Pope Francis has publicly acknowledged the failures of the Roman Catholic church in dealing with sexual abuse by priests, attacking a “culture of death” and deferential “clericalism” that helps perpetuate evil.
An unprecedented letter from “His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God” was issued after almost a week of mounting pressure following the publication of an excoriating report into abuse by priests in Pennsylvania.
According to a Vatican official, it is the first time a pope has written to all of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse.
The letter opens with an acknowledgement of suffering endured by children and abuse of power. Francis admits the church has failed to “act in a timely manner” and promises zero tolerance and sanctions. “We have realised that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,” he said.
He added: “It is essential that we, as a church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.”
The church has been engulfed in a wave of sexual abuse scandals this year, including in the US, Chile and Australia. Many relate to the cover-up of crimes by archbishops, bishops and other senior figures.
The issue is likely to dominate Francis’s trip to Ireland this weekend, when survivors of sexual abuse are expected to protest. Some have demanded a public meeting with the pope.
The publication of a grand jury report into sexual abuse over a 70-year period in Pennsylvania, published last Tuesday, concluded that more than 1,000 children were the victims of more than 300 priests.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” the report said.
The Vatican made no comment on the report for two days, despite the fact that its scope and main findings were known in advance. The Vatican spokesperson, Greg Burke, issued a statement late on Thursday, expressing “shame and sorrow”, but pressure continued to build.
At the weekend, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, pulled out of a keynote speech at the World Meeting of Families, the event Francis is travelling to Dublin to attend, after he was criticised for his handling of child sexual abuse in the report.
Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, told RTE the pope was “in a mode of thinking that puts the defence of the institution first” ahead of those sexually abused.
More than 140 Catholic theologians, educators and lay leaders in the US issued a statement calling for all American bishops to resign following the Pennsylvania report.
Francis’s letter, which was published in seven languages, said: “Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.
“The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”
The wounds of sexual abuse, and the abuse of power, would never disappear. The heart-wrenching pain of victims was “long-ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.
He added: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
Prayer and penitence were needed, he said. “I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”
A culture of deferential clericalism “helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all sorts of clericalism.”