What the pope doesn’t understand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal.
Last week, Pope Francis was praised for making history by addressing a mixed session of Congress and confronting them on controversial issues like climate change, poverty, and the Syrian refugee crisis. However, those weren’t his only controversial remarks during his American visit. On the last day of his trip, Pope Francis addressed a room full of seminarians and bishops to discuss the Catholic sexual abuse scandal that has marred the religion’s reputation for some time now. Many were looking forward to hearing how the pope was going to address this scandal. After all, this is a pope who shows a remarkable sensitivity to the marginalized people in the world—more so than many of his predecessors.
That hope quickly vanished, however, when Pope Francis took the stage to address the crowd. The majority of his speech was built on praise for the bishops and Catholic leaders for how they have handled the controversy. He lauded the bishops for their “courage” and “generous commitment to bring healing to the victims.” He told them that he felt their pain and their suffering for the role they were taking in absolving this scandal.
The pope’s comments were met with hurt, disappointment, and betrayal from many survivors who experienced the abuse of Catholics leaders over the years. One survivor said, “It was shocking and insulting, and it is hurtful. I don’t know how you could make a case that would support these comments.”
Here’s the deal. I like Pope Francis. And I think most people do. He’s been a powerful voice on issues that many former popes refused to discuss. But many have accused the pope of turning a blind eye when it comes to those who have incurred abuse at the hands of Catholic leaders. And I sadly have to agree.
The pope has remained a bit silent in addressing the victims. He actually refused to meet with victims before becoming the pope, and it was fifteen months into his papacy before he finally agreed to meet with any abuse victims. Here are a few lessons I think the pope could learn in order for him to effectively address this scandal.
1. Shift the priorities. One of the biggest criticisms of the pope’s address is the accolades he gave to the bishops for how they have handled the scandal. Think about how a survivor would view those remarks and praises. Many bishops within the Catholic Church have actively sought to cover up the scandal and have even overlooked the abuse for years. Of course not all bishops have done that, but many have. From the eyes of the victim, it seems that the pope offered the majority of his condolences to the bishops—those who were inconvenienced by the sexual abuse second handedly. The pope is not adequately portraying the experience of the victims in his public address. In any case of abuse, the victim should always be first priority. From the outside looking in, the pope’s actions seem to indicate more allegiance to the bishops (many of whom re-traumatized the victims by their failure to act when they learned of the abuse) instead of the survivors.
2. Acknowledge the victims’ pain more openly. Pope Francis has appeared to be skittish at the prospect of meeting with survivors and acknowledging their struggle publicly. His address this past week in America marks one of the few times he has spoken about the scandal. When he has addressed the trauma the victims endured, it has mostly been during private meetings with the survivors. This connotes secrecy and a lack of acknowledgement. It’s one thing for the pope to validate the victims behind closed doors, but it’s quite another for him to address them publicly, and chastise those who have failed to act to protect them. The pope undermines the gravity of the victims experience when he openly praises the bishops for their “courage” to confront the scandal. Survivors of abuse need to be heard and advocated for before anything else. Survivors are victimized behind closed doors…they don’t need to be placated behind closed doors also.
3. Take full responsibility. In a gesture to show how sexual abuse is a universal problem and not just a Catholic Church problem, Pope Francis met with a few victims during his U.S. visit who had not been sexually abused by anyone within the Catholic Church. Rather, relatives or other adult figures had abused them. A Vatican spokesperson said this gesture was done to show a larger perspective. “We know the problem is a universal problem, in the universal church, and also in society,” the spokesperson said. Although this might appear to be a gesture of understanding and validation, it feels and looks more like a diversion tactic. Instead of being advocated for, victims got a response in the vein of: “sure, abuse happened in the Catholic Church, but it also happens everywhere, so don’t be too mad at us.” If you were to tell one of the 538 million people in Africa who was dying from a lack of access to clean water, “Hey I know this sucks, but there are also 180 million people in Southwest and Central Asia that are in your same position. Lots of people have this problem,” you’d most likely get punched in the face. That fact is irrelevant to the person’s suffering. Rather than a “reality check” of universal problems, this person needs solutions, compassion, and professional help. The pope’s stance to zoom out on the universal problem of sexual abuse appears to be a diffusion of responsibility within the Catholic Church and fails to address the scandal directly.
I understand that it is many people’s inclination to handle a delicate matter like sexual abuse privately and quietly. However, a scandal of this magnitude appears to be of epidemic proportions and needs direct leadership and a direct response. My hope is that Pope Francis will realize that the survivors of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal don’t need private sympathies. They need the church to take responsibility, throw out the bad guys who are contributing to the rape culture within the church by silencing the victims, and collaborate with the survivors to help them find healing so this does not keep happening. As for now, the abuse cycle continues. Just last week another Catholic priest was found guilty for sexually abusing boys in an orphanage. God have mercy.