Pope Francis has a chance to clean up clergy sex abuse. It’s now or never.

Pope Francis

For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, a cardinal has been expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians.

From the perspective of ground-shattering precedent, the defrocking of Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, is a big deal that not only removes him from the priesthood but also denies him benefits such as housing. Yet McCarrick’s punishment amounts to mere symbolism if the internal church bureaucracy that allows abuse to occur and then protects the abuser prevails.

Pope Francis has a chance to convince the world that the church is capable of embracing true reform at this week’s summit in Rome, which he called to address the ongoing crisis over the church’s handling of its sexual abuse scandal.


Now is not the time for incremental change. Catholics are losing their patience. Nearly two decades after the clergy sexual abuse scandal was first revealed by The Boston Globe, the Catholic Church has yet to implement the kind of broad, systemic reform that goes beyond belatedly and reluctantly addressing the crimes of individual priests. Indeed, the church has failed so miserably at self-policing that prosecutors around the country are taking matters into their own hands.

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What would real reform look like? Marie Collins, a clergy abuse survivor in Ireland, who resigned from the Pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors after accusing the Vatican of inaction, recommends three reform measures: clear definitions for clergy sexual abuse and zero tolerance; a best practices guide for the protection of children to be applied around the world; and clear and specific sanctions for bishops who don’t follow those definitions and guidelines.

“The measures in place to investigate, judge and sanction any negligent bishop should be set out clearly for the participants. They must be left in no doubt as to the fact that these procedures are in place and being implemented,” wrote Collins in a recent piece for the National Catholic Register.

Yet Collins does not expect the summit to embrace her proposals, she told Michael Rezendes, who was a member of the Globe Spotlight Team that exposed how the church covered up clergy sexual abuse. While the pope has broad authority, bishops are still the boss of their own diocese. Also, according to Collins, the Vatican believes that in the developing world, education must come first, before accountability.

There always seems to be some excuse. Last November the Vatican stopped the United States Conference of Bishops from adopting measures that would hold bishops accountable for abusive priests. The bishops were on the verge of approving new standards of conduct, and establishing an outside commission to review violations, when the Vatican instructed them to delay a vote, pending this week’s summit.


McCarrick’s fall from grace came after The New York Times reported last year on settlements that were paid to men who had complained of abuse when he was a bishop in the 1980s. According to the Times, some church leaders had long known about the accusations. In fact, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal ambassador to Washington, has charged that Francis was among those who knew of the allegations.

By defrocking McCarrick, Francis is finally trying to send a message that no one is immune from punishment. For the message to be believed, it will have to be backed up by policies that apply everywhere and to everyone, from every parish and diocese on to Rome.