That’s the news out of Rome after Pope Francis’ meeting with six victims of clergy sexual abuse, and it’s potentially very big news. For the first time, a pontiff has acknowledged that the handling of abuse cases by bishops, and not merely the abuse itself, is a major part of the problem — and promised to sanction those who don’t do it right.
Here are the relevant sentences, from the homily Francis gave at Mass with the victims today in the Casa Santa Marta:
I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk…All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.
To be sure, “sins of omission” does not adequately describe what the bishops have done. The shifting of abusers from parish to parish, the concealment of evidence from ecclesiastical and civil authorities — these are sins of commission, and, in some cases, crimes.
Though he did not say so explicitly, the pope could well have been asking for personal forgiveness. As has been pointed out, most notably by the researchers at BishopAccountability.org., his own record in addressing clerical sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires left a lot to be desired.
Now he has a chance to make up for past sins, and to lead his church out of the wilderness on this issue. The fundamental question is what he means by holding bishops accountable. If this is merely a warning of consequences for future failures, it will not do the trick. Sitting bishops who have been found to have covered up abuse must be held accountable too, and removed from office.