Survivors of Church Abuse Want Zero Tolerance. The Pope Offers Context.

At a Vatican conference on clerical sexual abuse, victims spoke of their lives being ruined. Closing the conference, Francis appeared to equivocate.

Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square, after a Vatican conference on child sex abuse.
Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square, after a Vatican conference on child sex abuse. (Remo Casilli / Reuters)

VATICAN CITY—At a Vatican conference on protecting minors in the Church, abuse survivors, including a woman who’d been raped repeatedly by a priest, told how their lives had been ruined—before Pope Francis and an audience of 190 prelates from around the world. A Nigerian nun took the Church to task for “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency.” A cardinal acknowledged that some Church files on abuse cases had been systematically destroyed.

All this seemed a step forward. And then in his closing remarks here on Sunday, Francis struck a different tone.

In a speech at the end of a Mass in which prelates had offered a “mea maxima culpa,” Francis put the Church’s sexual-abuse crisis in historical and cultural context. Studies find that most sexual abuse happens in the home, he said. And pornography and sex tourism are also scourges in the world. He warned against “justicialism provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure, and a defensiveness that fails to confront the causes and effects of these grave crimes.”

The pope was speaking to bishops as a pastor, not issuing guidelines—a few of those were announced at the conference’s conclusion. But as Francis spoke, I couldn’t help but think that his contextualizing underscored and even exacerbated one of the deepest divides in the Catholic world today: between the expectations of victims in the United States—who want “zero tolerance” for convicted abusers—and the way the Vatican conceives of the crisis.

The conference might have finally made some prelates, especially from the Global South (and the Vatican), aware of the depth and scope of the crisis, but it marked an even greater chasm between the Vatican and the United States. “He absolutely doesn’t get it. This is a catastrophic misreading of the faithful,” Anne Barrett-Doyle, a co-founder of, a Boston-based advocacy organization that keeps detailed records of abuse cases and their outcomes in civil courts and Church tribunals, told me. She meant the faithful in the United States. “He spent the bulk of his speech rationalizing that abuse happens in all sectors of society. This is one of his favorite diversionary tactics.”

Barrett-Doyle also pointed to Francis’s saying that the “best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims” is “the commitment to personal and collective conversion,” that is, to raising spiritual awareness of their wounds. “Conversion is unmeasurable, conversion is unenforceable,” she said. Yes, conversion is unmeasurable and unenforceable, but it’s not surprising for the pope to speak in theological terms. This is what he meant when he warned against “justicialism,” or taking a more law-and-order approach to the crisis. And that’s precisely why so many abuse victims are frustrated that they’ve found greater justice from civil authorities than Church ones.

One of the biggest unresolved flash points here is the concept of “zero tolerance.” Many victims’ groups in the United States, France, and elsewhere are calling on the Church to issue a “one-strike” policy of defrocking priests convicted of abuse and bishops on whose watch priests abused. The term zero tolerance was not used much at the conference, and was not in a series of 21 “reflection points” that the pope asked participants to consider. If anything, the conference seemed to back away from the idea of defrocking, tending instead to focus on the idea of removing a priest from ministry in some cases rather than removing him from the clerical state.

“Removing from exercise of ministry should not be seen as a punishment but rather as the duty to protect the flock,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former top Vatican prosecutor of abuse cases and an adviser to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that investigates such cases, said at the conclusion of the conference.

The conference made clear that Vatican officials now talk about abuse in terms of crime and punishment, not just sin and forgiveness, but there’s still a disconnect in how civil and Church law set punishments. Canon law has taken a more pastoral approach, one that leans toward forgiveness, but Church officials seem to be aware of the bad image that creates. “The Church must not operate below the quality standards of public administration of justice if it doesn’t want to face criticism that it has an inferior legal system, which is harmful to people,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich told the conference.

During the conference, the Vatican had put its best face forward, presenting to the media some of the clerics with the deepest understanding of the depth and breadth of the crisis, including Archbishop Scicluna, Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

But how representative are these clerics of the global Church? I have a suspicion that there are many other prelates in high positions in the Vatican who still believe that the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church is an invention by an overly zealous secular media with a grudge to bear against the Church, or a creation of lawyers out for settlements, and not the natural consequence of the crisis of faith that comes about from revelations about a pervasive culture of cover-up in a hierarchical organization that oversees a billion souls.

I hope I’m wrong, but my suspicion is based on years of experience covering the Vatican, which often requires reading between the lines and chasing shadows. I’d like to believe Archbishop Scicluna when he said at the end of the conference that “there is no going back.”

“For decades we were focusing on the crime, but we also now realize that covering up is also deeply egregious,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is a change of heart that is important.”

The conference was definitely significant as a consciousness-raising exercise that focused major attention on the abuse crisis, such that prelates can no longer plausibly deny or downplay its scope. But there’s still a long way to go on this path, on this pilgrimage, as two Jesuit priests who co-organized the conference like to put it. Some speakers at the conference called for an end to a “culture of silence,” to change the Vatican’s rules on papal secrecy and to release statistics about the number of abuse cases judged by Church courts and publish the judicial proceedings. It’s unclear whether the Vatican will heed those recommendations.

The question in my mind is whether the Vatican and victims (and the Church) in the United States are even on the same course, or whether their paths are diverging, maybe even irreparably. “This crisis is far from over,” Barrett-Doyle told me. I tend to agree.