ROME – Pope Francis on Friday directly addressed perpetrators of clerical sexual abuse, telling them to “convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice.”
The Church, Francis said, is “firmly committed to eliminating the evil of abuse, which cries for vengeance to the Lord, to the God who is always mindful of the suffering experienced by many minors because of clerics and consecrated persons: abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse.”
The pontiff also thanked media personnel who’ve brought such abuses to light.
“I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard,” Francis said.
“Even if it were to involve a single case of abuse (something itself monstrous), the Church asks that people not be silent but bring it objectively to light, since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth,” he said.
The pope’s comments came in his annual address to the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.
The speech came at the close of a year that’s been marred for the Catholic Church by a series of sexual abuse scandals, including the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, forced to resign from the College of Cardinals after accusations of abuse found to be credible by a church review board; a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report, which identified more than 300 predator priests and over 1,000 child victims; and even accusations of cover-up directed against Pope Francis himself by a former Vatican envoy in the United States.
The pope’s words also come ahead of a Feb. 21-24 summit called by Francis for all the presidents of bishops’ conferences throughout the world to discuss the clerical abuse crisis.
“Let us all remember that only David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan made him understand the seriousness of his sin,” Francis said, referring to the Old Testament figures of King David and the prophet Nathan, who denounced the king’s sins.
“Today we need new Nathans to help so many Davids rouse themselves from a hypocritical and perverse life,” the pope said.
“Please, let us help Holy Mother Church in her difficult task of recognizing real from false cases, accusations from slander, grievances from insinuations, gossip from defamation. This is no easy task, since the guilty are capable of skillfully covering their tracks, to the point where many wives, mothers and sisters are unable to detect them in those closest to them: husbands, godfathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, neighbors, teachers and the like,” the pope said.
“The victims too, carefully selected by their predators, often prefer silence and live in fear of shame and the terror of rejection,” he said.
Despite the stain on the Church’s reputation and moral authority caused by the abuse scandals, Francis expressed optimism in the prospects for recovery.
“The strength of any institution does not depend on its being composed of men and women who are perfect (something impossible!),” he said, “but on its willingness to be constantly purified, on its capacity to acknowledge humbly its errors and correct them; and on its ability to get up after falling down.”
“All the sins and failings and evil committed by some children of the Church will never be able to mar the beauty of her face,” he said.
The pontiff also suggested that some critics of the Church are taking advantage of the scandals to inflict additional damage on it.
“Others, out of fear, personal interest or other aims, have sought to attack [the Church] and aggravate her wounds,” he said. “Others do not conceal their glee at seeing her hard hit.”
On another front, Francis also lamented those members of the clergy and consecrated life who, he said, “betray their vocation,” giving in to corruption and animosity. He did not specify which forms of corruption he had in mind, though he appeared to include members of the clergy who sow division in the Church.
“They hide behind good intentions in order to stab their brothers and sisters in the back and to sow weeds, division and bewilderment,” the pope said. “They always find excuses, including intellectual and spiritual excuses, to progress unperturbed on the path to perdition.”
The pope clearly suggested that some of these corrupt and disruptive clergy are found among the bishops.
“Saint Augustine, in speaking of the good seed and the weeds, says: ‘Do you perhaps believe, brethren, that weeds cannot spring up even on the thrones of bishops? Do you perhaps think that this is found only lower down and not higher up? Heaven forbid that we be weeds!… Even on the thrones of bishops good grain and weeds can be found’.”
“David the sinner and Judas Iscariot will always be present in the Church, since they represent the weakness that is part of our human condition,” the pope said, referring to the disciple in the New Testament who betrayed Christ.
“They are icons of the sins and crimes committed by those who are chosen and consecrated,” he said. “All of us, then, in order to make Christ’s light shine forth, have the duty to combat all spiritual corruption,” which is “worse than the fall of the sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness.”
In addition to failures, the pope also cited what he described as several successes during the past year.
“For example: the successful outcome of the synod devoted to young people; the progress made in the reform of the Curia; the efforts made to achieve clarity and transparency in financial affairs; the praiseworthy work of the Office of the Auditor-General and the Financial Information Authority; the good results attained by the Institute for the Works of Religion [the so-called “Vatican bank”]; the new Law of the Vatican City State; the Decree on labor in the Vatican, and many other less visible results,” he said.
“We can think of the new Blesseds and Saints who are ‘precious stones’ adorning the face of the Church and radiating hope, faith and light in our world,” the pope said.
As he often does, Francis included a special plea to remember the sufferings of immigrants; the poor who experience scarcities of food, water and medicine; victims of war; victims of other forms of violence, especially the vulnerable and women; and victims of human rights abuses, including “persons who even today are systematically tortured in police custody, in prisons and in refugee camps in various parts of the world.”
The pontiff added a special reference to victims of contemporary anti-Christian persecution.
“We are also experiencing a new age of martyrs,” he said. “It seems that the cruel and vicious persecution of the Roman Empire has not yet ended.”
“A new Nero is always being born to oppress believers solely because of their faith in Christ,” Francis said. “New extremist groups spring up and target churches, places of worship, ministers and members of the faithful. Cabals and cliques new and old live by feeding on hatred and hostility to Christ, the Church and believers.”
“How many Christians even now bear the burden of persecution, marginalization, discrimination and injustice throughout our world,” the pope said. “Yet they continue courageously to embrace death rather than deny Christ.”
The speech to the curia began a busy Christmas season for Francis. On Monday he’ll celebrate the Church’s traditional “midnight Mass” marking the Christmas feast, and on Tuesday he’s set to deliver the annual Urbi et Orbi blessing, which typically features a 360-degree review of the global situation.