Pope Francis Stops Hiding From the Church’s Sexual-Abuse Epidemic

The leader of the Catholic Church has issued rules creating worldwide accountability for reporting allegations of abuse. But he still faces deep cynicism from the body faithful.  

Pope Francis speaks during a meeting with the dioceses of Rome about sexual abuse. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

Before this week, the Roman Catholic Church had no global policy requiring priests and bishops to report and investigate allegations of sexual abuse. No formal measure held bishops accountable for misconduct and cover-ups, despite a number of high-profile, horrific cases of wrongdoing by the Church’s top leaders. With story after story exposing new abuses around the world, Catholics have grown cynical about the Vatican’s willingness to face the global sickness of sexual abuse, and many have abandoned the Church entirely.

On Thursday, Pope Francis took a significant step toward changing that.

The pope’s moto proprio, which will take effect in June and remain in place as an experiment for three years, is a definitive and concrete step forward for the Church, demonstrating that Pope Francis is taking sexual abuse seriously. The new law is not a panacea, however: It does not detail specific punishments for Church leaders who violate these norms, and it does not mandate the involvement of authorities outside the Church. After years of paralysis on this issue, the Church must grapple with the crisis of confidence among the faithful, along with skeptics who believe the Catholic Church is not capable of policing itself against abuses of power.

The new law institutes a detailed mechanism for reporting allegations against bishops, and offers protections to whistle-blowers. The pope’s definition of sexual abuse is expansive enough to cover children, seminarians, nuns and women in religious orders, and people with mental disabilities—all of whom have been victimized by Church leaders. (It also condemns the possession or production of child pornography.) Perhaps most important, it demands that alleged victims are offered support services ranging from therapy to spiritual counseling, and promises to protect their confidentiality.

These accountability measures for bishops matter in part because a few of these leaders played notorious roles in covering up sexual-abuse scandals across the world, especially in moving accused priests to different posts when allegations arose.

Pope Francis has been working toward this moment for several months. In February, he hosted the leaders of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican for an unprecedented summit on the Church’s failure to address sexual abuse, where he called for “concrete and effective measures.” In March, he issued a law mandating that Vatican officials and diplomats quickly report and address any allegations of sexual abuse or face possible jail time. This motu proprio, called “Vos Estis Lux Mundi”—Latin for “You are the light of the world”—is the culmination of years of advocacy from inside and outside the Church. “The law is important because it gives a clear statement of an obligation,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a longtime Vatican official and member of the small task force that led the February meeting on sexual abuse, in an interview with reporters after the announcement of the motu proprio. “It is a very strong message that disclosure is the order of the day, and not silence.”

The new law is a major departure from the Vatican’s past action—or, more precisely, inaction—on sexual abuse. For years, Vatican officials dismissed the sexual-abuse crisis as an embarrassing American problem. Benedict XVI, who served as pope for eight years prior to Francis, was the first known pope to meet with abuse victims, and during his tenure, he apologized for the Church’s abuses. But Benedict also carried baggage: Before becoming pope, he had a vexed tenure as the Vatican official in charge of the office that dealt with sexual abuse, contributing to what The New York Times called a culture of “nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction.” Throughout his tenure, Benedict failed to implement comprehensive structural reforms that would have aided in reporting and accountability across the Catholic Church. More recently, he issued a controversial letter that blamed the sexual-abuse crisis on the sexual revolution and 1960s-era reforms in the Church.

Francis, too, has struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis. Early into his papacy, he convened a special Vatican commission on the abuse of minors, but the body failed to execute any meaningful reforms; two sexual-abuse survivors who served on the commission eventually abandoned it in frustration. Less than 18 months ago, Francis was embroiled in a scandal of his own making, after he lashed out at survivors who had brought allegations of a cover-up against a Chilean bishop.

According to Seán O’Malley, the Boston cardinal who has been the Church’s most visible advocate for reform on this issue, that backlash marked a moment of transformation for Francis. After apologizing for his comments, the pope met with Chilean abuse survivors to hear their stories. “His encounter with victims has made a very profound impact on his life and his ministry,” O’Malley told me earlier this year. After a series of scandals rocked the American Church over the summer, Francis issued a “letter to the people of God” acknowledging the suffering caused by sexual abuse. Since then, horror stories of Catholic sexual abuse have kept coming, including the case of an Indian bishop who allegedly raped a nun repeatedly over a two-year period and the criminal conviction of a top Australian cardinal, George Pell, for molesting two choirboys decades ago.

The new motu proprio does not erase these crimes, or necessarily stop them from taking place in the future. It does, however, establish explicit measures holding bishops accountable for reporting crimes, and sets the expectation that Catholic officials worldwide will address allegations quickly and transparently, including by informing victims about the outcome of investigations. This is the greatest cultural shift in the Church: Where Catholic leaders once sought to cover up abuse in a dangerously misguided attempt to protect the Church, the pope himself has now demanded the opposite.

What the motu proprio does not do is establish mechanisms for reporting abuse allegations outside of the Catholic hierarchy. The law nods to the possible contributions of lay people in investigations, but does not require their involvement. It acknowledges that various countries may require Catholic leaders to report abuse allegations to civil authorities, but does not state that this is required. This winter, Catholic leaders in countries with hostile governments to the Church, including many in the global South, expressed worry that sexual-abuse allegations would be used as a weapon against them. Many critics of the Church do not believe the Catholic hierarchy is capable of holding its leaders accountable without the pressure of law enforcement, however. For abuse survivors who have lived through relentless cycles of denial and deflection from Church leaders, which have never stopped, the motu proprio may be deeply unsatisfactory.

In the United States, where the sexual-abuse scandal has been especially acute, bishops have long had requirements in place around reporting allegations of abuse and working with outside authorities. In the past several years, a number of dioceses and religious orders have published lists of known abusers. These examples undoubtedly influenced the pope, who has turned to two American leaders in particular—O’Malley and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago—for guidance on this issue. But American Catholics could not solve this issue on their own. They needed guidelines from the very highest level of the Church to put in place new standards of accountability and behavior.

Ultimately, this is the greatest challenge Francis still faces: He must work to recover the confidence of faithful Catholics around the world who have been shocked and disillusioned by the decades-long sexual-abuse crisis. No reform, however, can fix the harm done to generations of churchgoers who either suffered from abuse or felt betrayed by its prevalence in their churches. Rather than a panacea for past sins, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” is a tentative promise to the future that no Catholic leader will be allowed to get away with abuse or cover-ups again. It is now up to the Church to fulfill that promise.