Pope’s Plea

Why Pope Francis’s Apology Isn’t Good Enough for Sex Abuse Victims

The pope said he takes responsibility for sex abuse by Catholic priests, but is it too soon for him to apologize when the crimes and cover-ups haven't stopped?

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty

VATICAN CITY—The Easter season that begins on Palm Sunday this weekend is traditionally a “good news” moment for the Catholic Church. So it makes perfect sense that Pope Francis would kick off the festivities with criticism-busting headlines in the one area where he has been criticized the most—his seeming reluctance to apologize for the actions of predator priests.

On Friday, at an audience with members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a Catholic NGO based in France known as the BICE, Francis asked forgiveness for the sins of the church’s worst sinners. “I feel that I must take responsibility for all the harm that some priests—quite a number, but not in proportion to the total. I must take responsibility and ask forgiveness for the damage they have caused through sexual abuse of children. The Church is aware of this damage. It is their own personal and moral damage, but they are men of the Church,” he said, according to a Vatican press office statement. “And we will not take one step backwards in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I believe that we must be even stronger. You do not interfere with children.”

Apologizing to the BICE is a little bit like preaching to the church choir. The NGO does not deal specifically with child sex abuse cases. It was formed to help support parentless children after World War II, in part out of a concern that Catholics orphaned by the war might be adopted by non-Catholics and in part to help Catholics find orphans to adopt and possibly bring into the Catholic fold. No known victims of Catholic priest child sex abuse were present when the pope asked to be pardoned. But even if the room had been full of victims, it wouldn’t have made much difference. According to victims’ groups, apologizing now is far too soon because the abuse is still ongoing. “When the house is on fire, no one talks about forgiving the arsonist,” David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview. “We’d feel largely the same whether he made this comment to victims or someone else. It’s just another attempt to dodge his responsibility to take action.”

SNAP, a 25-year-old survivor group with more than 15,000 members worldwide, has been lobbying to get the church to stop talking and start taking concrete steps toward the goal of removing every priest now accused of abusing a minor from active priesthood. They also want the church to punish bishops who knowingly moved or continue to move abusive priests from parish to parish, and to turn over church records on abusive priests to local secular authorities.

The number of abuse cases has dropped drastically in the last decade or so, since major sex abuse scandals in Los Angeles, Boston, and Ireland have come to light. But SNAP says cases of Catholic priest child sex abuse are still being reported on a regular basis. And many cases are being hidden, especially in the developing world. “To us, when church officials talk about forgiveness, they implicitly imply that the crisis is over,” said Clohessy. “That’s just wrong.”

A number of victim websites, including SNAP and Bishop Accountability in the United States, and One in Four in Ireland, track ongoing criminal cases against priests and bishops. Clohessy said he hopes the pope’s words act as a warning shot across the bow. “This is the first time a pope has talked about sanctioning bishops,” he said. “If there are half a dozen bishops on this planet who feel the slightest tinge of fear and respond today with even a scintilla of action, then his remarks helped.”

The pope also talked to the BICE about his vision of family and what he called “the right of children to grow up within a family, with a father and a mother able to create a suitable environment for their development and emotional maturity.” Those words might not sit well with single parent and divorced Catholics, and groups supporting non-traditional families. He also spoke of “continuing to mature in the relationship, in the complementarity of the masculinity and femininity of a father and a mother, and thus preparing the way for emotional maturity.

Still, it is hard to argue that Francis is not doing more than either of his predecessors combined to address the unforgivable sins of some priests. Last month he named his first-ever anti-abuse commission, which included four women, including one who is a victim of priest sex abuse. The team should set its statutes and get to work by summer, according to the Vatican press office.

Clohessy and SNAP members say they would love to be proved wrong about their pessimism, but they have ample reason not to be hopeful. “If history is a guide, those complicit bishops should shudder,” said Clohessy. “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.”