Pope Francis talks tough to U.S. bishops, says credibility of church 'is at stake'

Pope Francis tells U.S. bishops grappling with priest sex abuse scandal to stop "playing the victim or the scold."

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By Corky Siemaszko

Pope Francis delivered a blunt message Thursday to his American bishops — stop “playing the victim or the scold” and do something about the “culture of abuse” that has resulted in a crisis of credibility for the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.

Francis’ letter, which was dated Tuesday, was delivered as the bishops were at a weeklong spiritual retreat at the Mundelein Seminary north of Chicago.

Pope Francis arrives in Piazza Armerina, Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018.Andrew Medichini / AP file

“These have been times of turbulence in the lives of all those victims who suffered in their flesh the abuse of power and conscience and sexual abuse on the part of ordained ministers, male and female religious and lay faithful,” Francis wrote in his eight-page letter. “The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts to deny or conceal them.”

Instead of “helping to resolve conflicts,” Francis wrote the actions of the church thus far have “enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm.”

“We know that the sins and crimes that were committed, and their repercussions on the ecclesial, social and cultural levels, have deeply affected the faithful,” the Pope wrote.

Restoring credibility, Francis added, will not be accomplished by “issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.”

“Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it,” he wrote. “This requires not only a new approach to management, but also a change in our mind-set.”

Francis told the bishops there needs to be a change in “our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and to the world around us.”

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It is time, Francis declared, “to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships.”

“Our catholicity is at stake,” he wrote.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship or Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity,” said Francis’ letter is a “big deal.”

“First, it is directed not simply at the whole church, but the US church specifically,” Martin said in an email to NBC News. “Second, Francis does not hesitate to force the US bishops to look at the harsh reality of the ‘sins and crimes’ of abuse, their ‘loss of credibility’ and the cover-ups that have happened in the past. Finally, he is blunt about the many divisions among the US bishops and even the ‘slander’ that prevents them from working together more quickly on this.”

Why did Francis drop this letter now on the bishops?

“The timing is not only so that they can pray about these topics on their retreat,” Martin wrote.

The Pope is schedule to meet next month at the Vatican with the bishops from around the world and he wanted to get this message out now.

“The U.S. is a bellwether for many issues in the church, and so you can expect that nearly every bishop who will be attending that summit will read this letter," Martin wrote.

In a brief statement, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops "carry with us these days the pain and hope of all who may feel let down by the Church."

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Archdiocese of New York, called Francis' message a "prophetic call."

"I know that Cardinal Dolan, and, I am sure, every bishop in the country, would agree with Pope Francis that the abuse of minors, and especially how that abuse was handled in the past, has undermined and damaged the Church’s credibility, and that only through openness to the Holy Spirit and a spirit of humility and unity can that credibility be regained," Zwilling said.

But Dolan has, for many years, been fighting attempts by New York lawmakers to pass a Child Victims Act that would do away with statutes of limitations that have prevented some alleged abuse victims from suing the church — and create a one-year “look-back window” that would allow alleged victims who weren't able to sue in the past to file claims.

Dr. Mary Pulido, who heads the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said Francis' words sound to her like an endorsement of the CVA and that Dolan should pay heed to them.

"It is time for church leaders in New York to follow the head of their Church and end opposition to the Act, in particular the 'look back' provision," she said.

David Clohessy of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was not impressed by Francis' letter.

"In one brief sentence, he mentions victims," Clohessy said. "But his concerns, in order, are that the church has been badly shaken, lay people have been "confused," the "communion of bishops" has suffered, and the church's credibility has waned."