One of the year’s biggest stories in religion has been the rolling, roiling, ongoing earthquake of the Catholic Church’s reckoning (or lack thereof) with its sexual abuse scandals, and the ways it’s protected accused priests from justice. But as part of one of his annual Christmas speeches, Pope Francis has offered some of his strongest language yet on the scandal, and made it clear that the Catholic Church is no longer a safe place for abusers to hide out.
“To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” Francis said in a speech at the Vatican on Friday, according to the Washington Post.
While the first few years’ of Francis’ time as Pope were marked by positive accolades, he’s been heavily criticized for a weak response to the tidal wave of abuse allegations, and has even been accused of being complicit in some of the coverups. However, Francis promised a new era would emerge from this February’s summit of bishops:
“Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls,” Francis said. “Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.”
Francis was also frank about the Church’s past failures, saying that it has “treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church.”
There were two major developments in the Church’s scandal this year. First, more than 300 priests were accused of sexual abuse in a Pennsylvania grand jury report — a report that inspired similar, ongoing investigations in other states. Second, longtime church leader Theodore McCarrick, an ex-cardinal, was removed amidst swirling accusations about sexual mistreatment of both minors and adults.
This led to the convening of bishops at the Vatican in November, who had pledged to draw up new rules for dealing with abuse. But they were waylaid by a sudden, surprise message from the Vatican mere hours before they were supposed to begin deliberations, instructing them not to take any action and wait until February for the global meeting.