Critics say Pope Francis needs to walk the walk after too many words on global Catholic child abuse scandal

Action: Pope Francis has been accused of talking but not acting in response to the global Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal.
Action: Pope Francis has been accused of talking but not acting in response to the global Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal.

POPE Francis’ vow to break the Catholic Church’s cover-up culture in a letter to “the people of God” after a damning American child sexual abuse report has been criticised after eight months of silence following release of the Australian child abuse royal commission final report.

Pope Francis condemned “atrocities” committed by priests against 1000 children in Pennsylvania and admitted the church abandoned “the little ones”, in a letter released on Monday after a US grand jury report revealed shocking child sexual abuse over 70 years.

He vowed that “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”, but provided no details about how that was to be achieved. The letter followed a similar statement from the Pope in May after a child sexual abuse scandal in Chile.

Australian critics said the recent letters were “just more words” and “hand-wringing” from the Pope whose response to the Australian royal commission final report in December, with recommendations that directly challenge child sexual abuse secrecy provisions within church law, was a two-line statement acknowledging the commission's “accurate efforts”.

“He can change the culture of the church with the stroke of a pen by changing canon law but he won’t,” said lawyer and former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell, whose submission to the royal commission on canon law was reflected in a series of recommendations for Australian bishops to raise with the Vatican.

Culture: Former trainee priest, lawyer and author Kieran Tapsell said Pope Francis can change church culture with the stroke of a pen.

Culture: Former trainee priest, lawyer and author Kieran Tapsell said Pope Francis can change church culture with the stroke of a pen.

“The church secrecy laws protect the perpetrators and increase the amount of child sexual abuse and yet when two United Nations committees in 2014 recommended the Pope change canon law to protect children, he rejected them,” Mr Tapsell said.

“How can he get rid of a culture of secrecy when canon law requires secrecy? Until he changes canon law, everything he says is hypocrisy. There’s nothing wrong with the words in his letter. I like what he says, but it’s still more hand-wringing.”

How can he get rid of a culture of secrecy when canon law requires secrecy? Until he changes canon law, everything he says is hypocrisy. There’s nothing wrong with the words in his letter. I like what he says, but it’s still more hand-wringing.

Author Kieran Tapsell on Pope Francis

Hunter abuse survivor Peter Gogarty said Pope Francis issued letters after the Chilean and US scandals but has so far failed to respond to the Australian royal commission, because the royal commission requires him to act.

“It’s easy for the Pope to say ‘I’m sorry’ to the people of Chile and America, but it’s much, much tougher for him to respond to Australia because we’ve said ‘This is what your church has done and this is what your church now has to do’,” Mr Gogarty said.

“The Australian royal commission recommended too much for the Catholic Church to deal with because it exposed the culture of secrecy and the systems that allowed the crimes. The royal commission requires action for change, which is why the Pope hasn’t said a word about it.

Tough: Hunter abuse survivor Peter Gogarty said it was easy for Pope Francis to respond to child sexual abuse scandals in Chile and the US but much tougher in Australia because the child abuse royal commission requires him to act.

Tough: Hunter abuse survivor Peter Gogarty said it was easy for Pope Francis to respond to child sexual abuse scandals in Chile and the US but much tougher in Australia because the child abuse royal commission requires him to act.

“He’s the head of the church. He says he wants the church’s culture to change but that change must start with him, and so far all he’s delivered is more words and apologies. I’m sick to death of the apologies.”

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found the church’s leadership had “failed the people of the Catholic Church in Australia, in particular its children” and the results of that failure had been “catastrophic”.

It’s easy for the Pope to say ‘I’m sorry’ to the people of Chile and America, but it’s much, much tougher for him to respond to Australia because we’ve said ‘This is what your church has done and this is what your church now has to do’.

Hunter abuse survivor Peter Gogarty

It made 26 specific recommendations for Australia’s bishops to raise with the Vatican, including nine recommendations to change canon law and removal of the “pontifical secret” over child sexual abuse.

Prominent American Catholic write John L Allen said the Pope’s letter on Monday clearly acknowledged the church’s failings and vowed accountability, but provided no specifics, particularly about how the church would deal with leaders who covered-up child sex crimes.

Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform convenor Peter Johnstone said the Pope’s letter “amazingly” promised “no reform of the unaccountability and toxicity of the church’s structure and culture” despite “voluminous evidence of cover-ups by bishops throughout the world over many years”.

“He says he is ‘conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world’ and acknowledges that the church has ‘delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary’,” Mr Johnstone said.

“Yet the Pope, while recognising the ‘filth’, ‘pride’, ‘self-complacency’ among the leaders of the church, fails to identify steps that need to be taken to reform the governance structure and culture that have nurtured this evil.”

Mr Johnstone said the Australian royal commission’s final report recommended action that went “far beyond procedural changes for child safety”.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has committed to providing a response to the royal commission next week.

Action: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the church requires action and not words in response to the child sexual abuse scandal.

Action: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the church requires action and not words in response to the child sexual abuse scandal.

“If the Pope’s letter is meaningful, that response should contain a papal acceptance of the ‘actions and sanctions that are so necessary’ to ensure a church with accountable, transparent and inclusive leadership,” Mr Johnstone said.

Former priest, academic and Australian Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson said the Pope’s latest words, “so long overdue, are good, but more important is the follow-up action”.

“I would hope that when Pope Francis finally takes that action he notes carefully the recommendations of the Australian royal commission,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“That body tapped into a much, much wider source of people, stories, wisdom and knowledge than the bishops are wont to do. He must give the royal commission’s recommendations the full consideration they merit.”

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge issued a statement on Tuesday welcoming the Pope’s letter, and acknowledging the royal commission which had “done much good for this country”.

“These are important words from Pope Francis, but words are not enough. Now is the time for action on many levels,” Archbishop Coleridge said.