In a major address on Sunday, 24 February, Pope Francis contextualises the ‘scourge’ of abuse, and appeals for an “all-out battle against the abuse of minors, both sexually and in other areas.”
“The time has come, then, to work together to eradicate the evil” of child abuse, Pope Francis said, in a speech delivered at the close of the final Mass for the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church. “The time has come to find a correct equilibrium of all values in play and to provide uniform directives for the Church, avoiding the two extremes of a ‘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”.
Speaking to church leaders, primarily the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences, the Holy Father said, “the Church’s aim will be to hear, watch over, protect, and care for abused, exploited, and forgotten children, wherever they are”. To achieve that goal, he continued, “the Church must rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by little ones”.
A global context
Pope Francis began his address by putting the sexual abuse of children in a global context. The work of the Meeting, he said, “has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies”.
Even today, he said, it is difficult to get a true idea of “the real extent of the phenomenon”, since sexual abuse is often not reported, “particularly the great number committed within families”. Citing the best data available – “in my opinion,” he said, “still partial” – the Pope said the “first truth that emerges” is that “those who perpetrate abuse that is acts of physical, sexual, or emotional violence, are primarily parents, relatives, husbands of child brides, coaches, and teachers”.
The Pope concludes, “we are thus facing a universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere, and affecting everyone”. “Yet we need to be clear that while gravely affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church”. Indeed, “the brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility”.
The Church, Pope Francis says, “feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves”. He insists, “if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness”.
Pope Francis notes that the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors cannot be understood without considering “power”, “since it is always the result of an abuse of power” which is also present “in other forms of abuse”, such as “child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children”, trafficking victims, “child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children, and so many others”.
A manifestation of the spirit of evil
But, the Pope continues, “Before all this cruelty, all this idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god of power, money, pride and arrogance, empirical explanations alone are not sufficient”. While empirical explanations can provide an explanation, they are “incapable of giving us a meaning”. So, he asks, “what would be the existential ‘meaning’ of this criminal phenomenon”.
“In the light of its human breadth and depth, it is none other than the present-day manifestation of the spirit of evil”. He warns that “if we fail to take account of this dimension, we will remain far from the truth and lack real solutions”.
Pope Francis says that “Just as we must take every practical measure that common sense, the sciences and society offer us, neither must we lose sight of this reality; we need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance”. This, he says, “is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil”.
Looking to “best practices” formulated under the guidance of the World Health Organization, as well as the work of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the contributions made by the ‘Protection of Minors’ Meeting, Pope Francis said the Church going forward will concentrate in particular on eight aspects of the crisis: protection of children, impeccable seriousness, genuine purification, formation, strengthening and reviewing guidelines by Episcopal Conferences, accompaniment of those who have been abused, the digital world, and sexual tourism”.
Notably, Pope Francis reiterated his commitment that “the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case” of abuse of minors.
The Holy Father also thanked all priests and consecrated persons “who serve the Lord faithfully and totally”, despite the “shameful conduct of some of their confreres”; as well as the “majority of priests who are not only faithful to their celibacy, but spend themselves in a ministry today made even more difficult by the scandals of the few (but always too many of their confreres”. He thanked, too, the faithful, who “who are well aware of the goodness of their pastors, and who continue to pray for them and to support them”.
Opportunity for purification
Finally, the Pope stressed the importance of “turning this evil into an opportunity for purification”. Quoting Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Pope Francis said, “Surely, the decisive events of history of the world have been essentially influenced by souls about whom the history books remain silent”. The “holy, faithful People of God”, he explained, “in its daily silence, in many forms and ways continues to demonstrate and attest with ‘stubborn’ hope that the Lord never abandons but sustains the constant and, in so many cases, painful devotion of his children”.
“The best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims, to the People of Holy Mother Church and to the entire world”, the Pope said, “are the commitment to personal and collective conversion, the humility of learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable”.
An all-out battle against abuse
And he concluded his address with his “heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth: this is demanded by all the many victims hidden in families and in the various settings of our societies”.