Pope Francis on Wednesday appeared to praise the Roman Catholic Church's handling of widespread sexual abuse by priests, drawing rebuke from victims who said his brief remarks were a setback for justice and healing.
Speaking to hundreds of U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown Washington, the pope told them he was "conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice."
He continued: "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."
Victims said those comments grossly misrepresent how the church has dealt with the scandal, which it managed to cover up for decades.
"The people he was talking to are the people who moved the pedophiles around to prey on kids," said John Salveson, a 59-year-old Philadelphia businessman who was abused as a child by a priest.
"If you gave me 100 years to pick a word to describe the U.S. bishops' reaction to this crisis, 'generous' would never make the list," he said.
Terry McKiernan, who runs BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit group that tracks the abuse scandal, said Francis failed to acknowledge that most dioceses across the country have not disclosed the names of abusers and continue to lobby against reforming statute of limitations laws that shield priests from prosecution for crimes committed many years ago.
"It would be a shame if the pope's words were taken as encouragement by the bishops to continue that behavior," he said.
While Francis enjoys worldwide popularity and is widely seen as the best hope for reinvigorating the church, he has yet to win support from many abuse victims. By some counts, there are more than 17,000 in the United States, with some cases dating as far back as the 1950s.
The National Catholic Reporter, which has been a strong supporter of the pope on many issues, has consistently challenged him to do more in punishing and preventing sexual abuse.
"But the message he delivered today puts him back to square one," the editor, Dennis Coday, wrote in an online editorial Wednesday.
He added: "At the very least he could have used the words 'clergy sexual abuse of minors.'"
The scandal has been a major cause of declining membership in the U.S.
Soon after taking over the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which includes two victims, to advise him. He has also promised "zero tolerance" for predatory priests and pledged to create a Vatican tribunal to investigate bishops who covered up abuse.
Priests routinely undergo background checks, and religious school students are trained to report abuse.
But the church has continued to spend millions of dollars fighting lawsuits and refused to open its records naming thousands of priests who have been accused.
According to BishopAccountability.org, at least 6,400 U.S. priests have been accused of abuse, but only about 4,000 of those have been named. Dioceses across the U.S. have paid out more than $3 billion in settlements.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed in 2007 to pay more than 500 abuse victims $660 million. Later settlements pushed the archdiocese's tab to more than $740 million.
While California and some other states have made it easier to file criminal and civil lawsuits against clergy members, others, such as Pennsylvania, have rejected such proposals under heavy pressure from the church.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that he had been hopeful that Francis' leadership would signal a change in how the church handled the scandal.
But a year into the papacy, Clohessy gave up on that hope.
"There's nothing he could say that would be helpful, because Catholic bishops have said it all before — 'I'm sorry, we didn't know, we'll do better.' We've heard that for decades," he said.
"This is a pope who has refused to take steps to expose one predator or punish one enabler," he said. "He could simply defrock, demote, discipline, or even clearly denounce just one complicit bishop. He refuses, not one."
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