The Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” in a lengthy statement in response to a US investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania.
A Grand Jury report concluded that more than 300 priests had abused over 1,000 identifiable children over a 70-year period, and that the Church was involved in a “systematic cover-up”.
However, the Vatican’s critics say it should have responded earlier and argue the Catholic Church – and Pope Francis himself – are shirking responsibility in the face of a wave of abuse scandals around the world.
What does the Vatican’s statement say?
The statement by the Vatican’s senior spokesman Greg Burke forcefully condemns the sexual abuse of children revealed in the Pennsylvania report.
“Shame and sorrow” are words that express feelings towards crimes that are described as “criminal and morally reprehensible”, it says. “The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”
There’s a message for the victims of abuse: “the Pope is on their side” and “the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror”, the statement adds.
Noting that the Grand Jury finds “almost no cases after 2002”, the Vatican defends reforms that have “drastically reduced” US cases of clergy child abuse. Backing continued reform, it highlights the need to comply with civil law requirements such as mandatory reporting.
What did the Pennsylvania report find?
The Grand Jury report found that 301 priests abused more than 1,000 identifiable child victims in the eastern US state over 70 years.
However, it said the real number of abused children was believed to be “in the thousands”.
The 18-month investigation uncovered graphic cases of abuse – and a systematic cover-up. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the report concluded.
The Grand Jury also found that cover-up efforts meant most cases were now too old to go to court – and that some involved had been promoted to senior church positions.
Why have the Vatican and the Pope been criticised?
The Vatican’s comments come 48 hours after the Pennsylvania report was published. Pope Francis has yet to comment directly.
Despite acknowledging that digesting the 1350-page report would take time, both liberal and conservative Catholics in the United States had been pressing for some response from the Vatican since Tuesday.
Pennsylvania dioceses named by the Grand Jury had reportedly received advance copies. The state’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro said this week that from some quarters in the state there had even been an attempt “to cover up the cover-up”.
Shapiro also said he had never received a response to a personal letter he wrote to the Pope in late July.
Pope Francis himself has been accused of failing to get a grip on the series of scandals around the world. He apologised earlier this year for “grave errors” of judgment for defending a bishop accused of concealing years of child sexual abuse cases in Chile, and has also been criticised for failing to act against another bishop in Australia.
What does the Catholic Church do next?
Later this month Francis faces another test when he visits Ireland, a country that has been shaken by revelations of abuse and cover-ups. He has been called upon to take personal responsibility, and is expected to meet with victims of abuse.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has called for an urgent Vatican-led investigation into events in Pennsylvania. Its leader, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas, has said the Church is facing a “spiritual crisis”.
In a long statement, he called for an inquiry into issues surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned in July over abuse allegations. Such investigations should be independent and include lay people, he added.
The bishops also propose improving confidential channels for reporting complaints, and better procedures to resolve abuse cases.
A particular charge against the Catholic Church is that although many priests have been punished for abusing children, that is not the case with bishops who covered up their crimes. There are calls for an overhaul of rules which dictate that only the Pope can remove or punish bishops – even though there are over 5,000 of them worldwide.