In Brief

Catholic abuse scandal threatens Pope Francis’ legacy

Clerical cover-up presents ‘crucial test’ for papacy following earlier failures

Pope Francis has acknowledged the Catholic Church's failure to act over sexual abuse by clerics against children going back decades, in an unprecedented letter that calls on all the world’s Catholics to help uproot “this culture of death”.

Acknowledging the suffering endured by so many minors over so many years, and “the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience” perpetrated by a “significant number of clerics and consecrated persons”, the Pope said:

“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.”

It is the first time Francis has directly referenced the Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed sexual abuses by over 300 priests dating back seven decades and subsequent cover-ups by bishops.

Highlighting the severity of the situation, a Vatican official said it was also the first time a pope had written to all of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse.

The rapidly escalating crisis, which has since spread to several continents including Australia and South America, “presents a crucial test for Francis' papacy, which has stumbled badly at times to address sexual abuse among clergy” says CNN.

“The scandal has even some of John Paul’s staunchest fans questioning the wisdom of his canonisation in 2014, and it bedeviled Pope Benedict up to his stunning 2013 resignation,” says David Gibson in the New York Times.

Now it has the “the potential to undermine the Francis pontificate”, says Gibson.

CNN described the letter as “unusually blunt” and now all eyes will be on the Pope’s visit to Ireland, which suffered its own sexual abuse scandal in 2009, to see how he chooses to address the growing issue.

“If Pope Francis lives up to his own words and actions,” says Gibson, “this could be a chance for him to advance his vision of church reform and turn a long-running crisis into an opportunity for long-term renewal”.

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