VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse with an appeal “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors,” which he compared to human sacrifice, but his speech did not offer concrete policy remedies demanded by many of the faithful.
In the speech at the end of a Mass in the Apostolic Palace’s frescoed Sala Reggia hall, Francis argued that “even a single case of abuse” in the Roman Catholic Church — which he said was the work of the devil — must be met “with the utmost seriousness.” He said that eradicating the scourge required more than legal processes and “disciplinary measures.”
“To combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope said, the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”
Faithful Catholics — especially those in the United States and other countries that have grappled with the problem for years — had demanded more than homilies: They wanted action that would hold their leaders accountable, once and for all.
They did not get it from the pope’s speech.
But church officials have hinted that concrete policy changes were on the horizon, especially on issues of transparency and bishop accountability that were discussed during the meeting.
Francis had sought to get the church’s leaders on the same page for the first time, summoning them to the meeting in September, decades after the sexual abuse crisis first exploded in the United States. He sent a message to his bishops and the faithful that he, too, wanted concrete remedies to come out of the meeting.
After the pope’s speech on Sunday, the Vatican announced several forthcoming measures, including one that church officials described as toughening up child protection laws in the Vatican City-State itself.
Another was what the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, called a “very brief” handbook for bishops to “understand their duties and tasks” on cases of sexual abuse and the introduction of a new task force of experts and canon lawyers to assist bishops in countries with less experience and resources to handle the issue.
But when asked about the measures on Sunday, the Vatican acknowledged that all had already been in the pipeline well before the meeting began on Thursday, and Lombardi said that none included any input from the four-day meeting.
Instead, Vatican officials focused on the spiritual evolution of bishops and the importance of getting them all on the same page in tackling sexual abuse.
“At the end of the day, it is the change of heart that is important,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s leading sex-crimes investigator, said Sunday afternoon. The Rev. Hans Zollner, another leader in the church’s efforts to safeguard children, added that the church had made a “leap” forward in getting at the “systemic roots” of the scandal. But he said it would take more time and energy to “turn a big ship around.”
The Catholic Church has been devastated and the very legacy of Francis’s papacy has been threatened amid a cascade of civil investigations into clerical sexual abuse and accusations from within his own hierarchy that he had covered up the misconduct of a top prelate, Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who has been defrocked.
High-profile cases involving the negligence by bishops, the abuse of nuns, and other misconduct added to the pressure on Francis to do more than just speak about ending the crisis — albeit with harsh words.
On Sunday, he compared the abuse of minors to “sacrificing human beings, frequently children, in pagan rites.”
“Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan,” he added. “In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children.”
Francis, however, had sought to tamp down expectations about the Vatican meeting, fostered by some of his own bishops, that the conference would deliver concrete remedies to end the scourge. He said the meeting had been intended to educate all the bishops on the gravity of the problem of sexual abuse; many were skeptical about such cases in their home countries.
Some advocates for abuse survivors considered the pope’s remarks a failure.
“Pope Francis’s talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a leader of BishopAccountability.org. “As the world’s Catholics cry out for concrete change, the pope instead provides tepid promises, all of which we’ve heard before.”
But Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said on Saturday that he was “very pleased” with the meeting, even though specific action still needed to be determined.
“This went far better than I think some of us had hoped,” he said. “Now you have the bishops all saying it’s ubiquitous.”
At first, some countries did not want to admit that they had the same issues as the United States, DiNardo said, but in the end, he said, he was impressed with the consensus developed among the global bishops.
He said he expected that the American church would be asked for resources to assist other dioceses in rolling out reforms. “That’s what I think people want,” he said. “They want us to take action.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin, president of the Irish Bishop’s Conference, said that the onus for making concrete changes to protect children in the church fell on the world’s bishops.
“I am always frightened about the thought that somehow safeguarding can be commanded from Rome,” he said on Saturday. He argued that the meeting itself had sent a strong message of what was expected of bishops, even those skeptical of how widespread the crisis is.
As a result of the meeting, he said, the world’s bishops have moved “much closer” to implementing universal zero-tolerance norms removing abusers from ministry.
“Every one of us must return home committed to some actions,” he said, adding, “If somebody is in such a grave breach of trust as to have failed to protect children and young people from abuse, I simply can’t imagine how they can continue to either minister as a priest or, indeed, to be the chief shepherd.”
Some bishops have argued that while removing offenders from ministry is necessary, dismissing them from the priesthood would make it impossible for the church to monitor them so that they do not offend again.
Martin echoed other church leaders in suggesting that changes to church law could be coming on the issue of papal secrecy, a level of classification that can be applied to church legal proceedings, including on sexual abuse cases.
“Secrecy has been one of the root causes of the problems that we are in today,” he said, adding that he expected the church to establish a single department in Rome designated to help bishops respond more effectively to abuse cases.
In his speech, the pope rejected a reflexive self-protection in the institution, and insisted that the church would “spare no effort” to bring abusers to justice, to prevent coverups, to listen to victims, and to spiritually purify its clergy.
He said the world’s bishops conferences needed to apply rules, not just guidelines, to prevent abuse and the covering up of abuse, which “adds a further level of scandal.”
The speech at times took on a defensive tone. He thanked the good priests who were marred by the misconduct of guilty clergy. And a day after the bishops applauded a journalist who had excoriated them for hiding abuse and urging them to work with investigators in the media, Francis called on the church to rise above “the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”
The pope made the case that pedophilia also existed outside the church and was often perpetrated by parents, teachers, coaches, and husbands of child brides. He touched on statistics that showed that online pornography increasingly exploited children, as did the sex tourism industry, and noted that abuse often occurred at home.
He said that other types of abused children “forgotten by everyone” included child soldiers, child prostitutes and refugees, starving children, enslaved children, and “aborted children.”
The pope then acknowledged “this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the church,” where the sin is compounded, “for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
Francis repeated his belief that the root cause of the abuse in the church was priests and bishops who abused their office and the power of their ordination.
Some of the faithful who came to hear Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday were watching for what came next.
“Everything depends on whether or not they follow through,” said Andrew Bradfield, from Cork, Ireland. “If those are just more empty words, the church will continue to become more isolated.”