ROME—Pope Francis on Sunday strongly condemned sexual abuse but offered no specific solutions, disappointing clergy and laypeople who had hoped for a breakthrough at an unprecedented global summit to address the crisis in the Catholic Church.
The pope, in his widely awaited closing speech, said the church’s response should avoid “defensiveness that fails to confront the causes and effects of these grave crimes.” He also warned against overreaction “provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure” and emphasized that abuse is a problem in wider society beyond the church.
For some, the pope’s passionate rhetoric fell short. “I didn’t see any concrete actions in the text,” said Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, a body of Catholic laypeople that advises U.S. bishops on child protection. “It’s a lot of words that have been spoken over and over again.”
Expectations had been high for the speech, the culmination of the pope’s most high-profile response to the abuse crisis, but it appeared unlikely to heal divisions within the church or repair the confidence of believers in the U.S. and elsewhere after years of revelations of abuse and of coverups by senior clergy.
Abuse victims and activists who support tough reforms had called on the pope to institute a global policy of “zero tolerance” that would make removing all clerical abusers from ministry the law of the church. But the pope, who had previously used the phrase, didn’t mention it in his speech, in what critics took as a signal that the problem wouldn’t be solved during his pontificate.
The pope’s critics and others are likely to continue to press for more concrete overhauls to make the church’s handling of abuse cases more transparent and to show that wrongdoers and bishops who cover up for them are consistently held to account.
“Until the day when a pope can say that any priest guilty of abusing a child, anywhere in the world, will be permanently removed from ministry, the church will have no credibility in this matter,” one church official lamented on the sidelines of the conference.
Pope Francis called the summit last September following a string of scandals in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Australia—and in the immediate wake of accusations by a former Vatican envoy to the U.S. that the pope had ignored a history of sexual misconduct with adults by former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
On the first day of the summit Thursday, the pope fed hopes for concrete reforms when he gave bishops guidelines for discussion that suggested a code of conduct and the involvement of laity in their oversight.
There followed three full days of televised speeches from bishops, laywomen, and a Nigerian nun who denounced the bishops for their “mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency” in handling sex abuse.
Some hoped for a new Vatican office dedicated to policing misconduct by the hierarchy. Others wanted the pope to put “zero tolerance” into canon law and bring the world-wide church into line with the small number of national bishops’ conferences that require all clerical sex abusers who are convicted in church trials be removed permanently from ministry.
“He’s the supreme head of the church, he has the power to do that,” Peter Saunders, an abuse victim who resigned from the pope’s child protection commission in 2017 to protest what he said was Vatican inaction, said last week. “If he doesn’t do that then we’re all wasting our time.”
None of that happened on Sunday. The pope spoke in general terms about letting national bishops’ conferences strengthen local standards on abuse.
“No abuse should ever be covered up,” the pope said.
Some drew encouragement from the emphasis in his speech on the accountability of bishops. George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II and prominent commentator on church affairs, said the summit had vindicated the recent efforts by U.S. bishops in that regard.
The pope also displayed a controversial feature of his attitude to clerical sex abuse: his belief that the church has been unfairly singled out, since the vast majority of abuse occurs outside of the church, above all in the home.
“Those who perpetrate abuse…are primarily parents, relatives, husbands of child brides, coaches and teachers,” he said.
His call for an “all-out battle” on abuse was an appeal to secular leaders and wider society, not a crusade focused on the church, and related not just to sexual abuse but to all abuse of children.
“The abuse of power is likewise present in the other forms of abuse affecting almost 85,000,000 children, forgotten by everyone: child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children, children kidnapped and often victimized by the horrid commerce of human organs or enslaved, child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children and so many others,” the pope said.
Some victims’ advocates criticized that wider focus as a tactic for shifting blame from the hierarchy. But Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, tweeted that, by “bringing in the broader context of child exploitation,” the pope “wasn’t minimizing clerical abuse, but showing that eradicating it is an even greater responsibility for church.”
“I’m really glad that the pope calls for this big battle against sexual abuse,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a prominent Chilean victim. “I just worry about the bishops going back home and going back to their old tactics.”
The Vatican said it would give bishops around the world a new handbook to help them “understand their duties and tasks.” But the Vatican has at times reined in bishops from addressing the abuse crisis in their own way. Last November, it ordered the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not to vote on a set of proposed measures on the oversight and disciplining of bishops for sexual abuse and other misconduct.
“It’s all going to come down to whether anything on a local level is going to move forward,” Mr. Cesareo said, predicting that if the U.S. bishops are unable to move on some version of their reform agenda by June, more U.S. Catholics “will just say ‘they don’t get it, I’m done with the church.’”
Write to Francis X. Rocca at firstname.lastname@example.org