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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2014 at 4:50 PM

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Guest: Swift action needed from Pope Francis on child sex abuse

It’s time For Pope Francis to get serious about protecting vulnerable children from sexual abuse by priests, writes guest columnist Mary Dispenza.


Special to The Times

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A WEEK ago, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, defended the Vatican’s policy of not requiring clergy to report child sex abuse to the authorities. “The Vatican requires national laws to be respected, and we know that there is no such duty (to report abuse) under Italian law,” he told reporters.

It was a disappointment because Pope Francis had just appointed a commission to advise him on sex-abuse policy. Bagnasco’s comments sounded like business as usual.

The comments also ignore the scathing report issued by a United Nations human-rights committee in February, which rebuked the Vatican for its long-standing and systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children around the world. The report made concrete suggestions for ways to protect children in the future.

I call on Pope Francis and his newly formed committee to respond to Bagnasco’s words by showing they take the U.N. report seriously. To do so, he must take action now to acknowledge the Vatican’s leadership role and initiate a worldwide process to end priest sexual abuse of children and to begin healing the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis can begin by conducting the sweeping investigation of all cases of abuse the U.N. committee on human rights has requested. He can require the mandatory reporting of abuse to police. He can encourage victims to come forward even if statutes of limitation have expired. He can compensate victims and hold accountable those who covered up clergy abuse.

For starters, Francis could defrock, demote or discipline Bishop Robert Finn of St. Louis, Mo., who was convicted of shielding an abusive priest. The pope should extradite Archbishop Józef Wesolowski of Poland, who is wanted by law enforcement for allegedly molesting five children. Action against both prelates would scare other bishops into obeying secular laws and helping, rather than hindering, the prosecution of predators.

Pope Francis should order all bishops to post on their websites — as 30 U.S. bishops have done — the names, photos, whereabouts and work histories of proven, admitted and credibly accused child-molesting clerics.

Then, publicly praise and promote the first few who do so. Francis should mandate bishops across the world to begin lobbying for better secular child-safety laws, then publicly praise and promote the first few who do.

It will take proven, public and practical steps that actually protect those at risk, expose those who commit clergy sex crimes and punish those who conceal them. Pope Francis must make sure bishops who conceal child sex crimes are punished inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Pedophile priests cannot be deterred. Complicit bishops can. Only the pope can do this. He can do it quickly and simply, by defrocking or demoting them and making it crystal clear why he is taking such actions. Consistent discipline is the missing piece. And that’s why the cover-ups continue.

Prayers, policies, pledges, apologies and meetings with victims aren’t enough. They are public-relations tactics, all said and done before. They don’t safeguard a single child, expose a single predator or deter a single cover-up. Symbolic moves are actually hurtful because they support a sense of complacency and give people false hope that real reform will follow, when it hasn’t and isn’t.

If Pope Francis insists on using only words and gestures, he should publicly praise Jennifer Haselberger, the brave Minnesota whistle-blower whose disclosures have prompted pending police investigations and exposed numerous child-molesting clerics and corrupt church officials.

But words and gestures alone won’t work and Pope Francis must know it. He must find the courage to wield a stick. It’s time for him to get serious, protect vulnerable children and be the leader he is called to be.

Mary Dispenza is the Puget Sound representative for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. She is also the author of “Split: A Child, a Priest and the Catholic Church.”



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