Pope Francis asked forgiveness for the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church on Friday, the first time he’s done so as pope, and also said the church must be “very strong” in responding to the ongoing legacy of that crisis, including imposing forceful sanctions.
In remarks during an address to a French child protection group, Francis said he took personal responsibility for what he described as the “evil” of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“I feel called to take upon myself all the evil that some priests — many, many in number, though not in proportion to the totality — to take it upon myself and to ask forgiveness for the harm they’ve done, for the sexual abuse of children,” the pope said.
“The church is aware of this harm,” he said. “It’s a personal and moral harm, but by men of the church. We do not want to take a step back in regard to treating this problem, and to the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I believe we must be very strong.”
Some experts on abuse issues praised the pope’s comments.
Everett Worthington Jr., a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who’s also written on the subject of forgiveness, called the pope’s statement “a costly act that moves the church in the direction of beginning to restore a sense of justice to those who were wronged and harmed.”
Victims’ advocacy organizations, on the other hand, urged caution, saying they’ve heard apologetic language before from leading church figures but are awaiting concrete action.
“We beg the world’s Catholics: Be impressed by deeds, not words,” said a statement from the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest American organization for survivors of clerical abuse.
“Until the pope takes decisive action that protects kids, be skeptical and vigilant,” the statement said.
The pope’s comments come at a time when his overall approach to the child abuse crisis had been drawing mixed reviews.
Critics have charged he hasn’t engaged the abuse scandals with the same vigor he’s brought to other problems. The American watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, for instance, recently raised questions about his response to five abuse cases in Argentina, while his comments in a recent Italian interview claiming that the church has been unfairly singled out for its record on child abuse reminded some observers of the exculpatory rhetoric employed by church officials at the onset of the crisis.
On the other hand, Francis created a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in December, signaling resolve in confronting the scandals, and he also won praise for his first round of appointments to that body in March.
His picks included Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who enjoys a global reputation as a reformer on the abuse crisis, and an Irish lay woman and survivor of clerical abuse named Marie Collins. In all, four of the eight people Francis tapped to lead the commission are women.
According to the Associated Press, Francis made his remarks to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French Catholic network of organizations that protects children’s rights. The AP said that he spoke “deliberately and softly” in his native Spanish and that the remarks were not included his prepared text.
‘We do not want to take a step back in regard to treating this problem. . . . On the contrary, I believe we must be very strong.’Pope Francis
Three points about Friday’s statement seemed noteworthy to observers who have followed the arc of the church’s abuse scandals over the last two decades.
First, Francis did not merely express regret or sadness for the pattern of abuse in the Catholic church, but directly asked forgiveness. That’s a step that the late Pope John Paul II never took, though Benedict XVI did issue an apology for the crisis during a trip to Australia in 2008.
That was the same year Benedict XVI became the first pope to meet with abuse victims, which he did during an April visit to Washington, D.C. All told, Benedict met with abuse victims six times during his eight-year papacy, and Friday’s comments from Francis will likely raise expectations that he’ll put such a meeting on his own calendar soon.
Second, Francis did not attempt to play down the number of priests involved in incidents of abuse, using the phrase “many, many.” In the past, church officials were sometimes accused of defensiveness when they insisted that the percentage of priests accused of abuse is relatively low. (A 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, commissioned by the US bishops, found that 4 percent of priests serving in the previous 50 years had been accused of abusing a minor.)
The fact that the pope sidestepped such language indicates that he may be developing a better ear for how to engage the issue in a way that doesn’t reopen old wounds or come off as tone-deaf.
Third, the use of the word “sanctions” suggested to some observers that Francis may be open to imposing discipline not only on priests who abuse, but on bishops who don’t respond to abuse allegations in ways consistent with the church’s official “zero tolerance” policy.
For some time, critics have charged that holding bishops accountable remains the most important piece of unfinished business for the Catholic church vis-à-vis the abuse scandals.
They point to cases such as that of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City, Mo., who was found guilty in September 2012 of a criminal misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse, and yet remains in office.
If the pope’s choice of words signals openness to taking action against bishops if they fail to respond aggressively, many observers believe that would indeed mark a turning point in the church’s efforts at recovery.
One further indication may come May 1-3, when the pope’s new anti-abuse commission will hold its first meeting. While its primary task will be to identify other experts to involve in its work and to flesh out the group’s structure and procedures, it may also begin to wrestle with the accountability issue with an eye to eventual recommendations to the pope.
If nothing else, Friday’s comments from the pope who appointed them may embolden the group to move in that direction.John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe .com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook at facebook.com/ JohnLAllenJr.