In a lengthy interview with CNN Portugal, Pope Francis insisted, falsely, that he had a “zero tolerance” policy when it came to the sexual abuse of children.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview in Rome last month, the Pontiff said the church had “zero tolerance” for abuse and said that “a priest cannot remain a priest if he is an abuser.”
The church’s response to sex abuse scandals has become one of the defining themes of Francis’ time as Pope, and he told CNN Portugal that every case of abuse within the church “hurts” him.
His statements stand in stark contrast to his actions when faced with evidence of sexual abuse. CNN lists just a few of the times Pope Francis has downplayed allegations of child sexual abuse or taken the side of priests:
Multiple reports detailing decades of sexual abuse, systemic failures and cover-ups across multiple countries have been released since Francis became the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in 2013. While he was criticized for some of his actions — such as when he defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up a sex scandal in 2018, a decision he later described as a “grave error” — he has since taken a firm stance on the issues and introduced some reforms.
It’s not like the pope just made one error, though. In 2019, Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for child sex abuse, or, as his lawyer callously called it, nothing more than a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating.” In 2020, the conviction was controversially overturned when the High Court of Australia said the jury lacked enough doubt about the testimony against Pell.
What was Pope Francis’ reaction? He spoke out against “unjust sentences” and compared Pell’s situation to how Jesus was persecuted despite being innocent. The pope didn’t acknowledge almost certain guilt that was overturned on a technicality; he acted like Pell had done absolutely nothing wrong.
In the U.S., there have also been efforts to make priests mandatory reporters. If they hear an admission of child abuse in the confessional booth, for example, these bills would require them to inform law enforcement officials. The Catholic Church has opposed those laws, claiming that the sacredness of confession outweighs the safety of children.
Instead, Pope Francis issued new rules requiring priests to report abuse allegations to Church authorities… but even those rules came with giant loopholes. There was no requirement to speak with secular law enforcement, there was no penalty for those who disobeyed the orders, admissions during confession were still considered sacred and secret, and Church leaders could simply ignore the reports.
Forget “zero tolerance.” If you were designing a system to prevent child sexual abuse, you would never craft the policies the Catholic Church has implemented. They don’t go far enough and bad behavior is still allowed to thrive.
Even beyond that, the pope has completely dismissed changing a major contributor to the problem: the celibacy requirements for priests. As the thinking goes, if predatory priests were allowed to have sex, even if only within the confines of marriage, they wouldn’t prey on children. (That theory is far from solid, though, because plenty of predators aren’t lacking legal sexual outlets. We see you, Josh Duggar.)
Still, the pope says celibacy has absolutely nothing to do with the problem:
“… Could it be that celibacy [is to blame]? It’s not about celibacy,” he said.
“This is one thing about abuse, it is a destructive thing, humanly diabolical,” he said. “In families there is no celibacy and all that and, sometimes, it happens. So, it is simply the monstrosity of a man or woman of the church who is psychologically ill or evil and uses their position for their personal satisfaction,” he added.
Once again, he’s downplaying the possible causes of the problem. It’s easy to pretend abuse is only committed by monsters. It’s the same excuse conservatives use to reject police reform, by describing certain cops as “bad apples.” But those bad apples grow in bad orchards, and Pope Francis is eager to pin the blame on individual priests, no matter how many bad ones there are, rather than the Catholic Church itself.
The fact is: The pope doesn’t really care about sexual abuse. He’s lying when he says he has “zero tolerance” for it. We know that because he refuses to take major steps to solve the problem, the steps experts say are necessary to seriously curb abuse. If he really cared, he’d be talking about suspending all who are accused of bad behavior, handing investigations over to independent (secular) authorities, paying victims what they’re owed, making all findings transparent, and changing “traditional” rules that have contributed to the problem.
Pope Francis takes sexual abuse as seriously as Texas Governor Greg Abbott takes school shootings. If you believe them, you need to get your brain checked.
The pope is putting a few bandages on a flesh wound. It’s not going to solve the problem. And if Pope Francis doesn’t take this problem seriously enough, how could anyone trust the Catholic Church to police itself?