Pope Francis ended his conference on the sexual abuse of children by clergy yesterday by calling for an “all-out battle” against a crime that should be “erased from the face of the earth”.
But victims and their advocates expressed deep disappointment, saying Francis had merely repeated old promises and offered few new concrete proposals.
In his closing address to the almost 200 Church leaders he had summoned to Rome, Francis said national guidelines on preventing and punishing abuse would be strengthened and the Church’s definition of minors in cases of possession by clergy of pornography would be raised from the current age of 14.
At least two Vatican officials have been convicted in recent years of possessing child pornography. Shortly after the conference, the Vatican said it would enact a law to protect minors and vulnerable adults within the Vatican City, the tiny enclave surrounded by Rome which is one of the few countries without one.
The Vatican will also issue a “guidebook” to “help bishops around the world clearly understand their duties” and set up teams of experts to be sent to countries to help inexperienced bishops handle cases of abuse.
A list of 21 “reflection points” circulated at the conference included actions such as informing civil authorities of substantial accusations and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse.
Francis vowed the Roman Catholic Church would “spare no effort” to bring abusers to justice and would not cover up or underestimate abuse.
But he dedicated much of the first part of a speech lasting more than half an hour to statistics from the United Nations and other organizations showing that most sexual abuse of children takes place in families.
“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,” he said.
Anne Barrett-Doyle of the U.S.-based clergy abuse tracking group bishopaccountability.org, called it a “stunning letdown”. “As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the Pope instead provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before,” she said in a statement.
“Especially distressing was the pope’s familiar rationalization that abuse happens in all sectors of society … We needed him to offer a bold and decisive plan. He gave us instead defensive, recycled rhetoric,” Barrett-Doyle said.
Italian abuse survivor Alessandro Battaglia cried in St. Peter’s Square along with other victims.