OTHER VOICES: Pope Francis takes promising first step
In an unprecedented message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis this week bluntly acknowledged the church’s worst-kept secret: that it has long abetted sexual abuse by priests against “the little ones” with ambivalence and cover-ups. Whether the pope’s words mark a new era of reform, or become merely another example of the church’s massive failure on this front, will depend on next steps.
The 2,000-word letter is in some ways an extraordinary document, not merely condemning the criminality of individual priests but holding the entire church accountable. “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” Francis wrote.
He said the church must create a culture “to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.” He called for “zero tolerance” and “making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.” He referenced a recent grand jury report alleging that 301 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.
St. Louis, like other cities, has its own horrific stories of priestly abuse and cover-up. An illustrative one was that of Rev. Leroy Valentine, accused of sexual molestation in the 1980s by three brothers. The Archdiocese of St. Louis later paid them $20,000 each for their silence, with a promise that Valentine would be removed from parish work.
Instead, he was assigned assistant pastor at a church attached to a Catholic elementary school. The archdiocese initially continued defending Valentine after another of his alleged victims, Chris O’Leary, came forward with recovered memories of abuse. O’Leary, too, accepted a settlement, in part because the expired statute of limitations left no chance of a criminal conviction. Valentine was finally removed from the priesthood in 2013 as officials were investigating yet another abuse allegation against him, this one from the 1970s.
Francis, in his letter, indicated he understands the scope of the problem, and his scheduled meetings with victims of clergy abuse on his trip to Ireland this weekend are a fitting follow-up. But no specific church policy changes have materialized.
There is a timely opportunity: The grand jury report recommends eliminating Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for such crimes, which, as in cases like O’Leary’s, could allow for repressed memories that don’t resurface for years. The statute is the reason just two of the 301 priests named in the grand jury report face criminal charges.
If the Vatican were to follow Francis’ letter with a vow that it will heretofore side with law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates, it would add substance to what is so far only a promising gesture toward justice for “the little ones.”