ROME — In a new letter addressed to all the bishops of the world, Pope Francis calls on local churches to abide by a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and to prioritize child safety over the desire to avoid scandal.
“There’s no place in ministry for those who abuse minors,” Francis said. “Everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.”
The pope’s letter, which is addressed to bishops’ conferences and to the superiors of religious orders, comes on the eve of the first plenary meeting of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Francis in March of 2014 and headed by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.
“Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children,” Francis said.
“They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home. Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern [such as avoiding scandal].”
In his brief, 700-word letter, the pontiff also talks about his first, and so far only, meeting with survivors of clerical sex abuse that took place last July in the Vatican. He described the meeting as a reaffirmation of his conviction that the Church must be rid of those who abuse.
The commission will meet for the first time in full from Feb. 6-8. The first 9 members appointed by Francis when the commission was announced have met on previous occasions.
Francis said in his letter that he wants the commission to encourage and advance the commitment of the Church in every level “to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, and to respond to their needs with fairness and mercy.”
Last July, Francis celebrated a Mass attended by a handful of clerical sex abuse survivors. During his homily he said: “I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”
Francis also pledged that any bishop who fails in his responsibility to protect minors “will be held accountable.”
The pope created the commission in December 2013 to lead the charge for reform on the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals. The panel has 17 experts: 10 laypeople (six of whom are women, and two survivors of sexual abuse), five priests, and two nuns.
Three of the experts come from the United States, two from England, and the rest from France, Colombia, Philippines, New Zealand, Zambia, Italy, Germany, and South Africa.
Skeptics about the Vatican’s resolve to turn a corner on the abuse scandals have complained about the time it has taken to get the new commission up and running, especially compared to the pace at which other reforms under Pope Francis are moving.
A senior Vatican official defended the delay last November.
“When the commission was announced, the world expected an office with 45 employees, making decisions on the spot,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for the commission. “But they’re building something that will become part of the Church’s ministry, a major component in the way we address the issue of abuse and on the defense of children and vulnerable adults.”
“We can’t make mistakes,” he said. “We can’t afford a misstep.”
In his letter, Francis said that all dioceses, institutes of consecrated life, and societies of apostolic life have to identify programs for pastoral care that include provisions for psychological assistance and spiritual care, as requested by a letter sent to the same groups in 2011.
“Pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones;” Francis said, “[for] such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness.”
The pope closed his letter with a prayer, requesting help to “carry out, generously and thoroughly, our duty to humbly acknowledge and repair past injustices and to remain ever faithful in the work of protecting those closest to the heart of Jesus.”