Pope warns of loss of trust without more abuse responsibility

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VATICAN – Pope Francis on Friday called for Catholic bishops’ conferences to set up special centers to welcome victims of clerical sexual assault, warning that believers would continue to lose confidence in the church hierarchy without more transparency and accountability.

Francis called on his Advisory Commission on Sexual Abuse, which he set up in 2013 as an ad hoc body and recently fully integrated into the Vatican’s structure, to help bishops’ conferences around the world set up welcome centers for survivors where victims could find healing and Justice.

And he called on the Commission to conduct an annual review of what is being done globally by the Catholic hierarchy and what needs to be changed to better protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse.

“Without these advances, believers will continue to lose faith in their pastors, and it will become increasingly difficult to preach and witness the gospel,” he warned.

It was the latest effort by the Argentine pope to try to address the ongoing credibility crisis in the Catholic Church over its legacy of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, and the Vatican’s often tone-deaf response to victims’ trauma.

Francis set up the commission, known as the Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors, in the first year of its pontificate to advise the church on best practices for protecting minors and preventing abuse. But its limited mandate frustrated survivors, its outside efforts for accountability met with opposition, and one of its biggest initial recommendations – a special Vatican court to prosecute bishops covering pedophiles – went nowhere.

But Francis, who himself holds a mixed record both as pope and archbishop of Buenos Aires, has sought to breathe new life into the commission. In his recent reform of the Vatican’s bureaucracy, he gave the commission greater institutional weight by making it part of the newly named Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s office that deals with cases of sexual abuse of priests around the world.

In his speech to commissioners on Friday, Francis assured them that by integrating them more into the Vatican bureaucracy, he was in no way trying to restrict their freedom or independence or restrict their mandate – on the contrary, he said.

“It is your responsibility to expand the scope of this mission in such a way that the protection and care of those who have experienced abuse can become normative in all areas of church life,” he said.

The creation of special welcoming centers for victims, if effective, could help answer a long-standing complaint from abuse perpetrators, who often report negative experiences with the church hierarchy when reporting a pastoral perpetrator. Often they are left in the dark about the progress of their affairs and left on their own to try to heal.

Francis enacted a new church law in 2019 that explicitly states that survivors have the right to know the outcome of their cases, and he also lifted the papal secret that covered such investigations to facilitate transparency with victims as well as law enforcement.

But advocates for victims say the church still has a long way to go to address the victims and the long-term trauma they experience.

“The testimony of the survivors represents an open wound on the body of Christ, which is the Church,” Francis said.

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