Pope Francis has criticised Catholic bishops in the US for their approach to the church’s sexual abuse crisis, saying that blame-shifting and “playing the victim” have undermined the church’s credibility.
He made his comments in an eight-page letter to America’s bishops as they met for a prayer retreat – at his request – to consider a series of abuse incidents.
“The church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them,” the Pope wrote in the letter released by the Vatican last week.
Francis’ letter comes in the wake of a crisis-ridden year for American Catholics. Last year, a prominent cardinal resigned in disgrace, grand jurors accused hundreds of Catholic clerics of secretly abusing children and a former Vatican ambassador urged the Pope himself to step down.
A federal investigation and probes in at least 12 states and the District of Columbia have also been announced.
Francis argued in the letter that the bishops’ “disunity” and finger-pointing have led to “mistrust” and “pain” among the church’s followers.
“God’s faithful people and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse, and the poor way that they were handled, as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate (body of bishops) lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.”
The pope also warned of a “crisis of credibility” within the church stemming from the scandal.
“Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.”
He said that restoring the institution’s credibility must be focused on rebuilding trust rather than “concern with marketing or strategising to reclaim lost prestige or to seek accolades”.
Pressure on the Pope grew last year after Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal nuncio to the US, accused him of ignoring abuse allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington.
The Pope removed Archbishop McCarrick from the college of cardinals in July after he was accused of molesting a minor in the 1970s.
In the Pope’s first public communication of 2019, the Pope appeared to suggest that his critics should focus their energy elsewhere.
“Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment,” he wrote.
Concrete solutions to the crisis were not mentioned, although Francis said that “combating the culture of abuse, the loss of credibility, the resulting bewilderment and confusion, and the discrediting of our mission” demands “a renewed and decisive approach to resolving conflicts.”
Catholic bishops met at the Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat last week, which was suggested by the Pope himself in September “as a necessary step” toward easing a “crisis of credibility”.
About 250 bishops are attending the retreat, which ends January 8, with Francis stating he wanted to join the bishops on the retreat but couldn’t because of “logistical” reasons.