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Pope Francis issues letter to bishops decrying efforts to deny or conceal abuse

Pope Francis delivers his speech as he celebrates a new year Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vat
Pope Francis celebrates a new year Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, on Jan. 1.
(Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

Pope Francis admonished Roman Catholic Church leaders for covering up sex abuse scandals and indulging in “gossip and slander” to duck the blame, according to a letter to U.S. bishops released Thursday by the Vatican.

“The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them,” Francis wrote in an eight-page letter dated Jan. 1.

The letter was dispatched as U.S. bishops met this week at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a prayer retreat, which Francis suggested they organize to reflect on the sex abuse scandal plaguing the Roman Catholic Church. About 250 bishops are at the retreat, which is being held ahead of a major bishops’ conference on abuse at the Vatican next month.

After emerging in Boston in 2002, revelations of priests abusing young worshipers have erupted around the world. A grand jury inquiry into abuse in Pennsylvania last year reported hundreds more cases, prompting the resignation of one of the most senior prelates in the U.S., Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

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In his Christmas address at the Vatican, Francis demanded that priests who had abused children hand themselves over to authorities.

In the letter released Thursday, he claimed a new approach to spirituality was needed to regain credibility, “since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.”

“This approach demands of us the decision to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships, and instead to make room for the gentle breeze that the Gospel alone can offer,” he wrote.

The letter does not discuss punishment for abusive clergy.

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Some conservative Catholics have balked at accusations from Rome over the abuse scandal, claiming the Vatican and Francis also bear responsibility for perpetuating abuse.

Francis came under attack last year when a former papal nuncio to the United States, Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano, accused him of ignoring abuse allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington.

McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals last year after he was accused of molesting a minor in the 1970s. Since then, former seminarians have claimed McCarrick tried to share a bed with them.

The row has fueled attacks on Francis and encouraged divisions in the U.S. between moderate Catholics and more conservative Catholics who resent the pope’s mercy-before-dogma style.

In his letter, Francis appeared to address the rancor.

“Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment,” he wrote.

It was painful, he wrote, to watch “an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.”

Kington is a special correspondent.

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