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September 23, 2015; Washington Post

A very controversial part of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. involved his statements about the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal.  Writing for the Washington Post, Abby Ohlheiser, Michelle Boorstein, and Terrence McCoy noted that Pope Francis said during a prayer session at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington that the clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse crimes should “never repeat themselves.”  But the three reporters also cited an array of comments ranging in tone from disappointed to outraged from a number of nonprofit organizations that have organized over the years to advocate for victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of children and adults.

In a statement that provoked much of the negative commentary, the Pope referenced the “courage” of the U.S. bishops assembled at St. Matthew’s, praised their “self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice,” and said, “I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we, too, are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”

That didn’t go over well with victims’ advocates who believe that many of the bishops have done little to help the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy and may have helped cover up the problem.  The Post quoted John Salveson, the president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse and a survivor of clergy sex abuse himself, who said, “To characterize the response of American Bishops to clergy abuse victims as ‘generous’ and ‘courageous’ is bizarre.”  Salveson added, “In reality, the American church hierarchy has treated clergy sex abuse victims as adversaries and enemies for decades…His concern about how the abuse crisis has weighed on the bishops’ spirits, and his hope that all of their good deeds will help them heal from the crisis, reflects a profound misunderstanding of the role the church has played in this self-inflicted crisis.”

Barbara Dorris, the victims outreach director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, characterized the Pope’s statement as “a slap in the face to all the victims, that we’re going to worry about how the poor bishop feels.”

SNAP’s Dorris also said, “We’re sad that Francis claims US bishops have shown ‘courage’ in the abuse crisis. Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now…They offer excuses, exploit legal technicalities and hide behind expensive lawyers and public relations professionals, hardly the marks of courage… We’re also sad that Francis can’t bring himself to call this crisis what it is – not ‘difficult moments in recent history’, but the continuing cover-up of clergy child sex crimes by almost the entire church hierarchy.”

Charges and lawsuits against U.S. church leaders concerning sexual abuse of children and adults are still appearing across the country.  It isn’t as though the Catholic Church is significantly more likely to harbor sexual abusers than other segments of American society, but it has been the behavior of the church in responding to charges of sexual abuse that has added an extra layer to the crisis.  As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times this past summer, “The reason the sex abuse issue was a crisis for the church rather than just a scandal was that it exposed systemic failures of governance within the Catholic hierarchy, systemic culpability on the part of the episcopate, and neither Rome nor the bishops themselves seemed to have any kind of response that wasn’t ad hoc, situational, and self-protective.”

There might have been many levels to Pope Francis’s comments, perhaps aimed as a message at bishops in other countries where the sexual abuse problem is still rampant with church leaders doing even less than the U.S. bishops to bring it under control.  The Pope himself in the past has acknowledged that the Catholic Church has much to atone for in the sexual abuse scandal, including the failure of church leaders to report sexual abusers to the authorities, often simply hushing things up and transferring offenders to new churches where they sometimes repeated their heinous behavior.

It is nonetheless odd that Pope Francis addressed the concerns and feelings of the bishops, but didn’t directly address the sexual abuse victims themselves.  The response of a church spokesperson to the survivors’ and advocates’ criticism didn’t sound particularly sensitive to the survivors’ concerns:  “I am not surprised that there are critics that are not happy. This is not the first time,” Vatican Press Secretary Rev. Federico Lombardi said.

Nonetheless, churches around the nation are still fending off victims’ suits in court—and spending hundreds of millions in legal fees to reduce or avoid compensating victims.   Yet the Pope praised the bishops for their “sacrifice.”  SNAP’s president, Barbara Blaine, took umbrage at that remark:  “What sacrifice?” she asked.  “What bishop takes fewer vacations, drives a smaller car, does his own laundry or has been passed over for promotion because he’s shielding predators and endangering kids? None.”

Ultimately, the question is not one of sympathetic words from the Pontiff, but concrete actions by the church itself.  The USA TODAY coverage reported that SNAP called on Pope Francis to “institute reforms that reward whistle-blowers, hire professional investigators, turn over church records to law enforcement and denounce bishops accused of covering up misconduct.”  Until that happens, there are going to be survivors and their advocates who compare the words of the Pope with the actions of church authorities and find the gap overwhelming.—Rick Cohen