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In Bethlehem, Francis decries threats to children

Faithful attended an open-air Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Sunday.

Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Faithful attended an open-air Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Sunday.

BETHLEHEM — Pope Francis on Sunday celebrated a large open-air Mass in Bethlehem’s deeply historic Manger Square, in a city traditionally regarded by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, devoting his homily to the importance of taking good care of children.

The intended audience was the Christians of the Holy Land, who face a truckload of their own problems: some related to being Arabs, mostly Palestinians, and some to being Christians. It’s perfectly reasonable that the pontiff would be thinking primarily in terms of the cost imposed on children by poverty and conflict.

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Seen through the eyes of an outsider, however, it’s still striking that Pope Francis ticked off a host of threats to children in the contemporary world, including the use of images of poor kids to raise money, without alluding to the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in many parts of the globe.

Children, Francis said, “are a sign of hope, a sign of life,” as well as “a diagnostic sign, a marker indicating the health of families, societies, and the entire world.”

The pope then cited several specific ways in which children are mistreated, including living in poverty, being subject to illicit trafficking, being enrolled as child soldiers, and sometimes living as exiles or dying as refugees.

Francis referred to children who are “exploited” and “maltreated,” but did not link those terms to the Church’s own struggles with child protection.

To be clear, it’s not as if Francis has been silent on the need for reform.

Even the UN Committee Against Torture, which recently issued a critical report on the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandals, praised Francis for his April 11 statement. “We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger,” Francis said.

Francis also has taken steps to strengthen the Church’s fight against sexual abuse, such as creating a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body that includes Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.

Still, critics may seize on the fact that in one of the pope’s most developed remarks on child welfare to date, there was no explicit echo of the Catholic Church’s own record on the “diagnostic sign” he laid out Sunday.

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 https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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