Forceful words are coming from the pope's pen as well as pulpits around Tampa Bay: The sexual abuse of minors, which proliferated for decades within the Roman Catholic Church, were not merely sins but crimes whose repercussions are still being felt by victims and the faithful at large. This is a moment of reckoning for the church, and it comes years after the worldwide priest sexual abuse scandal broke open. What's different now is that church officials are speaking with new candor, and Catholics are responding with the unequivocal demand that the culture that gave rise to the abuse must change.
The sex abuse scandal flared up last month when Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was accused of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians decades ago. It was a reminder that sexual misconduct by clergy reaches the highest levels of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic church.
But it was last week's report from a Pennsylvania grand jury that ignited even wider outrage. The nearly 900-page report details, with excruciating specifics, the scope of sexual crimes committed against more than 1,000 children by some 300 "predator priests" over seven decades. Before the report became public, it would have been hard to imagine that any new allegations could create such shock waves. The scandal, which spans the globe, has taken down scores of clergy and the church has paid out billions in settlements to victims. But the grand jury's findings were impossible to ignore: ritualized rape by so-called holy men; abuse of children barely out of diapers; and the meticulous practice among bishops to protect the abusers and conceal the crimes.
Pope Francis responded with an open letter to the world's Catholics, rightly calling the priests' conduct "crimes" that "inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness." And he made an important point about how he'll handle this matter going forward, writing "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 letter is an encouraging sign that the pope grasps the enormous task before him to eradicate this cancer within the church. Closer to home, Catholics went to church Sunday and heard personal messages of sadness and anger from their priests who were horrified by the Pennsylvania report and the betrayal of the church hierarchy in masking the crimes. The Rev. Leonard Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa said his anger was focused on the bishops who showed such poor judgment as leaders. The Rev. Jonathan Stephanz told parishioners at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg that he was tired of church officials describing the abuse in theological terms — as sinful, while avoiding calling it criminal. Bishop Gregory Parkes wrote a letter that was read at all weekend Masses, assuring local Catholics that safeguards are in place to keep predators away from children and encouraging anyone with evidence of misconduct to contact law enforcement.
Calling out the failure of those in authority. Dispensing with language that glosses over the criminal sexual assault of children. Committing to safeguards and inviting the scrutiny of law enforcement instead of closing ranks. Those are some of the ingredients needed to create lasting change, and it's vital that the reforms be embraced from within the church. After all, it's the latitude afforded to priests, in which no one questioned their behavior or challenged their motives, that allowed an institution trusted with ministering to families and nurturing the very young to become the instrument of their victimization.