Opinion: Zero tolerance? The facts don't support the pope's claims on child abuse
By Kieran Tapsell
January 31, 2018
Pope Francis says there’s no leniency for clergy accused of child sex abuse. It’s not true
On his return flight from Lima to Rome in January, Pope Francis claimed, as he has so often before, that he has zero tolerance for clergy who sexually abuse children: “I continue with the policy of zero tolerance initiated by Benedict XVI, and in five years I have not signed a single request for leniency. If the appeal court confirms the decision of the lower court, the only other avenue is to ask the pope for leniency. In my time as pope, I have received some 25 requests, and have signed none of them.”
On hearing Francis’s claims, an ordinary person might believe that the Catholic church insists on dismissing priests who sexually abuse children – but that is not what usually happens.
There are three ways under canon law by which a priest can be dismissed: 1) by a canonical court, with the priest having the right of appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is the Vatican department in charge of child sexual abuse allegations against clergy; 2) a bishop can ask the CDF to dismiss a priest directly; 3) the CDF can refer the matter to the pope with a request that he dismiss the priest.
Francis’s claim that he has never exercised leniency after a canonical trial and appeal may well be true, but it is not true where he has been requested by the CDF to dismiss a priest, and it is not true of the CDF when it exercises its own powers.
In 2010, the Holy See issued a guide to understanding CDF procedures for sexual abuse allegations. Where the accused has admitted his crimes, the guide says that the CDF can require him to “live a life of prayer and penance”, with restrictions on his public ministry.
In cases under the third procedure, Francis has granted leniency by refusing to accept CDF dismissal recommendations for some of the worst offenders, and instead, required them to live a “life of prayer and penance” with restrictions on their public ministry.
Fr Mauro Inzoli, accused of abusing dozens of children over a 10-year period, was dismissed under Benedict XVI in 2012, but Francis reinstated him in 2014, allowing him to live a “life of prayer and penance” while restricting his public ministry. In November 2016 Inzoli was convicted by an Italian court and sentenced to four years and nine months imprisonment. Seven months later, Francis dismissed him for the second time.
In March 2017 Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, resigned as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, established by Francis, because she said that what was happening behind closed doors conflicted with what was said in public, and that Pope Francis “does not appreciate how his actions of clemency undermine everything he does in this area.”
In January 2014, Archbishop Tomasi, the Holy See’s envoy to the United Nations, presented to the committee on the rights of the child a document showing that since 2004, more than 3,420 credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors had been referred to the CDF. As a result, 848 priests had been dismissed, and lesser disciplinary measures had been applied against the other 2,572. That’s 75% tolerance, not zero.
In January 2017, Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane told the Australian royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse that he had sent to the CDF requests for dismissal of eight of his priests who had been convicted by Australian courts of child sex offences. One priest had died, one case was still pending, and five of the six applications for dismissal were refused. In the case of the Brisbane archdiocese, the tolerance rate had risen to 83%.
The Australian royal commission agreed with the words of Pope John Paul II, in 2002: “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” and recommended that in all cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator should be permanently dismissed from the priesthood and religious life, that is, real zero tolerance.
Francis used specious arguments of the same kind in his formal response in September 2014 to the United Nations’ committee on the rights of the child when he claimed that the Holy See was only responsible under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for the 31 children resident in the Vatican City, despite the fact that within those 44 hectares, the Holy See decides whether thousands of clerics from all over the world should continue as priests after the church had found them guilty of sexually abusing children.
Francis further claimed that attempting to implement the provisions of the convention in the territory of other states, such as by mandatory reporting to the civil authorities under canon law, could constitute a violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. While states have differing and sometimes no mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse, none of them prohibit such reporting. Mandatory reporting to the civil authorities under canon law would assist states in the enforcement of their criminal laws designed to protect children.
Ambiguous statements and phoney arguments of the kind that Francis has been employing has led in the past to the word “Jesuitical” entering the English language. Despite the best efforts of modern Jesuits to dissociate the Society of Jesus from that derogatory term, Francis, the first Jesuit pope, has given it a boost.