Pope's vow to battle child sex abuse fails to appease victims

25 February 2019 - 09:27 By AFP
Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square, after the closing of a four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican, February 24, 2019.
Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square, after the closing of a four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican, February 24, 2019.
Image: REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Pope Francis on Sunday vowed to tackle every single case of sexual abuse by priests, comparing paedophilia to "human sacrifice", but drew an angry response from victims.

As the pope promised an "all-out battle" against abusive priests at the end of the landmark Vatican summit on the issue, his critics dismissed his speech as a "stunning letdown".

And when he blamed the Devil for abuse in the Church, one victim described his comments as "pastoral 'blah-blah'".

In his closing address to top bishops he also insisted the Church was not the only place children were assaulted.

"If in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse -- which already in itself represents an atrocity -- that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness," Francis promised.

"I am reminded of the cruel religious practice, once widespread in certain cultures, of sacrificing human beings - frequently children - in pagan rites," he said.

The sexual abuse of minors was "a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies", Francis said, as he denounced priests who prey on children as "tools of Satan".

"I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas... for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth," he said.

Children must be "protected from ravenous wolves", he said, adding: "We stand face to face with the mystery of evil".

Fresh action promised  

The scandals have hit countries around the world, with lives devastated from Australia to Chile, Germany and the US.

Pope Francis had opened the four-day meeting by calling for "concrete measures" against child sex abuse and handing 114 senior bishops a roadmap to shape the debate on tackling paedophile priests.

The pope will issue "a new Motu Proprio" on the "protection of minors and vulnerable persons", summit moderator Federico Lombardi said after the pope's speech.

"Motu Proprios" are legal documents issued under the pope's personal authority, and this one will "strengthen prevention and the fight against abuse on the part of the Roman Curia and Vatican City State," he said.

Francis also wants to create "task forces" to help local parishes fight clerical paedophilia and the Vatican will draw up guidelines for bishops on dealing with abuse cases, he added.

'Stunning letdown'

The meeting was marked by soul-seeking and self-recrimination by the Church, and horror stories from abuse victims.

But the 82-year-old pontiff had warned victims to lower their expectations, saying much of the work would be done after the summit.

"Pope Francis's talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.

"If the powerful testimonies of the past week moved the needle in the right direction, the pope today moved it back," she said.

Swiss victim Jean-Marie Furbringer said: "Honestly it's a pastoral 'blah-blah', saying it's the fault of the Devil".

"It talks about the Devil, it talks about evil... There is no talk about permanently excluding child rapists and abusers who are employees of the Church," said Britain's Peter Saunders, a victim who resigned from a Vatican advisory commission on combating abuse.

Vatican specialist Marco Politi told AFP it would be "crucial to see what happens in the coming months.

"If structures are not put in place to file complaints and address the needs of victims, then the next scandal to break out will not only hit the local church but also the credibility of the pontificate," he said.

In his lengthy speech, Francis said the Church would draw inspiration from the "best practices" in the Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children, measures developed under the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

'Heed their cries' 

Those gathered at the Vatican heard testimonies from victims, one of whom was forced to have three abortions after being abused for years by a priest who beat her, while another said he had been molested more than 100 times.

"The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power," Francis said.

"It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry," he added.

But Francesco Zanardi, survivor and head of Italian victims' association Rete Abuso, said the Vatican had "lost credibility".

"We wanted to see measures, to see the bishops (guilty of protecting paedophile priests) named. Start by opening the Vatican archives, not by destroying documents. Start handing documents over to the civil authorities," he said.

The Vatican has in the past refused to hand over internal documents about abuse cases to police investigating paedophilia.

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx admitted Saturday that "files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created". 

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