NEW YORK — Despite criticism from victims of clergy sexual abuse of Pope Francis’ comments to bishops Wednesday that seemed to some to place the pain of clergy above the suffering of victims, Pope Francis reiterated his support for clergy Thursday evening in New York during an address to priests and members of religious orders.
Francis said he understands that priests have “suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members.”
“I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people,” he said.
While remaining wildly popular among American Catholics, some critics nonetheless question both Francis’ grasp of the severity of the scandal in the United States as well as his commitment to implementing reforms to protect children.
But others point out that Francis established a special commission to reform the Vatican’s handling of the abuse crisis and created a Vatican tribunal to hear the cases of bishops accused of ignoring credible accusations of abuse or moving clergy to other dioceses rather than reporting them to police. They note that bishops in the United States have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to sex abuse, leading the way to similar measures being adopted in Rome for the entire Church.
The pope’s words Thursday were addressed to priests, and Francis delivered a similar message to bishops yesterday.
To the bishops, he said: “I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you, and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims — in the knowledge that in healing we, too, are healed — and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated,” he said during afternoon prayer at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew.
That drew an angry rebuke from advocates who said the bishops acted only under the threat of hundreds of lawsuits.
Speaking to reporters Thursday evening in New York, the pope’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Francis’ comments should be considered in light of his audiences. He noted that the pope called the abuse “crimes,” and he said that “the trip is not at its end now,” suggesting Francis may yet speak about the pain of victims.
During the same address at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Francis, speaking in Spanish, made special mention of his admiration for religious sisters — drawing applause from the audience — echoing words he spoke during a “virtual audience” broadcast earlier this month. He called the sisters “Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel.”
“What would the Church be without you?” he asked. “To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say thank you,” (more applause) “a big thank you — and to tell you that I love you very much.” (More applause.)
The pope’s words come just months after a years-long investigation of American nuns, launched under his predecessor, ended earlier than anticipated.
He held up in particular St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity, a religious community that focuses on education. At the White House Wednesday, President Barack Obama presented Francis with a 206-year-old key to Seton’s home. Born in New York, Seton was the first person born in what would become the United States to be declared a saint.
Francis delivered his remarks at a recently renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan welcomed the pope with a hearty laugh.
“Once you entered those famous doors on Fifth Avenue, you became an official New Yorker,” Dolan said. He thanked the pope for mentioning Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — two New Yorkers — in his speech to Congress earlier Thursday. And he drew a laugh from the pontiff when he said, “Thanks for stopping by; come back soon!” as though the pope lived around the corner.
The renovations to the cathedral took three years and cost $175 million. Francis met with donors and workers after the service.
In addition to bishops, priests, seminarians, and members of religious communities, the crowd also included many dignitaries, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and US Sen. Charles Schumer, who all greeted the pope when he arrived at the door of the cathedral.
Francis deviated from his prepared remarks only once, when, responding to the situation unfolding in Mecca, where more than 700 pilgrims perished in an accident at the Islamic holy site, Francis began his address by asking for prayers.
“In this moment, I give reassurances of my prayers,” he said. “We unite, in prayer to God, our almighty and all merciful God.”
During his speeches to clergy and religious communities, Francis often exhorts them in their work and warns them against being tempted by worldly pleasures.
Thursday’s address was no different.
He cautioned against getting “caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management, and outward success which govern the business world,” and instead encouraged the faithful to trust in God when things do not go as planned.
Francis, whose vacations consist of staying at home and getting caught up on correspondence, said that while “rest is needed,” it should be done in a way that “deepens our desire to serve with generosity.”
“Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners, and all God’s other poor,” he said, “will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous.”
Francis said he recognized “that many of you are in the front lines in meeting the challenges of adapting to an evolving pastoral landscape,” and urged his priests “to be at peace and to respond to them as Christ did: He thanked the Father, took up his cross and looked forward!”
During his brief visit to New York, Francis will address the United Nations general assembly and take part in an interfaith prayer service at the 9/11 World Trade Center Memorial Friday morning. He’ll visit a Catholic school in Harlem, take a jaunt through Central Park in the popemobile, and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden. He departs Saturday for Philadelphia.