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Solving the sex abuse crisis: Experts draft a to-do list for Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves as he leads the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican on April 3.
Pope Francis waves as he leads the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican on April 3.Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

Pope Francis ordered the Vatican this week to act "decisively" in protecting children from sexual abuse and punishing predator priests, but his brief statement contained few specifics on how to stem the crisis that has roiled the Catholic Church for a decade.

The new pontiff directed the Vatican office known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to "continue the line" on the anti-abuse policies set by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Observers say that to restore the church's credibility and ensure the safety of children worldwide, Francis will have to back up his words with actions. Here they offer some recommendations:

Heads should roll

The pope should demote or discipline a few bishops who were found to have covered up misdeeds, said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, noting that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City has held onto his diocese even though he was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a pedophile priest.

Although others said the pope was just being polite, Clohessy was incensed that he greeted scandal-scarred Cardinal Bernard Law during the traditional visit to St. Mary Major the day after his election. "Actions speak louder than words," he said.

David Clohessy, left, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests with outreach director Barbara Dorris.
David Clohessy, left, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests with outreach director Barbara Dorris.Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images

Name names

"The church needs to be open about the names of offenders who have been found to be abusers," said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official and ex-director of the Office of Child Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "If you're a diocese and you know that these 10 clergy members abused children, you should put those on the website."

Church officials may be rightly concerned about the danger of naming a priest who is falsely accused. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, said that to build trust that no coverup is going on, victims' groups should be included in the process of deciding which allegations aren't strong enough to make public.

Meet with victims

The pope has been accused of giving the cold shoulder to abuse victims while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Whether that's true or not, he needs to give victims plenty of face time now, Reese said. 

"He has to listen to their stories, reach out to them and apologize -- and do it again and again, and the sooner the better," Reese said. "You don't understand it until you've sat down and talked to these victims. When you hear their stories, it just tears you apart."

Rev. Thomas Reese
Rev. Thomas ReeseNancy Wiechec / Catholic News Service via AP file

World Youth Day in Brazil in July would be the perfect moment for Francis to sit down and hear those stories first-hand.

Get new advisers

Francis should make sure his inner circle includes people who understand the gravity of the crisis. Thomas Groome, chair of the Department of Religious Education at Boston College, said he hopes the pope recruits Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who had to clean up Law's mess, to assist him in Rome.

The pontiff is less likely to act on Groome's other suggestion: making women, grandmothers in particular, cardinals. He noted that lay cardinals existed centuries ago and that wise old Catholic women with children and grandchildren might bring a new perspective on youth-protection to a church run by childless men.

Crunch the numbers

A decade ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a survey of every diocese in the country that collected data about the extent of the sex-abuse problem. Even though victims' groups claimed there was under-reporting, McChesney said, "people in the church were stunned at the numbers" -- more than 4,000 priests accused of molesting children.

But predatory priests are not just an American problem. The Vatican should undertake an international survey that would help it identify other regions where abuse is happening, McChesney said.

Shake up the bureaucracy

The Vatican should create a new office in charge of the protection of childen, separate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which would continue to investigate individual abuse claims, McChesney said.

"They have enough on their plate," she said of the CDF, which needs to plow through a large backlog of complaints against priests.

The new office, McChesney said, would serve as a sort of professional board of directors -- helping dioceses across the globe replicate anti-abuse programs that have been successful in the U.S. and making sure the world's bishops and religious communities are complying with Vatican guidelines.

Benedict ordered every diocese in the world to establish policies and procedures to deal with abuse. Two years later, many dioceses have not followed through.


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