Pope Francis is passively sorry about priests abusing children

Photo: Jeon Han

In the wake of the grand jury report on Catholic priests abusing over a thousand children in Pennsylvania, the Pope sent a message to his flock. His passive language is emblematic of how you write to escape responsibility.

The words “I’m sorry” and “It was my/our fault” are incompatible with being the infallible leader of the Catholic Church. Let’s take a close look at some of the passive language in the Pope’s 2,000-word letter in the wake of yet another report on abuse by priests. I’ve added italics to indicate notable phrasing.These are excerpts; the commentary is mine.

Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis To the People of God

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).  These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.  Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike.  Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.  Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.

Commentary: The Pope acknowledges the suffering but refers only to a “significant” number of priests, rather than the 300 cited in the report. Note in particular the passive “no effort must be spared.” By writing in the passive voice, the Pope describes what effort is necessary, but not who will undertake that effort. No one is taking responsibility for the damage, and no one is taking responsibility for fixing it. It is not clear who the “we” is that is reaffirming a commitment to protect minors. These responsibilities lie with the head of the organization: Pope Francis.

In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years.

Commentary: Actual numbers, thank you.

The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced.

Commentary: Classic avoidance by passive. Who ignored, kept quiet, and silenced the pain? Acknowledging that would mean blaming the power structures of the church.

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.

Commentary: Imagine if this had been written directly. “I and my church are responsible for damaging lives, by our actions and our inactions.”

I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.  We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.

Commentary: This is the first use of “I,” and it occurs more than halfway through the letter. Leadership here requires personal responsibility from the Pope, and yet the only thing he takes responsibility for is being aware of efforts that some parts of the Church are taking in some parts of the world. When he says “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary,” he gets to the heart of the matter, and yet this is an optimistic hope rather than taking responsibility for specific past actions, and future actions to solve the problem.

 I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.  This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again” to every form of abuse.

Commentary: I’m not sure prayer and fasting can solve a problem that requires improvements in culture in governance, not faith alone.

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.  Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”.   Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today.  To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

Commentary: Church observers more sophisticated than me will explain that clericalism is, basically, faith in the structures and authority of the Catholic Church. I agree that misplaced faith in the authority of the church was an enabler for the abuse of children. I am not certain that reducing that authority and embracing the broader community is what the church needs to stop the abuse.

Consequently, the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God.  This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within.  Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.

Commentary: There are two ways to read this. Optimistically, it says that the participation of all Catholics in the church can create the awareness that can help solve the problem. Pessimistically, it is the church throwing up its hands and evading responsibility for what it has allowed to happen.

It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable.  Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.   An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.

Commentary: Is forgiveness where healing will begin here? It is the church’s way, but it is a hard challenge for those who suffered abuse.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”, said Saint Paul.  By an attitude of prayer and penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation.

Commentary: The reason that we are all aware of these sins is the activities of journalists and grand juries. I think that is why we are now attuned to the suffering of the abused.

May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.

Commentary: That should fix things.

A reflection on abuse in the shadow of God

I am not a religious person and my heritage is not Catholic. You can say, with some justification, that I am not qualified to offer an opinion on a statement from the Pope.

This Pope has in his past statements upended traditional attitudes towards topics like homosexuality. As a non-religious person, I tend to perceive him as a leader with a responsibility to those he leads. And he is missing a chance to lead here.

As I was reading a news article on this letter, I noticed it linked to the Pope’s letter — but in error. The article had mistakenly linked to a papal statement after a 2000-page report on abuse by priests in Chile. Rather than being chagrined by the error in the link, I was appalled that the Pope had issued another statement on abuse so similar to this one that it confused the journalists.

A religious person might tell you that faith is the path out of this litany of statements of abuse. I think something more is necessary. And it begins with the Church taking responsibility, starting at the top.

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  1. Kudos for taking on this topic (and the letter from His Holiness.) I’m a kicked-out Catholic (6th grade Sunday School: Too many knuckle bashings with a wooden ruler for me, so I told the nun to Go ___ Herself. I haven’t been a fan of corporal punishment since.) How does reciting the 10 Commandments as they’re played on an LP over and over make me a better Catholic…or something like that came out of me, first.

    I (also) admire His Holiness for changing some of The Church’s traditional views and policies. If he has been bold and 100% transparent on this issue including taking a hands-on leadership role, his domain would have crumbled, especially in those countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion. Like many 21st Century Leaders (in many domains) one of his roles is to perpetuate his enterprise. I have also seen how belief in The Church brings peace to some who don’t know another other peaceful moments.

    Does he want to be known as The Pope who burned Catholicism to the ground in order to save it? Guess not. I don’t blame him (unlike leaders in other domains) though – his is a 100% belief-based domain. If he tore it down, he would fracture millions of lives. Is a MUCH more investigative and quantitative effort to uncover abuse needed? Definitely.

  2. When I read your teaser email, I thought that the “In the wake of…” that your start of your commentary was the start of the Pope’s statement as that is passive to the max.

    I counted five “I-statements” and none say what he will do. One “invites” Catholics to pray and fast (really) for his sins. Sickening. None offer leadership. Sad.

  3. Maybe that’s because bergoglio himself is up to his neck in the scandal. In S America he covered up for many predatory homosexual priests and appointed them to positions of authority. That’s why he’s so hyperactive – deflection from his own behavior. but you can’t run forever!