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Francis: Church waited too long to respond to sex abuse.

VATICAN CITY * Pope Francis has admitted that the Catholic Church waited too long before taking reports of clergy sexual abuse seriously, suggesting that the former practice of moving priests accused of abuse to new ministries instead of reporting them to authorities kept the church numb to the scope of the situation.

In his first formal meeting Sept. 21 with the now 3-year-old Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the pontiff also called "prophetic" the men and women who urged the church for decades to face the problem.

"I know it has not been easy to start this work," the pope told the members of the commission in off-the-cuff remarks notable for their frankness. "You have had to swim against the current because there is a reality: The church has taken consciousness about these crimes in a delayed manner."

"Maybe the old practice of moving people around, of not facing the problem, kept our consciousness asleep," the pope suggested. "Thanks to God, the Lord sent prophetic men and women in the church ... who got others involved and began this work to face the problem head-on."

Francis told the members of the pontifical commission that while the speech he had prepared for their meeting was important, they had a "right" to hear from him spontaneously in order to learn "how things have come and how they are going" with the church's response to clergy sexual abuse.

The commission was meeting in Rome for a plenary assembly While Francis greeted some of the group's members at their first meeting in May 2014, he had never before formally met with them or offered public remarks about their work.

The pope's words come as the group has recently faced public questioning of its effectiveness in stopping future abuse of children in the Catholic Church. It is currently operating without any active members who are abuse survivors, following the March 1 resignation of Marie Collins, who cited frustration with Vatican officials' reluctance to cooperate with the group's work.

While Francis did not address Collins' resignation directly, he referenced concerns that he said had been raised over how the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handles cases of clergy abuse, something that Collins has written about for NCR (NCR, April 7-20).

The pope said he had been asked if responsibility for handling clergy sexual abuse should be moved from the doctrinal congregation to one of the Vatican's tribunal courts.

"I believe that for the moment that resolving the problems of abuse has to be under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," Francis said.

Francis also spoke about the work of a commission he created in January 2015 to hear appeals of priests accused of sexual abuse. He said that commission, led by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, is working well but "has to be adjusted a bit, with the [added] presence of some diocesan bishops who have dealt with the problem in situ."

The pope announced that he has decided that once a priest is proven to have abused a minor, he will no longer be able to appeal his case.

"I have decided to rebalance this commission a bit, and also to say that a proven abuse of minors is sufficient to not receive an appeal," he said. "If there's proof, then it's definitive."

Francis addressed his power as pope to pardon priests found guilty of abuse. He said frankly: "I have never signed one of these [pardons] and I will never sign one."

However, the pope admitted that early in his pontificate he had decided to give one priest accused of abuse a lesser sentence than what the doctrinal congregation had recommended.

He said the congregation had recommended the priest be laicized, while a diocesan inquiry had suggested leaving him as a priest but removing him from ministry.

"I was new and I did not understand these things well," said the pontiff. "Confronted with the two [choices], I chose the more benevolent." Francis did not specify if the priest committed abuse again, but said that two years later he "re-fell."

"I learned from this," said the pope. "I learned that [pedophilia] is an ugly sickness. ... We have to get it in our heads that this is a sickness."

The meeting between the pope and the commission started Sept. 21 with an address by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the commission's president. The cardinal called the safeguarding of children "an integral part of the mission of the church."

O'Malley also said he expected that his group would be offering recommendations to the pope at the end of their meeting in Rome for the "renewal" of their membership after their three years of work.

Two other commission members also addressed the pope: Precious Blood Missionary Sr. Hermenegild Makoro, who is also the secretary general of South Africa's bishops' conference; and Bill Kilgallon, the director of the New Zealand church's national office for professional standards.

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Title Annotation:WORLD
Author:McElwee, Joshua J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 6, 2017
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