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Four things the Catholic Church can do right now to fight sex abuse

 Pope Francis attends a meeting of prayer at the Isernia's cathedral on July 5, 2014 in Isernia - Campobasso, Italy.
Pope Francis attends a meeting of prayer at the Isernia's cathedral on July 5, 2014 in Isernia - Campobasso, Italy.
Franco Origlia/Getty

Pope Francis compared pedophiliac priests to a "sacrilegious cult" on Monday. The statement was part of a homily Francis delivered to six victims of clerical sex abuse that he'd invited to a private mass inside the Vatican. After his message, he held 30-minute one-on-one conversations with each victim.

Thousands of minors were abused by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002, a 2004 report from John Jay found. In some cases, high-ranking Catholic officials knew of this abuse and either failed to report it to the authorities, or — more shockingly — covered it up. Andrew Sullivan said this revelation "shell-shocked" the Church, and claimed that "many Catholics [would] never feel the same way they once did about this institution." When Francis took over St. Peter's throne, many had high hopes that he'd be the Pope to once and for all deal with this evil.

Francis has taken several opportunities to address the crisis. Along with Monday's meeting with abuse victims, he's also created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to advise him on how best to remedy past wrongs and prevent further abuse.

Critics, though, say what he's doing isn't enough. Earlier this year, a statement released from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) accused Francis of failing to live up to his own promises of reform: "On church governess, church finances, and simple living, [Francis] acts. On the rape of children he talks." And on Monday, in response to his latest outreach to victims, SNAP slammed Francis for "refusing to act" in any meaningful way beyond "public relations coups."

I interviewed experts on this issue and read through several public statements and remarks to see if they had any recommendations for Francis on how to deal with sexual abuse more effectively and immediately. Here are four changes they are calling for.

1) Focus first on prevention

Most agree that the Vatican's focus should be on preventing further molestations from happening. In a statement released July 5, SNAP argued that "wounded adults can heal themselves but vulnerable kids can't protect themselves."

Thomas Plante, a PhD in clinical psychology and author of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012, agrees that the focus should be on the future. "The important issue here is" he told me in an email, "What is the Church actually doing to prevent potential sex offenders from entering seminary and being ordained as priests now?" Many of the sex crimes that have been made light occurred decades ago, said Plante, which makes it difficult for the Church — and even civil authorities, with statutes of limitations — to effectively deal with the crimes. Moving forward, Plante says the Church ought to be "hyper-vigilant about screening applicants to religious life, and making sure all state-of-the-art policies and procedures are followed to ensure kids are safe in the Church."

2) Stop downplaying the crisis

SNAP's July 5 statement called for the Pope to "stop talking about the [sex] crisis as though it's past tense." SNAP provided a list of demands for Francis to follow, including the suggestion that he

Order bishops to avoid using language that minimizes clergy abuse like "it's just a small percentage of priests" or deflects blame like "abuse happens in other settings too" or faults accusers like "these allegations are from 25 years ago"

SNAP alleges that "this is an on-going crisis. Children are being assaulted by clerics right now."

According to Plante, the available data shows that clerical sex abuse has actually "been very low since the 2002 Dallas Charter for Child Protection was implemented by the US Bishops." (Here is an article chronicling the numbers Plante is talking about.) But acknowledging that progress has been made is not to say that enough progress has been made. Further, as Diarmuid Martin, the Catholic Bishop of Dublin, recently argued, to "play down the realities of abuse [is to] damage the Church's witness to the healing power of Jesus Christ."

Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and the former editor-in-chief of America Magazine, has argued, "the Church deserves to be raked over the coals" for her ill-handling of the sex abuse crisis. The Church's failure to deal with this crisis effectively has unquestionably sullied her image, and she will perhaps always be recovering from the evil committed inside her walls. And while it might be true that the percentage of abusive priests is comparable to the percentage of abusive males in the greater population, pointing this out is as hurtful as "a cheating husband telling his wife that the other men in the neighborhood cheat more," says Reese. 4 percent of the priestly population is still 4 percent too great — all of Francis' work in this area must proceed from this acknowledgement.

3) See survivors as part of the solution — not as problems that need to be hushed up

In the middle of the last century, Latin American theologians developed what they termed the "preferential option for the poor," which was their way of reminding the Church that her responsibility first belonged to its weakest members. Without neglecting its responsibility to the poor, the Church must now develop a preferential option for sex abuse victims, Bishop Diarmuid Martin said Monday. The entire Church, said Martin, has been wounded in this crisis, and therefore the entire body must work together to become the place where hurt and angry survivors can "encounter healing." He then acknowledged, "We are not that kind of Church yet, and by far."

Reese made similar statements in his 2012 keynote address to the Clergy Abuse Conference in Santa Clara University.

Just as people in the church have learned not to look on the poor as a problem to be solved, but to recognize their contribution to the church, so too we need to see the survivors of abuse as persons who can teach us what it means to be Christians .…

This means that we cannot respond to every new victim who comes forward with "O God, not another one." Rather we have to see them as integral to our community, persons who must be welcomed. Such an attitude would encourage the church to reach out to the thousands of victims of sexual abuse who have not come forward. We want them to come forward; the church needs them.

Martin and Reese want Christians to encourage sex abuse victims to come forward and share their stories. Not only will this help the survivors find healing, but it will also help the Church continue to remedy her wounds. As Reese told me in an email: "Victims of abuse are part of the church, just as the wounds of Christ are part of him."

4) Continue to push against corrupt bureaucracy

Perhaps the most shocking part of the sex abuse scandal was the revelation that several high-ranking bishops actually knew and covered up some of those molestations. Sadly, in many instances, the wellbeing of an abusive priest was given priority over the wellbeing of his victim. This is an example of what Francis terms clericalism, the Pope's label for what happens when Church leaders who become so turned in on themselves and their own career ambitions that they neglect their real pastoral vocation of being a minister of mercy.

Though Francis has taken steps to crack down on an overly ambitious clergy — for instance, firing the Bishop of Bling — the fact remains that "Speaking truth to power is not welcomed in the Catholic Church," as Reese notes. In his keynote address, Reese cited the example of a Philadelphia priest who pushed back against his bishop when an abusive priest was assigned to his parish. The priest who challenged the bishop's authority was reprimanded and punished, said Reese, which "is what happens when  you speak truth to power in the Catholic Church." When your theological overseer is also your check-signer, standing up to him poses certain liabilities.

This is an issue that Francis seems committed to fixing. Even before he became Pope, then-Cardinal Bergoglio insisted in an interview that Church leadership should "never turn a blind eye" to sex abuse, even when coming forward with such information risks "damaging the image of an institution." This emphasis on pastoral humility is an essential aspect of cleaning house: clerical pride has often been one of the biggest obstacles preventing the Church from righting the evils of sex abuse.