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Pope Francis is doing more to fight sex abuse than his predecessors. That's still not enough.

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

For the most part, Pope Francis's first visit to North America is being met with giddy anticipation from the media and public figures. But one group is not so enthusiastic: survivors of clerical abuse.

Francis gets credit for doing much more than his predecessors to address the crisis. But the bar is low. For example, Pope John Paul II did shockingly little. His defenders asserted that he was unaware of the facts, but he was receiving reports detailing just how grave the situation was as early as 1985. "Other than making nine recorded public statements, all of which were sufficiently nuanced to be innocuous, and calling a meeting of the U.S. cardinals to tell them what everyone already knew, he did nothing positive," victims' advocate and priest Rev. Thomas Doyle writes. Pope Benedict XVI did more, but still left bishops like Kansas City's Robert Finn, who were known to have covered up abuse, in power.

By contrast, some observers argue that Francis has taken meaningfully positive measures."Pope Francis's willingness to act on the issue of holding bishops accountable has been a great source of hope for Catholics who've wondered when this great unfinished business of the abuse scandal was going to get handled," Grant Gallicho, an associate editor at Commonweal, contends.

But survivors of clerical sex abuse still aren't celebrating the pope's visit. Activists at Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) argue that Francis has offered more happy talk and conciliatory language than actual changes that would crack down on abusive clergy. They point to the breathtaking extent of the abuse: A 2004 paper by investigators at John Jay College found that between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 out of 109,794 total priests faced "not implausible" sexual assault accusations — 4 percent. As of 2014, the total was up to 6,427 priests credibly accused, with 17,259 alleged victims.

"We beg Francis to stop acting like the abuse and cover ups are over and that only healing is needed," SNAP director David Clohessy said in a statement. "That’s disingenuous and dangerous."

These aren't contradictory assessments. Francis really has taken measures his predecessors didn't to address the crisis. But he hasn't come close to implementing the full list of reforms that victims groups are demanding.

What Francis has done to address the crisis

His resignation was one of Francis's biggest accomplishments on abuse

Robert Finn, the disgraced former head of the Kansas City diocese, appears in court before being convicted of hiding sexual abuse by clergy.

Pool/Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images

Francis gained a lot of favorable coverage for publicly apologizing to abuse victims. "Today the heart of the church looks into the eyes of Jesus in these boys and girls and wants to weep," he said in a homily last year. "I humbly ask for forgiveness." But victims groups objected that the apology implied abuse was in the church's past, rather than ongoing.

A more concrete action of Francis was the appointment in 2013 of a commission to study the issue, which included two abuse survivors, Pete Saunders and Marie Collins, among its members. Following that, in June of this year he approved the creation of a new tribunal at the Vatican that would judge bishops accused of either ignoring or abetting child sexual abuse; Saunders told the New York Times that he viewed the tribunal as a sign that Francis was listening to the commission.

What's more, Francis's tenure has seen a number of bishops who were accused or even convicted of covering up abuse resign after Vatican prodding. Robert Finn, the former head of the diocese of Kansas City, was convicted three years ago of failing to report suspected child abuse. Under Francis, the Vatican began investigating Finn, eventually leading to his long-overdue resignation.

After prosecutors brought charges in June against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failing to protect children, Francis accepted the resignation of both the archbishop and his deputy. The same day, the Vatican indicted its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic for abusing minors there, making him the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to face a sex crimes trial.

Because Finn and the archbishop of the Twin Cities resigned, it's hard to know for sure how important pressure from the Vatican was. But some observers argue that their departure is a sign that Francis is taking abuse seriously in a way that Benedict XVI and John Paul II did not.

"One of the major moments of Francis's papacy has been his willingness to study the problem of accountability for bishops and his willingness to act on investigations that show bishops have behaved badly," Gallicho says. Gallicho notes that Francis's predecessor, Benedict XVI, didn't remove Finn even after his criminal conviction: "He was not disciplined, and for Kansas City Catholics that was a source of scandal." Even Benedict, Gallicho contends, was an improvement compared with John Paul II, who was so worried about clergy leaving the priesthood that he made slowing down "laicization" — the process through which priests leave the clergy — a priority, which had the effect of making it harder to defrock abusive priests.

John Paul also had close ties to Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ who was later revealed to be a serial sexual abuser; he was only disciplined when Benedict — then Joseph Ratzinger, cardinal and prelate of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has jurisdiction over sex abuse cases — urged an investigation, which culminated in Maciel's retirement. "It really wasn't until very late in John Paul's papacy that Ratzinger himself pushed through this investigation that led to him being sent to a life of prayer and penitence," Gallicho says.

What Francis hasn't done to address the crisis

He never did jail time in DR or Poland

Punishment was slow in coming for former Papal Nuncio Józef Wesołowski, who faced numerous abuse accusations.

Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images

But while Francis is doing a better job than his predecessors, it's hard to argue that he's actually handled the issue of clerical abuse. Some of the church's most damaging activities under John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue apace.

For one thing, some known sex abusers are still practicing as priests. "In researching the Philippine Catholic Church," co-director Anne Barrett Doyle writes, "we found several examples of Filipino bishops retaining priests who are barred from ministry by US bishops. One, a priest criminally convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor in Detroit, was recently a featured preacher at prayer gatherings that included young people." The abuse situation isn't solved as long as known abusers — including ones with criminal convictions — are still in ministries where they can harm children.

Additionally, earlier this year, sex abuse advocates were outraged when Francis appointed Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to head a diocese in southern Chile, despite Barros's record of covering up sex abuse by his former superior, Fernando Karadima, in the 1980s and 1990s. That was a direct violation of Francis's pledge of "zero tolerance" for abuse and abuse cover-ups, and many lay Catholics were outraged. "If the Holy See thinks it can ride through this controversy on the wave of the Pope’s popularity, it is mistaken," William Doino Jr. wrote in First Things.

Under Francis's leadership, the church has also had an inconsistent record when it comes to cooperating with civil authorities. "He and his staff provided virtually none of the documentation on abuse cases requested by two UN panels," Clohessy said in an email. In late 2013, the church rebuffed one UN panel's request for access to child abuse records as part of an inquiry into the church's handling of abuse cases. When the UN report came out and recommended the pope instruct all bishops to follow the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See protested that there was nothing it could do: "The Holy See does not ratify a treaty on behalf of every Catholic in the world, and therefore, does not have obligations to 'implement' the convention within the territories of other state parties on behalf of Catholics."

Clohessy notes that the Vatican's indictment of Józef Wesołowski, the Polish cardinal who formerly served as the Holy See's ambassador to the Dominican Republic, also served to protect him from prosecution in either Poland or the DR; Polish officials claim to have tried to extradite him before being rebuffed by the Vatican. Wesołowski died in August, without having faced justice in any civil court.

Pell allegedly bribed a victim not to report

Pope Francis speaks with George Pell, a top Vatican adviser who's accused of sheltering abusers in Australia.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

In another case, the Vatican initially declined to cooperate with a government commission looking into clerical sex abuse in Australia, claiming diplomatic immunity, before ultimately relenting. The former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney George Pell — who is currently a top adviser to Francis and oversees the Vatican's finances — has also been repeatedly accused of silencing or ignoring abuse accusations. Testimony at the Australian commission alleged he actually tried to bribe a victim to not report abuse. Saunders, the abuse survivor appointed to the papal commission on the issue, said Pell had an "almost sociopathic" indifference to victims, and was "making a mockery of the papal commission, of the pope himself, but most of all, of victims and survivors." Pell responded by threatening legal action. Keep in mind, again, that this is one of the closest people to Francis, who keeps him around despite these reports.

US bishops have also continued, under Francis, to fight state legislation that would make it easier for sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers. Dennis Poust of the New York State Catholic Conference condemned a proposed bill that would have provided a one-year window in which victims could sue abusers in old cases as "fundamentally unfair." Bishops groups are currently opposing similar laws in Maryland, Iowa, and DC. As Cardozo School of Law professor Marci Hamilton told Reuters, "It is the bishops who have blocked any kind of meaningful reform."

The big question: How much can Francis do?

Pope Francis Visits Philippines - Day 2

Can Francis control his bishops?

Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

SNAP, the victims' rights group, has prepared a list of 20 demands it wants Francis to adopt. Many are obviously achievable: turning over Vatican records to local law enforcement, pleading for church employees and members to report abuse, holding a conference with secular lawmakers to work on reforming sex crime laws so as to better protect victims. And since the demands' first release, one — the exit of Robert Finn from his position as bishop of Kansas City — has been achieved, although activists would've preferred Finn to be fired rather than resign, and for Francis to be clear that Finn's tolerance of abuse was the reason.

But the group's other demands lean heavily on bishops. SNAP wants the pope to order bishops to, among other things:

  • Seize passports from priests suspected of abuse, so they can't flee
  • Hire ex-police to investigate abuse cases that can't be criminally prosecuted, and hire corrections staff to house and monitor guilty priests
  • Only use licensed therapists, not nuns or priests, to treat abuse victims
  • Set up whistleblower funds to reward church staff who report abuse

Gallicho is skeptical that the pope can wield that kind of influence over bishops. For one thing, he says, bishops technically have to resign, making it harder for Francis to discipline ones who refuse to obey his edicts. "Removing a bishop is actually theologically iffier," Gallicho says; that's why people like Bishop Finn in Kansas City had to resign, rather than being formally removed. He adds: "It's a huge institution. The Vatican doesn't have a crystal ball. It's not like when Professor X puts on the helmet and sees every mutant in the world. The pope relies on bishops to properly handle these kinds of cases."

And more generally, Gallicho thinks SNAP is setting expectations for reform that can never be met. "I have a lot of admiration for SNAP and the victims who have been courageous enough to come forward," he says. "but I do have the sense that there's nothing Francis can do that will make SNAP happy."

Clohessy, however, thinks the pope could easily end abuse and crack down on bishops who engaged in cover-ups if he so chose: "The pope’s a monarch. He’s got nearly limitless power in the church. He could, and should, simply defrock, demote and discipline bishops who conceal abuse. That’s all that it would take to begin to turn this around." SNAP explicitly recommends the firing of bishops, acknowledging that it would be new, but also a necessary accountability measure.

Gallicho is also iffy on defrocking priests guilty of abuse: "Once you laicize a priest he's no longer within the structure of the church. He doesn't have a local religious community that might keep tabs on him. If you cut a guy loose and he happens to be a determined abuser, I'm not sure that keeps kids safe." He'd prefer using monasteries and other ministries where priests wouldn't have contact with children as ways to prevent further abuse and not lose control over abusers.

Clohessy is more dubious of the church's ability to take care of abusers internally. "Bishops TALK of housing and overseeing predators but do it rarely and poorly," he writes. "They should use independent, professionally run, civilian-staffed facilities and not assign clerics to monitor fellow clerics." Better yet, they could push for the criminal justice system to handle it: "if bishops would lobby for, not against, secular child safety law reform, and if they would aggressively help law enforcement, many of these child molesting clerics would be housed in secure prisons."

In short, there's a lot that Francis could still do to help victims, to punish bishops who covered up abuse, and to create structures where abuse is less likely to occur. He's an improvement over his predecessors, but that's a rather low bar. As Clohessy puts it, "It's little comfort to a girl who's been raped under Francis to say, 'Well, under Benedict, there might have been an even smaller chance of your predator being ousted.'"