Pope Francis released a letter to Catholics worldwide on Monday apologizing for the church’s inaction in the face of its global and decades-long sex abuse scandal, calling for greater accountability and promising that “no effort” will be spared to change the church culture that has allowed both an epidemic of abuse and the broad conspiracy to conceal it.
The letter came less than a week after a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a devastating report finding more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the state’s Catholic clergy. A spokesperson for the Vatican told the New York Times that Francis’ letter likely marks the first time a pope has addressed sexual abuse to the world’s Catholics.
He acknowledged his regret over the Vatican’s complacency and its minimization of the allegations—a source of criticism levied against him personally, as with past leaders of the church, particularly after he defended a Chilean bishop and accused the alleged victims of slander, prompting protests in the country. In his letter Monday, Francis wrote:
With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger [now known as Pope Benedict] when … he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency!”
Francis also called for Catholics around the world to “join forces in uprooting this culture of death” and indicated the church would cooperate more with “work being carried out in various parts of the world” to combat the abuse. And he denounced the practice of focusing on the “elites,” or clergy, of the church rather than the faithful. “This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred,” he wrote.
According to the Times, Francis is scheduled next week to visit Ireland, where the legacy of sexual abuse has driven a dramatic decline of followers in what was once the most Catholic country in Europe. The pope is set to arrive for a Dublin event where Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of of Washington, was supposed to give a keynote speech. Wuerl, who recently replaced Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick after McCarrick was accused of abusing an altar boy, was himself accused in the Pennsylvania report of covering for accused clergyman. After the report was released, Wuerl pulled out of the Dublin event, but he maintained he “act[ed] with diligence.” He remains in his position.
Survivors of sexual abuse in Ireland are planning to protest during the pope’s visit. In the U.S., a group of Catholic theologians and lay leaders are calling for all American bishops to resign. In churches in Pennsylvania and around the Northeast, clergy held a “mass of forgiveness” Sunday to apologize and pray for forgiveness.