ROME — Pope Francis on Friday called on clerics who sexually abuse minors to hand themselves over to civil authorities and prepare their souls for eternal judgment, saying that the Vatican would remove the priests who prey like wolves on their flock and endanger the credibility of the whole church.
The pope’s remarks came in his traditional Christmas address to the bureaucracy that runs the Holy See, a speech that has become an annual excoriation of the careerism, sins and corruption that he says have infected the Catholic hierarchy.
“To those who abuse minors, I would say this: Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” Francis told the Roman curia, with cardinals in black cassocks and red skullcaps gathered around him in the frescoed Clementine Hall of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
He denounced clerics “who abuse the vulnerable, taking advantage of their position and their power of persuasion,” adding: “They perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing had happened. They have no fear of God or his judgment, but only of being found out and unmasked.”
In doing so, he said, these priests rip apart the priesthood, besmirch their innocent brothers and discredit the Roman Catholic Church, which has been “buffeted by strong winds and tempests” this year.
“Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls,” he said.
The sexual abuse crisis has continued to expand throughout the church. New reports and grand jury investigations from multiple continents have detailed how abuse has ruined the lives of young victims and their families for decades.
The crisis has also badly damaged the church’s standing and imperils the papacy of Francis, who turned 82 this week. For all his efforts to reform the church, the pontiff long failed to understand the gravity of the scandal that most threatenedthe church and his other priorities.
Francis seemed to have woken up to the issue this year amid the furious backlash to his stated faith in Chilean bishops over the “slander” of abuse survivors. He ultimately dispatched investigators and accepted the resignations of some Chilean bishops. In the United States, where the crisis has exploded in the past few months, he has also accepted the resignations of prelates, though sometimes reluctantly.
But even as the pope has spoken out in increasingly forceful tones against abuse, victims and their advocates contend that he has taken little concrete action to solve the problem.
They argue that his collegial emphasis on a response originating from local bishops is misplaced, citing longstanding patterns of abuse and cover-ups by many of those same bishops. Only a centralized, explicit zero-tolerance order from the Vatican will carry weight around the globe, they say.
The Vatican has raised expectations that an extraordinary meeting in February would result in tangible changes and not just more tough talk. The pope has summoned the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world to address the abuse issue.
“Let it be clear that before these abominations the church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes,” Francis said on Friday. “The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.”
He acknowledged, once again, past failures to recognize and address abuse, and said “that must never happen again.”
But the church still struggles to respond consistently and effectively to individual cases. This week, the pope accepted the resignation of a bishop in Los Angeles facing abuse allegations, but a priest in New York, whose victims have been compensated by the New York archdiocese for substantiated claims of abuse, continued to preach days before Christmas.
Some defenders of the church argue that the priesthood has been unfairly targeted and that the problem of sexual abuse is just as common in other institutions.
The pope also asked how “deeply rooted” the problem may be in society at large. And he seemed to share the view, harshly criticized by advocates for victim, that the church’s crisis offered it an opportunity to be a global leader in “eliminating this scourge, not only from the body of the church but also from that of society.”
He alluded to the view in some corners of the church that journalists who report on sexual abuse are guilty of anti-Catholic prejudice, “and of intentionally wanting to give the false impression that this evil affects the Catholic Church alone.”
But the pope then added, “I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard.” He added that guilty clerics had proved “capable of skillfully covering their tracks” and that “the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth.”
The pope also seemed to use the address to indirectly confront his enemies within the hierarchy who, in the hopes of defending the church orthodoxy from what they consider his progressive dilution of church law, weaponized the sexual abuse crisis to weaken his pontificate.
The former papal envoy to the United States, archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, went so far this year as to publicly accuse the pope of covering up abuse and to demand his resignation. His accusations are so far unsubstantiated, and the pope has responded only indirectly, by talking about the devil’s influence inside the church.
On Friday, he did so again, saying priests who betray their sworn oaths “hide behind good intentions in order to stab their brothers and sisters in the back and to sow weeds, division and bewilderment.”
“They always find excuses,” he added “including intellectual and spiritual excuses, to progress unperturbed on the path to perdition.” He recalled Saint Augustine’s warning that the path to hell was paved with good intentions.
Francis has often made clear that he sees clericalism, or a priest’s belief that he is superior to his parishioners, as the root evil that grows into corruption and abuse. Being a priest “does not mean acting like an elite group who think they have God in their pocket,” he said on Friday — rather, “those who are consecrated are nothing but servants.”
The pope also addressed the plight of Christian “martyrs” at the hands of religious extremists, and repeated his defense of migrants in an increasingly populist and nationalist Europe, saying that after surviving enormous travails they found “doors barred and their brothers and sisters in our human family more concerned with political advantage and power.”
But those priorities have become overshadowed by a darkness within the church itself, and Francis signaled that he had come to understand that a failure to remove the blight within would weaken his ability to act on the global stage.
“Without a doubt,” he said, “the difficulties from within are always those most hurtful and destructive.”