ROME—Pope Francis opened a highly anticipated meeting about the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church with remarks that were strong, brief, and to the point. “The holy people of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete,” he said.
But how to be concrete? In this seemingly never-ending tragic story of minors sexually abused by prelates and a pervasive culture of cover-up, even today the gap between words and actions remains complicated. The Church has historically seen this as an issue of sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. And whereas canon law, which is designed to adjudicate prelates, not to protect children, leaves tremendous room for ambiguity, civil law is generally far more clear on how to prosecute abusers—and includes the crucial concept of consent.
So it was striking on Thursday to hear two of the conference’s opening speakers use the term crimes in no uncertain terms—a marked change from Vatican rhetoric of the past. “An essential aspect of the exercise of stewardship in these cases is the proper interface with civil jurisdiction. We are talking about misconduct that is also a crime in all civil jurisdictions,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who spent a decade as the Vatican’s top investigator on abuse cases. He later said it was important for the Church to move “from a culture of silence” to “a culture of disclosure.”