Pope: Church realized sex abuse problem ‘a bit late’

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Vatican City — Pope Francis on Thursday acknowledged the Catholic Church was “a bit late” in realizing the damage done by priests who rape and molest children, and said that the decades-long practice of moving pedophiles around rather than sanctioning them was to blame.

Francis met Thursday for the first time with his sex abuse advisory commission, a group of outside experts named in 2014 to advise him and the Catholic Church on best practices to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and to protect kids.

Commission members briefed him on their work and made a series of proposals that, if accepted, would mark a major turnabout in the way the church handles abuse cases.

One recommendation is for sex abuse cases to be exempted from church’s norms requiring “pontifical secret.” Commissioners proposed that victims be guaranteed a “minimum right to information” as their claims are processed in the normally secrecy-filled church process. They also proposed that the 20-year statute of limitations on abuse accusations be lifted.

In addition, the commission said it was discussing the problem of when church law “impedes the reporting of suspected child abuse to civil authorities.”

The Vatican has long insisted that the inviolability of the seal of confession prevents clergy who might learn about abuse through the sacramental practice as an impediment to reporting crimes to law enforcement. Recently, however, Australia’s royal commission has called for clergy to face criminal charges if they learn of abuse in confession and fail to report it.

In off-the-cuff remarks, he admitted that the church’s response to the scandal was slow. Indeed, the Vatican for decades turned a blind eye to the problem and local bishops, rather than defrocking abusers, instead moved them from parish to parish.

Part of the problem was that under the papacy of St. John Paul II, the Vatican was reluctant to defrock young priests, even if they were abusers, and sought to avoid scandal at all costs.