After largely refusing to take questions on the clerical sexual abuse scandals or anything else unrelated to his four-day trip to the Baltics, Pope Francis during a press conference on Tuesday said that a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report is actually an “example” suggesting the Church is making progress.
That report, which appeared in mid-August, identified more than 300 predator priests over a 70-year span and more than 1,000 child victims. Francis, however, suggested that since the results show fewer cases in recent years, the implication is that the Church’s anti-abuse efforts are working.
“The Church takes an example from Pennsylvania, given the numbers that you see when the Church first became aware of this, and gave it all in recent times,” he said.
Most of the alleged abuse identified by the grand jury occurred during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, although some experts say the lower numbers in recent years may also be due to delays in victims coming forward.
“I think that in Pennsylvania, for example, we see that for the first 70 years many priests had fallen to this corruption [of sexual abuse]. Then in recent times, it diminished because the Church noticed that it had to fight in another way. In previous times things were covered up,” Francis said.
“I see an accusation of the Church. We all know the statistics,” he said. “Even if it was just one priest who abused one boy or girl, it’s monstrous. Because that man was chosen by God to lead the child to heaven.”
Francis also touched on clerical sex abuse when discussing an ecumenical meeting he had with youth during his trip, where he recognized that many young people “are scandalized by the hypocrisy of adults. Are scandalized by wars. They are scandalized by incoherence. They are scandalized by corruption.”
It’s corruption, the pope said, that underlies the question of sexual abuse.
The pontiff also insisted he has never wavered in his commitment to a “zero-tolerance” policy on abuse.
“Never, never have I signed a request for leniency after a sentence has been made,” Pope Francis said while briefly discussing the topic of sexual abuse aboard the papal plane Sep. 25. “There is no negotiating on that.”
The pontiff appeared to be responding to criticism over cases such as Father Mauro Inzoli, an Italian cleric who was removed the priesthood under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and then reinstated under Francis, only to be dismissed again when he was convicted of sexual abuse by an Italian court.
In the same way as it happened in families, the pope said, where children were at times vulnerable to their uncles or fathers, the culture in the past century was to cover up such abuse because “there was great shame.”
In examining the legacy of the past, the pope suggested, it’s good to adopt the “hermeneutics of the time,” meaning that things that happened in the past should be considered in the context of the time. Francis made the comparison with the colonial mentality toward indigenous people, victims of “many injustices, many brutalities” and also the death penalty.
On this last point, Francis recognized that the Vatican until the late 1800’s committed executions of criminals.
“Then the moral conscience grows,” he said, but added that “always secret ways exist and there are hidden death sentences.” He made the example of elderly people, who often are victims of “a social death sentence today.”