After the recent reports of major abuse scandals in the U.S. and Chile, Pope Francis is under prere. He reacts with a unique step: an incendiary letter "to the people of God".
"With shame and remorse, we as a communion of the Church admit that we did not stand where we should have stood and that we did not act in a timely manner when we realized the extent and gravity of the harm," reads a nearly four-page papal letter Monday.
It is addressed "to the people of God" – that is, to the entire church. The ie: sexual abuse, once again.
A letter to all
The letter, marked by consternation, is not just about the U.S., where there was another recent shameful report of three-quarters of a century of abuse and cover-up involving some 1.000 victims gave. He's not just targeting Ireland, where the pope is traveling this weekend and which has been grappling with a sprawling history of abuse for decades. Nor is he referring only to Chile, where the abuse crisis continues to fester and where Francis initially reacted the wrong way.
This time the pope means the whole church. Although Francis had already written to the Chilean bishops in April, in May he then wrote "to the people of God in Chile.". The current letter is reminiscent of this letter in its nature and approach. Benedict XVI. (2005-2013), who significantly stepped up the fight against abuse, wrote a similar letter to Irish Catholics back in 2010. To end the abuse crisis, he relied above all on the bishops. Francis now calls on all the baptized to fight evil.
Current abuse scandal in the U.S
In the U.S., bishops had proven to be part of the problem: Of all people, an author of the "zero tolerance policy" loudly proclaimed 15 years ago, the then Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (88), is now himself suspected of sexual abuse. And his successor Donald Wuerl (77) is suspected of not having been tough enough on abusers once as bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After the report from Pennsylvania and before the pope's visit to Dublin, the College of Cardinals is alarmed. Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, president of the pope's child protection commission and a hardliner on abuse, has canceled his attendance at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. Wuerl's refusal followed a short time later. A conflagration threatens, which the pope wants to contain with his spectacular letter.
The faithful are losing patience
It is no longer enough to apologize, preached on Sunday Dublin's Archbishop Martin. "Catholics have lost their patience with us, and society has lost its confidence in us," O'Malley warned in Boston.
In his letter, Francis is now trying to turn things around. The cry of the victims has been stronger "than the actions of all those who have tried to silence it". This also applies to himself. As recently as January, he dismissed accusations against priests and bishops in Chile as denunciation. But now he is siding with the victims.
Pope: Abuse is a crime
Abuse is called not just 'sin' but 'crime' by pope. And he writes: These "wounds never expire". Then he quotes the Gospel of Luke: God "scatters those who are full of pride in heart; he overthrows the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly."With it the pope means this time church superiors. In a commentary, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke clarifies that cover-up allegations in many cases meant bishops.
Francis has often railed against clericalism; most recently at a meeting with Italian youth who asked him about the causes of church scandals. Clericalism is based on a false understanding of authority – "very widespread in numerous communities in which behaviors of sexual abuse as well as abuse of power and conscience have occurred," the pope now writes.
This is also meant for communities like the Legionaries of Christ, who had to renounce their sexual pathological founder Marcial Maciel (1920-2008) in a painful process. Or to the "Sodalicio" community in Peru, which Francis placed under his own supervision this spring.
Fasting, penance and prayer
In the conversion and the way out of such a culture of clericalism, of looking away and covering up, every Christian must participate, according to Francis. Otherwise there will be no "healthy and effective transformation". At this point he talks a lot about fasting, penance and prayer. Some commentators miss concrete action.
Such a letter, however, would hardly be the right place to introduce new paragraphs in canon law or new training guidelines. That all this is necessary, experts believe. But, warns Vatican child protection expert and psychologist Hans Zollner, laws and regulations alone are not enough. A change of mentality is needed – in the whole church. And that's why the pope wrote this letter.