Opinion: Zero tolerance? The facts don’t support the pope’s claims on child abuse

The Guardian

January 31, 2018

By Kieran Tapsell

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.

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