Pope meets victims of Catholic Church’s sexual abuse

Portugal Resident [Lagoa, Portugal]

August 3, 2023

By Nastasha Donn

Pontiff uses first speech to stress how scandal has “disfigured” the face of the Church

Pope Francis’ first speech yesterday on arrival in Portugal for World Youth Day left tough messages for priests, bishops and politicians. With large billboards strategically sited along his route into the capital – alluding to the horrors of historic child sex abuse within the Catholic Church – being hurriedly papered over, presumably to try and save the pontiff from discomfort, the 86-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church showed he had no illusions: the first evening here saw him meeting 13 victims of abuse at the hands of Portuguese clergy, “to ask for their forgiveness”, writes tabloid Correio da Manhã.

A brief statement issued by the Holy See said “the meeting took place in an atmosphere of intense listening and lasted more than an hour”.

The victims were accompanied by representatives of Church institutions, as well as child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht – the man who led and presented the bombshell report on child sex abuse at the hands of Portuguese priests dating back to the 1950s.

Earlier in the Pope’s schedule, His Holiness insisted on the need for “a humble and constant purification” in the light of this scandal that had been hidden in plain sight for well over half a century.

The Portuguese Episcopal Conference (CEP) later considered Pope Francis’ meeting with the victims confirms the path of “reconciliation that the Portuguese Church” has been making, writes Lusa.

“This meeting of the Holy Father represents the confirmation of the path of reconciliation that the Church in Portugal has been following in this area, putting the victims first, collaborating in their reparation and recovery, so that they can look to the future with renewed hope and freedom“, said a note from CEP.

It was a far cry from CEP’s initial reaction to the report by the independent commission set up to investigate child sexual abuse within the Church. But it bore testament to this Pope’s determination to ‘ring the changes’.

Media outlets like Euronews refer to Francis’ “blasting” of Portugal’s Catholic Church leaders, “saying their actions had helped drive the faithful away.

“Francis waded head-on into the scandal roiling the Portuguese church upon his arrival”, said a text, recalling the report released in February this year pointing to the abuse of “at least 4,815 boys and girls”.

As Euronews stresses, “prior to the report, Portuguese church officials had insisted there had only been a handful of cases. After its release, they initially refused to remove named abusers from the ministry or to compensate victims”.

So far there has been no statement by any group representing the victims. But there has been a fairly blistering response from BishopAccountability.org, the largest public library of information on the Catholic clergy abuse crisis (see below).   

The Pope’s schedule today is a packed one. See our story “Portugal prepared for one of largest operations ever in hosting World Youth Day” for details.

As for the tough words for politicians, these referred to Portugal’s law legalising medically-assisted death in a restricted set of circumstances. This is not the first time the Pope has lamented this law.

“Pope Francis meets with clergy sex abuse victims in Portugal” – Response from Anne Barrett Doyle, Co-Director, BishopAccountability.org

When Pope Francis travels to a country where the clergy sex abuse crisis has erupted, he meets with victims, expresses shame and sorrow, and promises change. He did this during his 2015 visit to the United States, his visit to Chile in January 2018, his visit to Ireland in August 2018, and his visit to Canada in 2022.

But when the Pope visits a country where the bishops are not reckoning with headlines about abuse, he does not meet with victims. He did not hold such meetings in Hungary, the Congo, Romania, or Panama, even though the church’s victims in each of those countries surely also number in the thousands. 

The Pope’s meetings with victims are about public relations, not change. And at this point in his papacy, the tactic is not only tired, it’s cynical. An apology without true reform is worse than meaningless. It’s disrespectful. 

In his ten years as pope, Francis has refused to implement a true “zero tolerance” law to stop abusers. Under canon law, guilty priests can receive any of a range of penalities, and while some have been laicized, many are given temporary suspensions and returned to ministry. This is why the Portuguese bishops who have returned credibly accused priests to parishes are in no danger of losing their prestigious jobs or titles. Those bishops aren’t violating canon law; they’re following it.

The thousands of people who were sexually abused as children in the Portuguese church deserve better. They deserve the “concrete actions” that the Pope repeatedly has promised. It is not too late for Francis to restore his credibility as a reformer. He could take these basic and crucial steps to stop clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up in Portugal and elsewhere:

1. He could change universal canon law to enact true “zero tolerance” for sexual abusers in the priesthood. This would mean that a cleric found guilty of even a single act of child molestation would be removed permanently from ministry. To our knowledge, the only national bishops’ policy that comes close to “zero tolerance,” at least on paper, is that passed by the U.S. bishops in 2002.

2. He could revamp his ineffective ‘bishop accountability’ law, Vos estis lux mundi, which even his own advisor, Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J, describes as ‘not working.’  The Pope could clean house, country after country, removing complicit bishops, stripping them of their titles, and publishing accounts of their wrongdoing. He might as well start in Portugal; he should publicly denounce and remove bishops’ conference president José Ornelas and all of his colleagues who have demonstrated contempt for victims’ testimonies as well as resistance to compensating victims for the terrible harm inflicted on them by the church.

3. He could demonstrate transparency with a meaningful directive. He could order the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to release the names, assignment histories, and case files of the thousands of priests it has found guilty. He thereby would make common cause with abuse victims worldwide, as well as the 160 bishops and 32 religious superiors in the U.S. who have published at least partial lists of credibly accused priests.

About BishopAccountability.org
Founded in 2003, BishopAccountability.org maintains the world’s largest archive of documents on the problem of clergy sexual abuse, outside the Holy See’s own archives. We conduct research on child sexual abuse by priests and religious and on the management of those cases by bishops and their staffs, superiors of religious orders, and the Holy See. An independent non-profit based in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, BishopAccountability.org is not a victims’ advocacy group and is not affiliated with any church, reform, or victims’ organization.