VATICAN CITY. Pope Francis has held up two recurring images the past decade: the good shepherd who looks for the lost sheep and who lays down his life to defend and save them; and the good Samaritan, who did not ignore, pity or judge the wounded traveler, but helped him without asking for anything in return.
“God thinks like the Samaritan” and “God thinks like the shepherd,” the pope said in his first general audience talk March 27, 2013, calling on everyone to enter “more deeply into the logic of God” in their daily lives.
It is this same “logic” of God’s love and protection that Pope Francis has used to address the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
The hallmark of the pope’s approach is the way he listens to survivors and understands “how deep the wounds go,” said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a leading safeguarding expert and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its establishment in 2014.
“He doesn’t run away, he listens carefully” with great empathy, and he regularly meets with survivors privately, Father Zollner told Catholic News Service. “He’s a model for each (person) within the Church and especially those in authority.”
It is indicative of his desire for the Church to be a field hospital, Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNS.
“He modeled humility and was able to say sorry when he was wrong,” Nojadera said. “He has asked for help and has sought advice from our sisters and brothers who have been harmed, molested, or abused by the Church and its members.”
The pope has insisted that by meeting personally with survivors and learning “to weep,” leaders will understand the full gravity of abuse and, therefore, want to help the wounded, eradicate the evil, and make amends.
This is the roadmap for action he clearly outlined in his homily at Mass celebrated in his residence with a group of clergy sex abuse victims in 2014.
The Lord tells Peter, “‘Go back and feed my sheep’ – and I would add – ‘let no wolf enter the sheepfold,’” the pope said, asking for “the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.”
In that homily, Pope Francis called the sexual abuse of minors not just a grave sin, but a crime so despicable it is akin to “a sacrilegious cult.” He promised zero tolerance, saying “there is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual.”
Bishops must foster the protection of minors “and they will be held accountable,” he warned, delivering on that promise five years later with “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” which revised and clarified norms and procedures for holding bishops and religious superiors accountable.
Pope Francis has built on the foundation left by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, said Father Zollner, who is director of the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
Pope Francis put the problem of abuse and the need to protect the most vulnerable “on the agenda of the global Church,” Father Zollner said. It was a point he drove home when he convened a summit in 2019 for the presidents of bishops’ conferences, representatives of religious orders and heads of Vatican offices demanding concrete action by everyone.
Mark Joseph Williams, a survivor of clergy sex abuse, who serves as special adviser to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told CNS that the pope is “a man of mercy and has shown the global Church why it is so critical to listen to the voices of victims/survivors.”
“Most certainly, the synod on synodality journey has much promise to embrace those so hurt by the Church,” he said, and, at the same time, “realize that this same Church that failed so many, like me, can be the haven for healing, a place for greater prevention, a sanctuary for sustained justice.”
Father Zollner said Pope Francis “has changed Church law more than his predecessors have” regarding abuse.
His 2016 motu proprio, “As a Loving Mother,” expanded on canon law that allows for the removal of bishops and superiors for serious negligence or “lack of diligence” in the exercise of their office, in particular in regard to the sexual abuse of minors.
The document together with “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” aim to correct what had been a lack of or unclear procedures for investigating the way a bishop or religious superior complies with norms and clearly expresses the consequences of noncompliance or cover-ups.
The pope also waived the obligation of secrecy for those who report having been sexually abused by a priest and for those who testify in a Church trial or process having to do with clerical sexual abuse. While Vatican officials are still obliged to maintain confidentiality, the change removes potential conflicts with civil laws, including on mandatory reporting, and with following civil court orders, such as turning over documents considered as potential evidence.
Abolishing the pontifical secret in cases of sexual violence and abuse of minors by clergy was a fundamental change, Father Zollner said, because it reaffirmed “that state law has to be respected and followed independently from what the Church thinks about it and does” regarding its own laws.
“Pope Francis has moved mountains when it comes to the clergy abuse crisis across the entire Church,” Williams said. “I have personally felt his healing balm in word and deed.”
“There is still a lot to do,” Father Zollner said.
Laws and guidelines alone do not change habits and mentalities, he said. “We need to form a new generation of Church leaders” so that the old “culture of silence” is replaced by a culture of healing and safeguarding.