Pope says Church must face truth of cruelty to children

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

September 19, 2021

By Ruth Gledhill

Pope Francis has called on the Catholic Church to “listen to the call” of the victims of clerical sex abuse.

In a video message to an international conference on safeguarding and the Church, that begins in Warsaw, Poland today, Pope Francis says that care for children should not be sidelined in favour of managing the Church’s reputation. 

“Only by facing the truth of these cruel behaviours and humbly seeking the forgiveness of the victims and survivors, will the Church be able to find its way to be once again confidently considered a place of welcome and safety for those in need,” the Pope says. “Our expressions of contrition must be converted into a concrete path of reform, both to prevent further abuse and to guarantee others the confidence that our efforts will lead to real and reliable change.”

Recognising mistakes and failures can “make us feel vulnerable and fragile, for sure’, he concedes. “But it can also be a time of splendid grace, a time of emptying, which opens up new horizons of love and mutual service. If we recognise our mistakes, we will have nothing to fear, because it will be the Lord himself who will have led us to that point.”

The international conference on the protection of vulnerable children and adults for the Churches of Central and Eastern Europe, organised by the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Polish Bishops’ Conference, continues until 22 September. Its theme is: Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children. Those taking part include representatives of bishops’ conferences, religious orders and lay professionals from 20 countries.

Pope Francis refers to the “very serious upheaval” the Church is facing as a result of “the crisis of child sexual abuse by Church members”.

In few places has this been more seriously witnessed than in Poland itself, where as Derek Scally reported recently in The Tablet, the Church has fallen hard from the triumphalism of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979 to shame and disgrace as more details of sexual abuse and cover up emerge. Scally reported that a 2020 study of church records going back to 1950 indicates that almost 400 Catholic priests had sexually abused more than 600 children. In a report released in June, the Church revealed that 368 allegations of clerical abuse had been reported to bishops in the previous two-and-a-half years; 292 priests and Religious were alleged to have abused over 300 boys and girls between 1958 and 2020. In July a state commission on paedophilia found that, of the 345 cases of paedophile assaults on children reported to the police in the last three years, priests or Religious made up almost a third of abusers or accessories.

Pope Francis, in his video message to the conference in Warsaw, refers to his address to the leaders of the Bishops’ Conferences of the world in Rome in February 2019, when he expressed his encouragement to ensure that the welfare of the victims was not sidelined in favour of a misunderstood concern for the reputation of the Church as an institution.  

He says in his video message: “I encourage you to listen to the call of the victims and to commit yourselves, with one another and with society in the broader sense, in these important discussions as they truly touch the future of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.”