ROME—The Vatican does things in its own time, and coughing up a response to a damning grand-jury report outlining rampant abuse over seven decades involving more than 300 priests and 1,000 children was no exception. At around 9:30 p.m. in Rome on Thursday, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke issued a carefully worded statement decrying the actions described in the report as “criminal and morally reprehensible.”
This is the first time the Vatican has used the word criminal when referring to sex-abuse allegations by its own clergy. In the past, they have consistently referred to these rampant abuses against children as “sins and omissions” that could be made better through “forgiveness and prayer.”
By using the word criminal, the Vatican appears to acknowledge victims’ demands that clerical sex abuse be considered in secular terms, though it is yet to be seen if they agree to cooperate and allow it to be handled in secular courts. For years, the Vatican has dealt with abusers in its own way, which has generally meant moving them to new parishes or swooping them back to Rome for what amounts to protection.
Burke’s statement Thursday said, “There are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow,” echoing similar sentiments expressed by the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops or USCCB, which often speaks for the American church. Until Thursday, the Vatican had referred to the American church statements, which called for new vigilance and tougher guidelines in dealing with how it handles abuse complaints.
The Vatican statement also admitted to historical shortcomings by the church.
“The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur,” the statement said. But it went on to say that the Pennsylvania grand jury didn’t find much in the way of new abuses after 2002, insisting that shows “that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse.”
“The Holy See also wants to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements,” the statement added.
Accountability for those who permitted and enabled abuse to occur by either destroying documents referring to complaints or blatantly moving predatory priests from diocese to diocese has been a battle cry by victims for decades.
“Victims should know that the Pope [Francis] is on their side,” the Vatican’s statement said. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”
Francis has, in the past, accepted resignations from bishops and cardinals who were involved in either direct abuse or its cover up, but he has not yet demanded resignations from complicit clergy. Victims won’t likely take the Vatican at its word unless action follows.