In the 16 months since he assumed the papacy, Pope Francis has projected an image of humility and open arms to the outside world — especially when compared with the image of the Catholic Church projected by his predecessor.
It hasn’t taken much for Pope Francis to make waves.
Soon after becoming pope, he traveled to a juvenile detention center outside Rome and washed the feet of 12 young people, including two Muslims and two women — shocking traditionalists while expanding the reach of a custom meant to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Last summer, as he returned to the Vatican from a trip to Brazil, the pontiff said of gay priests, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” It was the first time a leader of the Catholic Church used the word “gay,” and it marked a change in attitude toward gay clergy just eight years after Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, called homosexuality “an objective disorder.”
Pope Francis also has called for a greater role for women in the Catholic Church and he has called on young Catholics to stir up “trouble in the dioceses” in order to forge a church more connected to the people.
Even without major policy changes within the church, a pope’s gestures and statements can have a powerful effect in shifting public attitudes. But even when it comes to gestures, Pope Francis has fallen short in addressing the clergy sexual abuse that has irreparably damaged victims and done serious harm to the Catholic Church.
Shortly after becoming pope in March of last year, one of Francis’ first meetings was with Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former head of the Boston archdiocese who, for years, failed to remove known sexual predators from the priesthood, allowing them to remain in contact with and abuse children. Law later was named archpriest of the St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
The reportedly friendly meeting might have been insignificant, but not the message it sent to those who had been abused by clergy under Law’s watch — that confronting the church’s history of abuse and changing the conditions that allowed it to proliferate were not priorities.
And while Francis’ predecessors met multiple times with victims of clergy sexual abuse, Pope Francis did not hold such a meeting with victims until Monday, 16 months into his papacy.
The pope’s condemnation of the priests who abused children under their watch and of the superiors who kept known sexual predators in the priesthood was appropriately strong. Now, Pope Francis must act on that condemnation.
He must remove church leaders such as Law who allowed the priests under their supervision to harm children. He must demand criminal proceedings against priests who face credible allegations of abuse.
Pope Francis can talk about the wrongs the church has committed, but until the church can ensure accountability for leadership and safety for its children, his words just won’t be enough.