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Editorial: Pope talks tough on sex abuse, but zero-tolerance policy must follow

It has been one year since Michael Whalen went public with accusations of abuse by Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits, and Orsolits admitted to Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz that he had molested “probably dozens” of young boys. That began the uncovering of decades of abuse involving more than 100 priests in the Diocese of Buffalo, a harrowing story that is still unfolding.

As victims of rape or other abuse have come forward, a common thread is the awful toll the crimes took on their lives. Depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide and troubled relationships were common. For innocent lives to be shattered like that is unconscionable.

The misdeeds among some in the Catholic Church have metastasized into a worldwide crisis. Cardinal George Pell of Australia, once an adviser to Pope Francis, in December was convicted of molesting two choirboys in 1996. Pell will be sentenced this week, just a few days after the pope concluded a four-day global summit in Rome on clerical sex abuse.

Some 190 bishops, priests and monks heard Francis use strong language in his closing speech at the summit; tough policies from the Vatican need to follow.

One phrase that victims’ advocates were hoping to hear from the pontiff was “zero tolerance.” Activists called for him to declare a universal “one strike and you’re out” rule, but no such announcement came.

The summit was still a big step forward in the Vatican’s acknowledgment of the horrors inflicted upon children who were raped by clergymen. The pope referred to men of God who “let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan.”

The church leaders in attendance listened to stirring testimony from sexual abuse survivors, including four women. One, a woman identified only as a resident of Europe, had observers in tears as she described her own abuse, five years of rape by a priest.

“Engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul, are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength,” she said.

We can only hope that the moving words of the four women might inspire the church to revisit its patriarchal structure that keeps females in subservient roles.

There were notes of defensiveness in Francis’ speech, also. He mentioned the fact that most child abuse, including emotional, physical and sexual, takes place in the home and is a universal problem. The pope also referred to abuse stories that were distorted by the news media, a common complaint by those in power who feel unfairly persecuted by public opinion.

He’s right about some of this, of course, but the pope — like many people under pressure — showed that it’s possible to be right and still miss the point. We all know that child abuse occurs in homes, but what in the name of heaven does that have to do with priests abusing children and a church hierarchy rushing to cover it up?

Still, the pope showed he understood the seriousness of the problem. He said that even a single case of abuse “must be met with the utmost seriousness. ... No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.”

Church officials promised to release new policies soon. Rev. Federico Lombardi, who helped run the summit, said the Vatican would establish an anti-abuse law covering the Vatican city-state and send guidebooks to bishops around the world explaining how to investigate and prosecute abuse cases. Task forces will be established to give them expert legal help. Note to bishops: The way to investigate is to refer suspected cases of abuse to police. Then you can worry about your internal obligations.

Thankfully, at least 14 state attorneys general, including New York’s, have launched investigations of their own into the crimes committed against children, and the cover-ups. Whatever charges they may lodge, as well as the State Legislature’s passage of the Child Victims Act, will bring at least some sense of justice to many of the victims.

As for the Vatican, more will be expected of Pope Francis. In addition to a zero-tolerance declaration, activists insist he release church files on abusive priests.

Said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, “I am stunned and speechless if this is the best he can do.”

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