In the wake of a recent United Nations report blasting the Vatican for its record on child sexual abuse, Pope Francis issued a strong defense both of the Catholic church and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday, saying “no one has done more” to combat exploitation of children.
“Statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are striking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of abuse happens in the family and neighborhood environments,” the pope said.
Francis acknowledged that sexual abuse of minors leaves “very deep wounds,” and insisted that the church has turned a corner. “The Catholic church is perhaps the lone public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility,” Francis said. “No one has done more, yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”
The pope’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Critics of the church’s record struck back immediately.
A statement from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a US-based advocacy group for victims of clerical abuse, said in a statement that the pope’s comments reflect “an archaic, defensive mindset that will not make kids safer.”
Francis also said that Pope Benedict XVI had been “very courageous” in confronting the church’s abuse scandals and had “opened the way” to reform. During his years as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pushed for speedier procedures for weeding abusers out of the Catholic priesthood, and as Pope Benedict he became the first pontiff to meet with victims of clerical abuse during his April 2008 United States visit.
That meeting was organized by Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, today a member of Francis’ “G8” council of cardinal advisers.
On other matters, Pope Francis expressed frustration with “ideological” interpretations of his words and deeds, with depictions of him as “superman” or a “star,” and with some of the urban myths that have grown up around him.
For instance, Francis cited widely circulated reports that he leaves the Vatican at night incognito to distribute food to homeless people in the area around St. Peter’s Square.
“It never entered my mind to do that,” the pope said.
Francis also addressed some hot-button issues in Catholic life, including the current debate over whether believers who divorce and remarry without obtaining an annulment, a declaration from a church court that their first marriage was invalid, should be allowed to receive communion and the other sacraments.
During a recent meeting of cardinals to discuss issues related to the family, Francis said, prelates expressed “many different points of view,” and said “I am not afraid” of a robust debate.
At the same time, Francis appeared to caution against expectations of quick results, saying “we have to reflect very deeply” and the church is on a “long journey.”
On birth control, Francis said “the question is not a change in doctrine” but rather exercising “great mercy” in dealing with the “concrete situations” in which couples find themselves.
On the press in many Western societies for gay marriage, Francis insisted that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” At the same time, he appeared to leave space for acceptance of civil unions, saying “the different cases have to be looked at and evaluated in their diversity.”
That stance may have immediate relevance in Italy, where a new center-left government under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has floated the prospect of introducing a civil unions law.
On women in the church, Francis said “women can and must be more present in the places where decisions are made,” but said that’s a fairly limited “functional” response to the problem. He called for greater theological attention to the feminine dimension of the church. In previous sessions with the press, Francis has ruled out both female priests and female cardinals, saying that those who support such measures suffer from “clericalism,” meaning that the only way to be valuable in the church is to be a member of the clergy.
The pope also offered a hint of his future travel plans, saying that after a scheduled trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan in May, he wants to visit Asia and Africa before returning to his native Argentina. Such a homecoming, he said, won’t happen until 2016 at the earliest.
Recently Francis has told senior aides that he also hopes to visit the United States in September 2015, to take part in a Vatican-sponsored “World Meeting of Families” in Philadelphia.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.