Two committee heads of the U.S. bishops’ conference voiced support for Pope Francis’ statement rejecting the sexual abuse of minors and promising accountability for those guilty of crimes against children.
“I was so happy that our Holy Father was very clear with his message today,” said Bishop Edward J. Burns of Juneau, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on child and youth protection.
Speaking to CNA Sept. 27, he described the Holy Father’s words to an international gathering of bishops at the Philadelphia seminary earlier that day.
Pope Francis entered the room and set aside his prepared remarks, the bishop said. “He spoke to all the bishops heart-to-heart, and you could tell that he had a passion about him.”
“And in speaking within that passion, he was very clear and he was very strong in that anyone who participates in any of the crimes of sexual abuse will be held to accountability. And he also reached out to the victims with compassion, with tenderness and care. Because our very first response is to do all that we can to bring forth healing.”
Pope Francis announced Sept. 27 that he had met that morning with five victims of sexual abuse by clergy and family members. He told a gathering of international bishops afterwards that their stories of suffering “have aggravated my heart,” and said that crimes of abuse must never be kept in silence.
“I promise, with the vigilance of the Church, to protect minors and I promise all of those responsible will be held accountable,” he said.
Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, incoming chair of the U.S. bishops’ communications committee, described the Pope’s words as “the strongest repudiation of any culture of abuse or protection of abusers within the Church.”
He told CNA that the bishops “absolutely” support the Holy Father’s efforts to fight sexual abuse and emphasized the need for “continuous vigilance to do everything that we can to keep children and families safe.”
“I think all of us say, ‘We should be held accountable in the same way that our priests are.’ If any of us ever commit a crime and a sin against a child or a family, then we need to be held accountable.”
Furthermore, he continued, “if we do not do everything that we can to protect families and to report these things but to cover them up, then we also need to be accountable for that too. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops here.”
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about the gravity of sex abuse. He has promised a “zero-tolerance” approach and said that “everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors.”
In 2014, the Pope created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to take concrete action on preventing abuse. He has also approved measures to increase bishop accountability and worked with abuse victims to discuss reconciliation and healing.
Holy See press officer Fr. Federico Lombardi noted at a Sept. 27 press conference that the Pope chose to announce his meeting with the victims during an audience with bishops from around the globe, a reminder of the global impact of sexual abuse and the need for a universal response.
He also observed that the victims who met with Pope Francis suffered abuse not only by clergy and Church officials, but also by family members and educators.
This, he said, is a recognition that the Church has a responsibility to care for the environment and safety of young people everywhere, both inside the Church and out.
Bishop Burns discussed the importance of working with law enforcement as part of the Church’s effort to fight and respond to abuse.
“When there is an allegation of abuse, the Church reaches out to those who were abused to assist them in the process of healing,” he said. “And at the same time, the Church reaches out to law enforcement agencies, because it’s imperative that we involve law enforcement in the investigation of any allegation of abuse.”
The bishop said that Pope Francis’ words are “a very clear call, one of accountability,” while also a message delivered to a pastor with a “shepherd’s heart” who mourns for the suffering of his people.
“It was a powerful and a very poignant moment,” he said, voicing gratitude to Pope Francis “for all that he’s doing in helping us create a safe environment for our children as well as addressing what is necessary for us as a Church to restore trust and to restore credibility.”
By Michelle Bauman