Today I read an article, published in an Australian newspaper, reporting on your mass to priests, nuns and members of Catholic lay organisations in Panama City's newly renovated cathedral of Santa Maria Antigua.
According to the report, you spoke during your homily of the global crisis of sexual abuse that has engulfed the church in multiple countries around the world. The article focused primarily on scandals in Chile and the United States of America, but I know Australia (where I live) was also rocked by the horror and magnitude of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by the church against children and vulnerable adults, much of it spanning across decades. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in Australia last year shone a light onto these terrible secrets, so often buried by the church, and gave the survivors of these terrible crimes - committed by those who they often turned to for trust and protection - the chance to have their voices heard.
In your homily in Panama, you described the church as 'weary' and 'wounded by her own sin'. According to the report, you used 'weary' or a grammatical version of more than twenty times during your homily. The church may be weary, it may be wounded, and the sin is certainly its own, but if it is weary of the light being shone into its darkest depths, of having its motives and practices examined, of being required to answer for its wrongs, then may it continue to grow weary. The days have passed when the church sat comfortably above the law, and if it is weary of answering to the law then it has no place in modern society. The faithful, myself among them, look at our church and see a system and see it has rotted from within, faltered under weak leadership and turned inwards with greed and self-interest. The Catholic Church, your church, Pope Francis, has become a corporate entity, focused entirely on its reputation and wealth, neglecting the pastoral needs of those who come with faith to seek God. It languishes sadly, propped up rather than standing tall, dragged down by its own inability to recognise its crimes or take responsibility for its own actions. Avoidance is no longer an option; the church as a whole - and you as its leader - must step forward and not only acknowledge the crimes of your institution, but seek to redress the victims and survivors of those crimes in the ways that benefit them. The church's interests and ambitions must be put aside and priority given to the survivors of these crimes, to the redress they would like to see and the healing they need. Our Lord Jesus Christ said whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me (Matt:35:40), so your institution has not only committed heinous crimes against the vulnerable in our society, but against Our Lord, and until you make right the wrongs you committed against those survivors, you continue to do wrong against Our Lord.
I believe you yourself know these things. You have acknowledged openly that the church has made serious errors in the past and have urged those priests who have abused children to come forward, but words are not enough. You said in your homily that the church 'so often failed to hear all those cries', but this is a misleading sentiment. The church heard the cries, it heard the accusations, it heard, but then chose to do nothing. These scandals, the decades of sexual abuse that have been brought to light by the tireless work of survivors, investigators and others, were not crimes of ignorance, they were crimes of arrogance. The church did not fail to hear, but rather chose to dismiss and, when the cries grew too loud for it to dismiss any longer, it sent predators to new hunting grounds, far away from those cries, until the cycle need be repeated again... and again... and again. As illustrated in the Royal Commission in Australia, the reputation of the church as an institution was paramount, rather than the safety of those who sought sanctuary there. The conduct of the church over the years, the decades of actively covering up the actions of paedophiles within your ranks, of feeding them new victims, of attempting to gag survivors who brought these actions to light is beyond a disgrace: it is nothing short of an abomination.
The church has committed the very sins you and those within her preach against: paedophile priests stand guilty of carnal lust - in this case the very worst kind: rape and paedophilia - greed and pride; those who did not participate in abuse themselves but knowingly allowed it to go on have committed the sins of sloth and pride as well, too caught up in the potential damage to their own reputations were the behaviour brought to light to step in while others committed unspeakable harm. As an institution, the church must be held accountable for its greed, for its wrath directed at those who sought to expose these terrible things, its sloth for intervening only when secular authorities finally descended upon it, and, of course, for Original Sin of pride. From pride came arrogance, which let the church believe it was above the law, which led to the catastrophic failure of the system to address the sickness within its ranks, to examine its own actions, to bring about meaningful change and assist those suffering at the hands of paedophiles. Five of the seven deadly sins, committed by individuals and the church as a whole, does not stand well for an institution that states its belief in moral and virtue.
Of course, Your Holiness cannot be held solely accountable for these atrocities, as many of them took place long before you stepped up as the leader of the Catholic Church. However, like any leader of any institution, you have the responsibility of that institution and you will be held accountable for the culture and actions of your institution.
You described 2018 as an 'annus horribilis' for yourself and the church. I would hope that you are aware that the survivors of clerical abuse, their families, friends and loved ones have lived through many decades of this, with each year being an 'annus horribilis'. To your credit, you have called a summit of the heads of national Catholic churches to take place in February this year, in which you will discuss 'what is now a global sexual abuse crisis'.
This is a step forward, Your Holiness, but not enough. The time for talking is over, the church has had decades to step forward and deal with this, but has chosen not to. Many of the same men you are calling to the summit will have been presiding over the church in their nations for far longer than you have been Pope, and they will have been in their positions during much of the time of the sexual abuse crisis. These will be the very men who had the opportunity to make change, but chose not to, and therefore guilty of the very sins I have mentioned above. You, as the leader of the Catholic Church, must be seen to be taking action: words will not longer suffice. Leaders are often called upon to make difficult decisions, and with the privilege of leadership comes to responsibility to make these hard calls when necessary.
Your first step has already been taken: you have acknowledged the abuse occurred and that the church has a case to answer. Many priests and former priests have been found guilty in secular courts of multiple charges of paedophilia: those priests and former priests that have been found guilty must be immediately defrocked. It is a strident step, no doubt it would cause controversy, but you have shown yourself to be no stranger to controversy during your tenure as Pope, and a controversial action today will be that which ensures this never happens again tomorrow. You have defrocked some offenders already, particularly in Chile, but if you take that step with the rest of these criminals who hid behind their robes it will send a clear message: you are not merely a man of words, but of actions, and that paedophilia will not be tolerated in your ranks.
The next step you must take is to remove the seal of confessional for criminal behaviour: for priests and others. The confessional booth should not be able to be used as a way for criminal priests and others to be absolved of their crimes and then go out and re-offend, knowing the priest of who heard their confession is bound to silence. This is alarming practice must end: many professionals - social workers, doctors, teachers, lawyers and others - are held to strict standards of confidentiality, but even they must break that agreement if someone has committed a crime, intends to commit a crime, or to put their own or others lives in danger. Priests hearing the confessions of others must be no different. In my state of Victoria, and many other states of Australia, priests are mandated reporters of known or suspected child sex abuse, and the secular law of the land must always come above ecclesiastical law when it comes to a criminal offence. It need not be a secret, put this step in place and anyone attending confession would know that if they disclose criminal behaviour they will be reported to the police: whether they be priest or layman. Once again, such a move would be controversial, but the behaviour exposed around the world flourished, in part, because of the secrecy surrounding practices such as confession. It was well documented in the Royal Commission in Australia that many priests confessed to bishops that they had been abusing children (although they probably used different words) and minor sanctions - prayer, fasting etc. - were imposed upon them and their actions hushed up. Once again, the sins of sloth and pride prevailed over the protection and safety of children, but by implementing this change and seeing it policed through your church, you have the power to ensure criminals within your ranks and not given a place to hide.
There is one final thing I would like to note before I close this letter. When you became Pole in 2013, you elected to honour St. Francis of Assisi by taking his name and becoming the first Pope Francis. Pope Francis is most famously known as the patron saint of animals and nature, but I imagine you will know the lesser known facet of his story: that he received visions from God and Our Lord Jesus Christ, commanding him to clean up the church and restore the original values of Our Lord to what had become a decadent, corrupt, immoral institution. In St. Francis's lifetime, the church was extraordinarily rich, as were all those men within it, and they used this money and prestige to finance lavish lifestyles for themselves, buy their way out of criminal convictions, and hid behind it while abusing vulnerable members of society.
Today, the church is even richer, and it has once again fallen into disrepute, selfishness, greed and corruption. The man whose name you took when you became the leader of the church devoted his life to restoring the morals and values of Our Lord to the institution of the church, he assisted the poor and the vulnerable and spoke up for the voiceless. I ask you to consider what he would do if he saw the state of the church today, if he saw the blatant cover-ups, the obscene wealth, the hypocrisy and criminality that has run rampant within her. You have honoured this man in name, you have honoured him in spirit, now it is time for you to honour him in action. Stand up for your people who have been betrayed, stand up to the powerful who will attempt to preserve and protect the status quo for their own ends, and take this opportunity to reshape the church under your guidance. 2018 may have been your annus horribilis, but if you take the steps towards reform, you may yet turn 2019 into your annus mirabilis: a year of wonders.
I am, yours faithfully,
You don't have to like me. I'm not a Facebook post.
Me With No Apologies.