Pope defensive on sex abuse as commission lags and victims question whether he gets it

The Associated Press

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. The pontiff says he finds the hype that is increasingly surrounding him "offensive." In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Francis said he doesn't appreciate the myth-making that has seen him depicted as a "Superpope" who sneaks out at night to feed the poor. On Wednesday, a new Italian weekly hit newsstands — a gossip magazine devoted entirely to the pope. Francis said: "The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person." (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Associated Press + More

By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is coming under increasing criticism that he simply doesn't get it on sex abuse.

Three months after the Vatican announced a commission of experts to study best practices on protecting children, no action has been taken, no members appointed, no statute outlining the commission's scope approved.

Francis hasn't met with any victims, hasn't moved to oust a bishop convicted in 2012 of failing to report a suspected abuser, and on Wednesday insisted that the church had been unfairly attacked on abuse, using the defensive rhetoric of the Vatican from a decade ago.

Victims' advocates cried foul, saying his tone was archaic and urging Francis to show the same compassion he offers the sick, the poor and disabled to people who were raped by priests when they were children.

"Under Pope Francis the Vatican continues to deny its role in creating and maintaining a culture where upholding the reputation of the church is prioritized over the safety of children," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Irish abuse support group One in Four.

To be sure, Francis adores children like a father — it's on display every Wednesday during his general audience — and he has continued to defrock pedophile priests. But unlike Pope Benedict XVI, he has rarely spoken out about abuse, indicating it clearly has not been a priority in his first year as pope. Instead, he has focused on introducing the world to his merciful vision of the church and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombard, said such reforms had delayed getting the commission off the ground but there was no doubt it would and would eventually propose new initiatives to protect children and be a model for the church and society at large.

"I'm waiting for it, and I hope with all my heart (and I know that qualified experts have been contacted in an exploratory way to see if they would be available)," Lombardi said in an email.

To date, Francis has only spoken out a few times on abuse and his toughest words weren't even pronounced. Francis apparently scrapped his prepared Dec. 2 speech to bishops from the Netherlands, who have been dealing with revelations that some 20,000 children were sexually abused in Dutch Catholic institutions over the past 65 years. Instead, Francis spoke to the bishops off-the-cuff.

On Jan. 31, Francis did mention his new sex abuse commission in a speech to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases. In his final words before imparting his blessing, he said children must always be protected and that he wants his new sex abuse study commission to be a model.

"For a year we've been saying that while Pope Francis is making progress on church finance and governance he's done nothing — literally nothing — that protects a single child, exposes a single predator or prevents a single cover up," said Barbara Dorris of the main U.S. victim's group SNAP.

Francis was asked about protecting children by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview about his first year on the job published Wednesday.

Francis acknowledged the "profound" wounds abuse leaves and credited Benedict with having turned the church around. Benedict in 2001 took over handling abuse cases because bishops were moving pedophiles around rather than punishing them. He updated the Vatican's in-house norms and in his final two years as pope defrocked nearly 400 priests himself.

But Francis then got defensive: "The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked."