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Church abandoned the little ones, says shamed Pope Francis

The past few weeks have dealt us with overwhelming revelations of deplorable acts of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as uncovered by US investigators and extensively covered in the world media. Ricardo da Silva SJ takes a close look at the letter from Pope Francis in which the head of the Catholic Church accepts blame and culpability for the greatest crimes committed by its leaders.  

In a much-called-for and anticipated response, Pope Francis has written a letter to all of the people of God in which he responds to the devastating crisis facing the Catholic Church at this time.

This letter appears to be one of Pope Francis’ most strongly worded letters. At its core, it is an unwavering call to repentance and shame; the Church’s highest-ranking official acknowledges the shameful crimes of abuse by its leaders.

He recognises that these are “[c]rimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness” on society’s fabric, “believers and non-believers alike”, and most especially on those who have fallen victim to predator priests, our children.

Again, and again, he reiterates the Church's culpability. At one point saying that “it is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable.”

With this, the pope recognises that the Church has “long ignored, kept quiet or silenced” the “heart-wrenching pain of these victims”. Even more, he accepts that the Church’s blame is increased in gravity “by falling into complicity” and even by instituting systemic interventions which sought to silence the painful experiences of victims.

But, he says that “their outcry was more powerful” and “though these wounds never disappear… they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death”.

There is no attempt to hide the Church’s shame as the pope declares that “[w]e showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them”.

For Christians, we know just how shocking this statement is. The pope is acknowledging that the Church has fallen short of the gospel standard it so boldly professes and preaches from its pulpits. In this respect, it has failed and turned away from its following of Christ who calls the little children to draw near to Himself.

The most haunting phrase in the pope’s letter is a citation from Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005:

“How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency!”

There is no scapegoating in this letter. This is in contrast to the responses that we have seen in the preceding days, especially by members of the episcopate in the USA. The pope says clearly and without any attempt to deflect blame or responsibility from the Church and the “ecclesial wounds” it has inflicted. “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future”.

There have been many attempts in the last few days to attribute and shift blame for the sexual abuse crisis to a particular group or kind of cleric. However, the pope is quick to quash these claims. He squarely faces, what he sees to be, the systemic problem that plagues the Church and continually rears its powerful head, clericalism. “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism”. Clericalism, the pope says “nullifies the character of Christians but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace”.

Finally, and without trying to diminish the blame of clerics at the heart of this abuse scandal, Pope Francis calls us to recognise the communal charism of the Church outlined in the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). He echoes the call that all the church’s faithful have in rooting out this evil “that has darkened so many lives”.

Pope Francis calls the entire body of the Church to “an attitude of prayer and penance”. He urges the faithful to follow the example of Mary, the mother of God, who “teaches all of us to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ”.

The full text of Pope Francis' letter can be read here.

Images: Unsplash/Nacho Arteaga

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.