused “hundreds of boys.”
Pittet says that when he met the pope, they wept together over the sins of the priest who, when Pittet faced him, showed fear, but “no remorse” for his crimes, he says.
“It is an absolute monstrosity, a horrible sin, radically against everything that Christ has taught us,” Francis writes about Pittet’s personal story, which he has shared with thousands of others. “I thank Daniel, because testimony like his breaks down the wall of silence that has covered scandals and suffering, shedding light on a terrible dark era in the life of the church. They open the way to a just mending and to the grace of reconciliation, helping pedophiles to become aware of the terrible consequences of their actions.”
However strong Francis’s prose may be, Pittet’s cuts deeper. “I was only 8 years old. I was a shy, fragile child. He was the sympathetic priest, considerate with me, a little boy with no family and a depressed mother,” he writes. “He should have protected me, instead he felt the my weakness, emptiness and took advantage. I was raped for four years, he abused me without guilt or remorse. He did the same with impunity with a hundred other boys.”
Pittet does not sugarcoat the horror. “He made up an excuse and brought me into a room. He closed the door. I could not run away. I was petrified. When he finished, he told me that this remains between us,” he writes. “I spent years thinking that I was the only one to suffer those nightmarish afternoons, trying to forget his body on me.”
Clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church was featured in the 2016 Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which highlighted an expansive coverup that is apparently still going on worldwide.
A recent book called Lust by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittapaldi, one of two journalists tried by the Vatican legal system for publishing leaked documents, charges that Francis has done “next to nothing” on clerical sex abuse since his election four years ago. He also outlines dozens of cases in Italy that he says have been self-censored by the press not willing to stand up to the Holy See.
The Australian Church is also mired in a messy investigation into alleged sinning priests, which has called into question the Vatican’s No. 3 cleric, Cardinal George Pell, who testified by video conference last year. According to the Royal Commission investigating thousands of abuse claims, more than 7 percent of Australian prelates were or are involved in the systematic rape and abuse of children over the last 60 years.
And making it even harder for the victims to be heard, the reputation of victims’ advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, has been sullied after two of its members resigned in scandal amid allegations that the group took financial kickbacks from lawyers it recommended to victims to help them sue the church. The lawsuit, lodged by a former SNAP employee, alleges widespread financial abuse and systematic coverup that may be hard to bounce back from, essentially leaving the victims silenced.
The pope writing the preface of a victim’s story will not make up for decades of silence and sin by the church, but it does lend weight to the victims, putting one of the least-expected allies in the fight against the church’s crimes in their corner.