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Pope cites fights against sex abuse, the mob as priorities

Pope Francis celebrated mass in Sibari, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, on June 21.

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis celebrated mass in Sibari, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, on June 21.

ROME— In an interview published July 13 by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Pope Francis confirmed that the fights against both clerical sexual abuse and organized crime are priorities of his pontificate.

The interview comes in the wake of recent papal turning points on both fronts. During a trip to a mafia stronghold in southern Italy in late June, Francis declared mob leaders “excommunicated.” In a meeting with abuse victims on July, the pontiff begged forgiveness for the Church’s scandals and promised accountability.

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While the Vatican says the spirit of Sunday’s interview is accurate, it also warned that the exact quotes provided by 90-year-old journalist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the left-leaning daily, have to be taken with a grain of salt.

“The individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported, cannot be attributed to the pope,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. Lombardi noted that Scalfari did not record the interview.

Among other points where that lack of precision may come into play, Scalfari quotes Francis as declaring that “the level of pedophilia in the church is at two percent”. Considering that the global Church has over 400,000 priests, this would mean the pope believes 1 in every 50 has at some point abused a minor.

Most experts on child abuse, however, regard such estimates as unreliable, in part because of a historical lack of transparency by the Church, and in part because of a tendency among victims to remain silent.

One of the few objective assessments came in a 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, revealing that 4,392 priests and deacons had been accused of sexually abusing children in the United States between 1950 and 2002, making the country’s percentage double the one the pope reportedly cited for the global church.

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The Scalfari interview also quotes Francis as forcefully condemning those who within the church “are silent, or perhaps punish the wrongdoer without publicly denouncing the crime.”

Scalfari writes that the pontiff himself requested the interview.

On the mafia, Francis’ recent engagement is especially topical in Italy, where public opinion was shocked after a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina took a detour to pay its respects at the home of a mafia boss currently under house arrest.

Calabria is a region well known for the strong presence of organized crime, including the criminal organization Ndrangheta. A US diplomat has estimated that the organization’s drug trafficking, extortion, and money-laundering activities account for at least 3 percent of Italy’s GDP.

In the interview, Scalfari quotes Francis as saying that he will “continue to denounce this problem constantly” and expressed his desire to get to know better the way the mafia thinks and the way these criminals profess to be good Catholics.

“In Argentina,” the pope was quoted as saying, “we have delinquents, thieves, murderers, but no mafia influence.”

On a different matter, Scalfari also cited Francis as describing priestly celibacy as a “problem” for which he is set on “finding the solution.” Lombardi, however, told reporters that this portion of the interview is unreliable.

This is the third time that Scalfari, a confirmed atheist, has met Francis in Santa Marta, the pontiff’s residence. After their first conversation was published in October 2013, the Vatican also questioned the reliability of its content.

Among other sensations created at the time, Scalfari quoted Francis as saying that he believed “in God, not in a Catholic God,” and that “there is no Catholic God.”

Confidence in the interview began to crumble when Scalfari also quoted Francis as saying that he left the Sistine Chapel before accepting the papacy in order to pray in a small room next to the balcony where the new pope appears. Not only is there no such small room, but cardinals who had taken part in the election told reporters the new pontiff never left their sight before taking the job.

Inés San Martín is the Globe’s Rome correspondent. She may be reached at ines.sanmartin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @inesanma.

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