VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis declared an “all-out battle” against sexual abuse on Sunday as he concluded a high-stakes summit that Catholic bishops hailed as a turning point for the church, even as victims lamented that little had actually been accomplished during the unprecedented four-day meeting.
In a closing address in the Apostolic Palace’s opulently frescoed Sala Regia, the pontiff declared priests who abuse children to be “tools of Satan” and described their crimes as “utterly incompatible with [the church’s] moral authority and ethical credibility.” Both, he said, had been further damaged by the hierarchy’s own history of cover-up and inaction.
“In the people’s justified anger, the church sees the reflection of the wrath of God – betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons,” Francis said. “This cry will shake the hearts of those dulled by hypocrisy and power.”
Much of the pope’s lengthy speech, however, focused outside the Vatican’s walls, citing abuse in families and other institutions while condemning the spread of internet pornography and “ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit … the tragedy.”
But Mark Coleridge, the archbishop of Brisbane, Australia, who delivered a homily before Francis’ speech, laid blame for the scandals that have plagued the church directly at the hierarchy’s feet.
“We have been our own worst enemy,” he said. “We have shown too little mercy, and therefore we will receive the same. We will not go unpunished.”
He called for a “Copernican Revolution” in church leaders’ thinking on the issue, referencing the 15th-century paradigm shift in which the world abandoned past notions that the sun revolved around the Earth.
“Those who have been abused do not revolve around the church, but the church around them,” he said.
Whether the conference that played out over the last week was enough to cement that change remains to be seen.
The roughly 200 bishops and superiors of religious orders in attendance will return home with no immediate solutions, despite the pope’s call at the conference’s opening for “concrete and effective measures” to be put in place.
Still, several church leaders said their eyes had been opened by the summit’s speakers – including an African nun who condemned the church’s male hierarchy for hypocrisy and a Mexican TV journalist who vowed the media would continue to be “your worst enemy” unless they changed their ways.
All the while, dozens of victims kept constant vigil outside the cloistered meeting hall, near St. Peter’s Square, demanding that their voices be heard. Many of them found little comfort in Francis’ words Sunday.
“There hasn’t been any firm commitment to eject from the church the perpetrators of this crime,” said Peter Saunders, a sex-abuse victim from the United Kingdom and former member of the pope’s pontifical commission for the protection of minors.
Francis has asked the summit’s organizers -- a hand-picked committee that includes American Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago – to remain behind in Rome to begin translating some of the measures discussed during the week into concrete policies.
“We’re not going to delay things,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, summit moderator. “Tomorrow starting at 9 a.m., we will be there and will start working."
Among the possible reforms are 21 points that Francis distributed to the prelates at the start of the summit, including expanding roles for Catholic laity in investigations and requiring prelates to report abuse to civil authorities in their countries – a measure already adopted by bishops in the United States.
The pope laid out eight more priorities during his speech Sunday, calling for an end to the knee-jerk defensiveness of some members of the hierarchy and a vow to end cover-ups in all forms.
At an afternoon news conference, Lombardi outlined a handful of additional measures that he said the Vatican was prepared to adopt within months, including issuing guidance to bishops on how to handle abuse claims and establishing a task force to assist bishops in shoring up protocols to bring them in compliance with church edicts.
What’s more, he said, the Holy See is close to finalizing its own child-protection policy – a development that it had ordered every bishops’ conference in the world to complete seven years ago.
“We want the church to once again be absolutely credible and reliable in her mission of service and education for the children,” the pope said later during his weekly appearance before throngs of tourists and faithful in St. Peter’s Square.
Cupich, along with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, said Friday that Vatican officials were hoping to strengthen a 2016 edict that was supposed to make negligence in handling abuse claims a fireable offense. (Cupich has floated his own proposal for dealing with bishops accused of mishandling abuse cases or facing sexual-misconduct allegations themselves.)
That aspect of the crisis has emerged as a particular problem in the United States, where a series of scandals over the last year, including the defrocking of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick earlier this month and the landmark Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, have prompted law enforcement in more than a dozen states to launch civil and criminal investigations.
U.S. bishops were prepared last fall to vote on their own set of reforms to better hold themselves accountable – including the establishment of a panel led by Catholic laity to investigate problem prelates. But the Vatican blocked their efforts, fearing that the suggestion would run afoul of church law.
In Cupich’s proposal, floated in an address to the summit Friday, he suggested responsibility for investigating negligent and abusive bishops be placed with regional authorities, such as the archbishop of the closest metropolitan area.
Speaking Saturday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its representative at the Vatican summit, said it was likely that the nation’s prelates would vote on some combination of Cupich’s proposal and the lay-led board at their next general meeting in June.
“When I get back home, I think I can go before … all the bishops and say that I think there is some affirmation from this meeting of what we wanted to do,” said DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, in an interview with Crux, a news outlet that covers the Catholic Church.
But as Coleridge, the Australian archbishop, closed out his homily Sunday he starkly described the stakes of any further missteps.
“We will do all in our power to make sure the horrors of the past are not repeated, and the church is a safe place for all,” he said. “All this will take time. But we don’t have forever, and we dare not fail.”