A Response to The Pope: 1000+ Sexual Abuse Victims, 300+ Abusive Priests

The following article contains stories that may be disturbing to some readers. These sections are highlighted in red so you may choose to skip if desired.

Yesterday, Pope Francis published a letter addressing a Grand Jury Report which catalogs horrifying cases of sexual abuse mismanaged or intentionally concealed by leaders within the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and the Society of St. John. More than 1,000 victims have come forward so far, who were abused by over 300 priests over the course of 70 years.

You may listen to this article as a podcast, here.

You can read the full Grand Jury Report here.

The incidents described are harrowing. I’m going to be very upfront with you and admit that I am emotionally biased by these cases. As a parent, as a survivor, as a Christian, as a human being, my heart breaks, and my stomach just turns over, reading some of these horrific stories.

The report reveals that, among hundreds of cases, one priest confessed to raping 15 boys, some as young as seven. Rather than report to law enforcement, a bishop met with the abuser and commended him as “a person of candor and sincerity,” complimenting “the progress he has made” in controlling his “addiction.” Years later, said serial rapist was removed from the priesthood, but church members and the community were never told why or warned to protect their kids from him.

Another priest raped a minor girl, got her pregnant, and got her an abortion. To the rapist a bishop wrote, “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” Another seven-year-old girl was raped when a priest visited her in the hospital after she’d had surgery.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls,” the report reads, “and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

While I’m a Reformed Christian, and many (including the Pope) likely view me as from a completely different religion than Catholicism, I will take the liberty of responding to this letter for three reasons:

  1. I have many friends, brothers, and sisters in the Catholic Church. Yes, we have many pivotal doctrinal differences, but if our faith is in Christ alone for salvation, I fully expect to see you in Heaven. My sympathy is with you and I fervently desire your healing, peace, and sanctification. My prayer is that through this tragedy God would purify his Bride by revealing to you wolves and false teachers, as he has in past times when evil overwhelmed.
  2. Though Satan and evil men may view these crimes as victories over the Bride of Christ, they are in fact opportunities for us to proclaim the Gospel boldly by decrying evil, protecting the innocent, ministering to victims, and excommunicating false teachers and hypocrites in our midst.
  3. As James says in 4:17, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” It is good and right to stand against evil and abuse. It is good and right to excommunicate false teachers, to protect children, and report rapists and abusers to law enforcement. By failing to do so, the relevant leaders in the Catholic Church have sinned grievously, and it is good and right to call them out.

The Pope’s letter is several pages long. I have included the complete letter and responded paragraph by paragraph. My responses are in blue.

Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God

POPE: Dear Colleagues and Friends,

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons. Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.

JENN: The fact that the Pope emphasizes that he “acknowledges once more” feels concerningly like virtue signaling to me. As a survivor and a parent, I don’t care if he’s written 5,000 letters. What I want is for him to do everything in his power to punish abusers, protect children, and help victims heal. Also, regardless of how sympathetic and grieved he and other church leaders may feel, their pain is no comparison to that of the victims, some of whom may be struggling in their faith or experiencing suicidal depression. Their devastation is not sin, but rather, an understandable reaction to the horror of evil they were subjected to by men who should have represented Christ to them.

The word “consecrated” means, “having been made or declared sacred.” Unfortunately, no human being is sacred, only Jesus Christ. By Christ’s grace we are counted as righteous, but no pastor, priest, clergyman, or even the pope himself is without sin. We are all fallen, yet when we put our faith in Christ for salvation, we put on His righteousness just like a priest puts on robes. We are a “royal priesthood” of believers, as 1 Peter 2:9 says. Let us not put pastors, preachers, ministers, or clergy on so great a pedestal that we fail to hold them accountable or are shocked when they prove perverse or corrupt. This goes for “celebrity” evangelical pastors as well. We must not idolize men.

POPE: 1. If one member suffers…

In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years. Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless as time goes on we have come to know the pain of many of the victims. We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. Mary’s song is not mistaken and continues quietly to echo throughout history. For the Lord remembers the promise he made to our fathers: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53). We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite.

JENN: This paragraph I appreciate, particularly the last few sentences, because it expresses a new comprehension of sin and subsequent repentance for it. It describes coming to the realization that – while some have shrugged off these offenses as ancient history or yesterday’s problems – the wounds still exist in present day and are very real. Here we see the Catholic Church as a governmental body (i.e. the leaders, not necessarily the members) referenced by the Pope as having been conceited, mighty, and rich, and abuse victims as the lowly and hungry who God has sided with. To me, this is a positive sign that God may work through this situation to reform and sanctify, and I pray he does.

While the Pope does acknowledge that the wounds of victims remain painful long after affliction, he fails to mention that the behavioral patterns of abusers do not stay in the past, but recur over and over until one abuser may be guilty of hundreds of crimes. I am concerned that the Catholic Church, in its highest levels, may not understand abusers to be repeat offenders. Abuse is a lifestyle.

Also, note that when The Pope says that the pain of victims “cries out to Heaven,” he’s referencing the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain murders Abel it’s said that Abel’s blood “cries out to Heaven.” Bookmark that in your head because that imagery is going to come up again later in his letter.

POPE: With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison — Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)” (Ninth Station).

JENN: As an abuse survivor, while I recognize the Pope’s sincerity here, I find this paragraph unsettling. It recalls that 13 years ago, a Cardinal lamented “filth … in the priesthood.” So, why was not something done 13 years ago? Or over 70 years ago when the cases listed in this grand jury report began? Said report describes the abuse of over 1,000 victims by over 300 priests for more than 70 years. It is wonderful and good to lament the abuse of children by priests, but we need actions to back up these words. We need tangible measures taken to demonstrate and reinforce the sincerity of Catholic leadership church-wide. In another 13 years, let’s not be quoting the Pope’s August 20th, 2018 letter. Let this be the last lament required

POPE: 2. … all suffer together with it

The extent and the gravity of all that has happened requires coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way. While it is important and necessary on every journey of conversion to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough. Today we are challenged as the People of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit. If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history. And this in an environment where conflicts, tensions and above all the victims of every type of abuse can encounter an outstretched hand to protect them and rescue them from their pain (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 228). Such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person. A solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption. The latter is “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14)” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 165). Saint Paul’s exhortation to suffer with those who suffer is the best antidote against all our attempts to repeat the words of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).

JENN: This paragraph is really beautiful. The Pope is describing the minimizing, ignoring, and passive neglect of confronting sin as “spiritual corruption … a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness” which enables and empowers evil. He also compares those who ignore or overlook victims with Cain, the spiritual father of all reprobate people. In other words, he’s saying that the true people of God – the descendants of Eve and of Christ – are Good Samaritans who aid victims, whereas hypocrites and reprobates – the descendants of Cain and Satan – are those who pass them by. This is strong language condemning those in the Catholic Church who neglected abuse victims and concealed or failed to report abusers. However, I would like for us all to have the honor of witnessing the Pope exile Cain, as God did.

POPE: I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.

JENN: While I appreciate that he acknowledges this response as “delayed,” it does strike me as a gross understatement. This moral cancer should have been excised 70 years ago when these cases began. And that’s assuming they do not span farther into the past, which I fear is a naïve hope.

POPE: Together with those efforts, every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does. For as Saint John Paul II liked to say: “If we have truly started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49). To see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.1 This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again” to every form of abuse.

JENN: Here is where the Pope loses me quite a bit. Possibly it is my Reformed vocabulary not aligning with his Catholic vocabulary. However, to do “penance” is to undergo punishment for sin. The only people who need to be punished here are the abusers, enablers, and neglectors accused. While the sins in question are outrageous, nauseating, and heartbreaking, as an abuse survivor I have no desire for all my brothers and sisters in Christ to punish themselves for the sins of my abuser.

For one thing, if they think they can, they do not understand the gravity of my abuser’s evil. This is not something that you, an innocent bystander, can do penance for and somehow make me feel better by skipping lunch. For another, it’s simply not your sin, and if we are in Christ, Jesus has paid for our sins so we don’t have to. We repent for our own sins, yes. We fast on occasion, yes. But the purpose of fasting is not an act of self-punishment, but a righteous desire to sacrifice some time-consuming task (such as eating) so we may joyously invest that time into prayer and meditation instead. In addition, this even distribution of guilt and shame has the undesirable side-effect of taking pressure off those who are actually justifiably guilty. Let them wallow in their guilt alone, and focus on aiding victims.

It also concerns me that this paragraph may mislead some into imagining that their act of fasting will in any way help them comprehend the agony of a rape survivor. Your growling stomach is a fraction-of-a-drop in the ocean of pain felt by an abused child.

POPE: It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. 2 This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”.3

JENN: As a Reformed Christian, this paragraph sounds ironic coming from the Pope. I agree with him that a misunderstanding of Church authority directly contributes and likely motivates the covering up of many such crimes. A pastor or priest is no more holy than the world’s most recent convert. A minister or priest has no more power to absolve sins than anyone else. Only Christ. Christ alone is our Great High Priest. We can repent directly to him. We need not send our children into dark rooms alone with men who are in dire need of repenting their own evils. When we elevate the holiness, sacredness, and authority of fallen men – when we imagine them to have some special link to God, some spiritual status higher than our own, some impunity to the law of God or of the courts – we cheapen and devalue the grace of the Holy Spirit in us all.

POPE: Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

JENN: I don’t know what to say … Preach? As a Reformed Christian, I’m very confused by his definition of clericalism. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, during which the reformers, among other things, took issue with the Catholic Church over clericalism. So, just comes off as very confusing and ironic to me. I’m not sure what he means.

POPE: It is always helpful to remember that “in salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in the human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 6). Consequently, the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. In this way, we will come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel. For “whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).

JENN: Again, I feel my Reformed vocabulary is not translating his Catholic words well. I’m just not sure I understand what he means. However, I think I agree with him in that we are a priesthood of believers. The Holy Spirit is in us, Christ died for us, and we all are called to stand up against evil when we see it. That means holding our church leaders accountable. It means telling the police if a priest is a pedophile. It means demanding repentance, church discipline, and the removal of compromised men from all special status and leadership roles immediately upon commission of a crime. 

I recently listened to a podcast where an elder, pastor, and teacher in a Presbyterian denomination stepped down from all ministerial roles (even podcasting) because he is having communication problems with his wife and his marriage is suffering. He did not physically hurt anyone, betray anyone’s trust, or commit any crimes. However, he takes his office so seriously that he stepped down on his own volition when he realized he wasn’t making his wife feel loved. This is how serious we all need to start taking the office of shepherd. If a man cannot keep his own family in order, or I suppose in a celibate priest’s case, his own thoughts and actions, how can he be trusted with God’s family?

POPE: It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.

JENN: In addition, I would say that a healthy grasp of the gravity of evil gives us a better ability to understand a fraction of the immeasurability of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

POPE: Likewise, penance and prayer will help us to open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s sufferings and to overcome the thirst for power and possessions that are so often the root of those evils. May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled. A fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combatting all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.

JENN: I agree that a lot of weeping, prayer, and searching of God’s Word is an appropriate response to the horrors in this grand jury report. Come to think of it, I’ve noted multiple times the Pope encouraging Catholics to fast and pray, but I haven’t yet seen him encouraging them to read the Bible, and that’s really rather odd to me. Possibly he assumes they already are.

I also want to repeat, as I said above, we want to avoid misleading anyone into imagining that their act of fasting will in any way help them comprehend the agony of a child abuse victim. Also, there are many who cannot fast, such as pregnant women, sick people, and the elderly. Yet they’re entirely capable of sympathizing by the enablement of the Spirit through prayer and the study of God’s Word. So, I would say, if you want to get your heart right and in a Godly place regarding this travesty, ask the Spirit to work that in your heart.

POPE: In this way, we can show clearly our calling to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1).

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”, said Saint Paul. By an attitude of prayer and penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation. Mary chose to stand at the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’ side. In this way, she reveals the way she lived her entire life. When we experience the desolation caused by these ecclesial wounds, we will do well, with Mary, “to insist more upon prayer”, seeking to grow all the more in love and fidelity to the Church (SAINT IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA, Spiritual Exercises, 319). She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.

JENN: As a sidenote, as a Reformed Christ, I’d never encourage you to pray to Mary. She was highly favored and loved by God, but she is not God and cannot answer prayers. However, she is a good model to follow of a true follower of Christ.

But, since at the beginning of this paragraph The Pope is quoting Paul, and using the theology of Paul, it should be noted that Paul also demanded the excommunication of false teachers, and people living in sexual sins. Right? When that guy married his step-mom, Paul demanded church discipline. When the false teacher, who he metaphorically referred to as Jezebel, was teaching lies and bad doctrine, Paul called on the church to kick her out; get rid of her!

Can we expect the Catholic Church to excommunicate all pedophiles, child molesters, and rapists from here on out? Can we expect the Catholic Church to remove unfit teachers and leaders from their positions of authority? I hope so.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul describes the lifestyle and character of a man fit to shepherd God’s people. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

This description – above reproach, faithful, level-headed, self-controlled, respectable, gentle, and skilled at teaching children – strikes me as being exactly the opposite of at least 300 Pennsylvania priests.

POPE: May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.

JENN: Indeed. May the Holy Spirit grant conversion to all those who ignore, minimize, excuse, enable, or commit sins of abuse against children, for these people are very likely not saved. This level of sin is not something God’s children – Christlike people – will commit or enable.


Vatican City, 20 August 2018

“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
– James 4:17

Comments 1

  1. Would you please share a link to the podcast of the man who stepped down from his ministry role in the Presbyterian denomination? I’d like to listen to it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this letter, Jennifer. It was very helpful to read. -Renee

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