The Catholic Church will stop covering up the crimes of paedophile priests “as was usual in the past,” Pope Francis said on Sunday.
The pope said this at the end of the Vatican’s anti-child abuse summit, but his much-anticipated speech was short on concrete measures.
The unprecedented summit was called in response to a new spate of clergy sex abuse and cover-up allegations, including in the US, Chile, Germany and Australia, which exacerbated the Catholic Church’s decades-old sex abuse crisis.
“No abuse must ever be covered up, as was usual in the past, or overlooked, as covering up abuses favours the spread of evil and adds a further layer of scandal,” the pope said in a closing speech to the four-day conference.
Addressing an audience of nearly 200, including 114 bishops from around the world and a handful of nuns, he reaffirmed this.
He said: “Even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – […] will be tackled with the utmost seriousness.
“We have heard these commitments to ‘confront abuse’ many times before.
“When and how is what we need to hear – in detail,” Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, who resigned from a Vatican anti-sex abuse panel in 2017, commented on Twitter.
The Vatican announced “Concrete initiatives’’ in a separate statement.
These include new child protection rules for the Vatican City State and the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administration, to soon be published by the pope, Father Federico Lombardi, a summit organiser, said.
There will also be a new Vatican-issued code of conduct for bishops handling abuse cases, and “task forces’’ deployed to national Catholic Church organisations that are further behind on anti-abuse measures, Lombardi said.
Opening the summit on Thursday, Francis presented a 21-point reform road map against child abuse.
But his Sunday speech did not include specific commitments, except for a pledge to toughen Vatican laws against online child pornography.
Thomas Schueller, a Canon Law Expert at the University of Muenster in Germany, called Francis’ remarks as “a missed opportunity”.
He said: “Instead of forcefully stating the church’s responsibility from the perspective of the victims, there was the routine and uninspiring roll-out of statements of the obvious.”
Francis said a Vatican law introduced by his predecessor Benedict XVI in 2010, which criminalised the possession and sharing of lewd images or videos of children under 14, should be expanded to punish material concerning older minors.
But on Saturday, Ending Clergy Abuse, a global advocacy group for abuse survivors, had other priorities as it called for the automatic expulsion from the clergy of all predator priests and bishops who cover up for them.
ECA sees that as real “zero tolerance’’ against abuse.
“It also called for the publication of a “global registry of credibly accused clergy’’ and for the Catholic Church to “provide reparation for victims worldwide.”
Francis did not directly respond to those demands.
His speech framed child sex abuse as part of a wider societal problem, noting that perpetrators are “primarily parents, relatives, husbands of child brides, coaches and teachers,” rather than priests.
However, such conduct is “all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility,” and clergy, who engage in it “become tools of Satan”.
The sexual abuse of minors, Francis insisted, “is always the result of an abuse of power,” and church leaders must take responsibility for it, rather than “fall into the trap of blaming others, which is a step towards the ‘alibi’ that separates us from reality”.
He said: “I am reminded too of the cruel religious practice, once widespread in certain cultures, of sacrificing human beings – frequently children – in pagan rites.”
The pope rejected contrasting solutions to the crisis offered by Catholic progressives and conservatives, consisting, on one hand, of an end to the celibacy rule for priests, and, on the other, involving tougher policing against homosexual behaviour within the clergy.
Writing on Twitter, German child abuse survivor and ECA spokesman, Matthias Katsch said “the pope’s speech is a shameless attempt to put himself at the forefront of the movement [against child abuse], without confronting the guilt and failure, or tackling real changes”.
Earlier, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Australia delivered a homily in the Mass that preceded Francis’ speech in which he said leaders of the Catholic Church have been their “own worst enemy” as they turned a blind eye to clergy child sex abuse.
Speaking from the Sala Regia, a grand hall that serves as an antichamber to the Sistine Chapel, Coleridge called for a “Copernican revolution” consisting in “the discovery that those, who have been abused do not revolve around the Church but the Church around them”.