VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is coming under increasing criticism that he simply doesn’t get it on sex abuse.
Three months after the Vatican announced a commission of experts to study best practices on protecting children, no action has been taken, no members appointed, no statute outlining the commission’s scope approved.
Francis hasn’t met with any victims, hasn’t moved to oust a bishop convicted in 2012 of failing to report a suspected abuser, and on Wednesday insisted that the church had been unfairly attacked on abuse, using the defensive rhetoric of the Vatican from a decade ago.
Victims’ advocates cried foul, saying his tone was archaic and urging Francis to show the same compassion he offers the sick, the poor and disabled to people who were raped by priests when they were children.
“Under Pope Francis the Vatican continues to deny its role in creating and maintaining a culture where upholding the reputation of the church is prioritized over the safety of children,” said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Irish abuse support group One in Four.
To be sure, Francis adores children like a father — it’s on display every Wednesday during his general audience — and he has continued to defrock pedophile priests. But unlike Pope Benedict XVI, he has rarely spoken out about abuse, indicating it clearly has not been a priority in his first year as pope. Instead, he has focused on introducing the world to his merciful vision of the church and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.
In fact, Francis’ toughest words to date on abuse weren’t even pronounced. Francis reportedly scrapped his prepared Dec. 2 speech to bishops from the Netherlands, who have been dealing with revelations that some 20,000 children were sexually abused in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years. Instead, Francis spoke to the bishops off-the-cuff.
On Jan. 31, Francis did mention his new sex abuse commission in a speech to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases. In his final words before imparting his blessing, he said children must always be protected and that he wants his new sex abuse study commission to be a model.
“For a year we’ve been saying that while Pope Francis is making progress on church finance and governance he’s done nothing — literally nothing — that protects a single child, exposes a single predator or prevents a single cover up,” said Barbara Dorris of the main U.S. victim’s group SNAP.
Francis was asked about protecting children by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview about his first year on the job published Wednesday.
Francis acknowledged the “profound” wounds abuse leaves and credited Benedict with having turned the church around. Benedict in 2001 took over handling abuse cases because bishops were moving pedophiles around rather than punishing them, and in his final two years as pope defrocked nearly 400 himself.
But Francis then got defensive: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has said that while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he never dealt with a case of sex abuse, and indeed the scandal has yet to explode in Argentina on the scale that it has elsewhere, including recently in neighboring Chile.
But the online database BishopAccountability.org has cited several cases of Argentine bishops siding with abused clerics and imposing gag orders on victims — practices that were common in the U.S. before American bishops changed their tune amid an avalanche of lawsuits.
Terrence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org said it was “breathtaking” that Francis had made the church the victim of the scandal, rather than express sorrow to the hundreds of thousands of victims or acknowledge the complicity of bishops in covering up the crimes.
“It is astonishing, at this late date, that Pope Francis would recycle such tired and defensive rhetoric,” McKiernan said in a statement.
The Vatican has in the past decade overhauled its internal procedures to make it easier to oust rapists. But it still has no blanket policy telling bishops to report abusers to police or risk being sanctioned themselves, and to date no bishop has been punished for a cover up. In addition, the harshest penalty the church hands out to abusers is the ecclesial equivalent of firing the priest.
McKiernan called for Francis to remove bishops who enabled abuse, citing St. Louis, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted in 2012 of failing to report suspected child abuse. A group of Catholics from his diocese recently sent a letter to Francis urging Finn to be removed.
McKiernan also questioned the usefulness of the pope’s new commission since bishops’ conferences around the world have already identified best practices. “What the Vatican needs now is a tough enforcer, not another study group,” he said.
An email to the Vatican spokesman seeking comment wasn’t returned Wednesday.
One of Francis’ top advisers, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, announced the pope’s sex abuse commission with great fanfare but few details Dec. 5. The haste with which O’Malley presented the decision indicated it was announced prematurely but in time for the Vatican to cite it when it appeared Jan. 16 before a U.N. human rights committee reviewing the Holy See’s record on protecting children.
The U.N. committee went on to issue a scathing report on the Vatican’s sex abuse record, which the Holy See complained had failed to acknowledge the progress it had made.