House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday called for a complete overhaul in the way the Catholic Church confronts sexual abuse.
Pelosi became the latest prominent Catholic lawmaker to condemn the Vatican’s response amid reports of rampant sexual misconduct by clergy in the United States and beyond.
But Pelosi, who like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a devout Catholic, said she’s hopeful that Pope Francis and other church leaders will fix the problems from within, deflecting the notion that Congress should play any kind of oversight role.
Pelosi said she is awaiting the outcome of an unprecedented summit, scheduled for February, when bishops from around the world will gather in Rome to tackle the issue of widespread sexual abuse within their ranks — a charge the Vatican has long denied.
“I’m hopeful that what his holiness is calling for will have the results that hopefully it is intended to do,” Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol.
“But they should have no thought that anything less than a complete change is anything that would be acceptable. How that happens, we’ll see when they make the review of it.”
There are increasing doubts the church can reform itself as more reports have emerged in recent months finding a disturbing pattern of abuse — in many cases targeting children — followed by coverups by senior members of the clergy.
In July, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned amid numerous allegations that he had sexually abused altar boys and young men in line for the priesthood.
In August, an investigation launched by Pennsylvania’s attorney general found sexual abuse of more than 1,000 minors at the hands of more than 300 priests over seven decades across the state. The report sparked a flurry of similar investigations in other states, including New York, New Jersey and Missouri.
This week, new research commissioned by the German Bishops Conference identified more than 3,600 allegations of sexual abuse against more than 1,600 priests over the last 70 years in that country.
Pelosi called the coverups “shameful,” singling out the case of Cardinal Law, who was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston in 2002 following searing reports that he turned a blind eye to rampant sexual abuse by priests under his watch over decades. In response, the Vatican moved Law to a position in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the church’s most prominent shrines.
More than a decade later, Pelosi was still incredulous at the promotion.
“What?” she exclaimed. “There really has to be a brighter light shining on this.”
Despite that track record, Pelosi suggested she trusts the church to come clean on its own. She said she hasn’t seen “any suggestions” that Congress has a role, instead arguing that the responsibility should rest with the church and with state officials who have launched investigations.
“Evidence, facts, data … should be how we go forward, and maybe that’s best achieved in a parish, in a diocese, in a state, because that’s where the responsibility is,” Pelosi said. “But there should be no doubt — there should be no doubt — that if there is reason to believe that this happened, that it be turned over to law enforcement.”
Asked if the “brighter light” will come from within, she didn’t hesitate.
“I think that it can come from within,” she said.
Pelosi sought to carve a clear distinction between the church on the whole and those members of the clergy who committed abuse.
“As big as all of it is, I still trust and believe that it’s a small percentage of what the good is that is happening with the church and with our clergy,” she said.
Still, Pelosi also acknowledged the damage the crisis has done — both to the church’s reputation and the abuse victims.
“I feel sadness for what it means for the church writ-large, but more sad about what it means for the individuals who have been abused,” Pelosi said. “It behooves our church leadership to … remove all doubt that this is not what the church is about.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, “but we have to be prayerful.”