Papal Policies on Clerical Sexual Abuse

God Weeps

by Jo Renee Formicola (Author)
©2019 Monographs VIII, 196 Pages


This book shows how Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI mandated many confused, inconsistent, and misguided policies on clerical sexual abuse; actions that ultimately hindered the implementation of effective reforms to alleviate the crisis that has enveloped the Catholic Church for the last two decades. It also examines the possibility of authentic change by articulating the positive outreach of Pope Francis to the victims of abuse, his attempts at institutional atonement, as well as his struggles to implement systematic actions for the protection of young people.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • contents
  • Introduction: God Weeps
  • Chapter 1. The Beginnings
  • Chapter 2. Pope John Paul II: The Flummoxed
  • Chapter 3. Pope Benedict XVI: The Rigid
  • Chapter 4. Pope Francis: The Inconsistent
  • Chapter 5. God Still Weeps
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The autumn weather was perfect; clear blue skies and sun accompanied by balmy temperatures, all of which seemed to invite everyone to come out and see Pope Francis. Vendors were selling posters, rosaries and other “supposed” religious paraphernalia. Reporters were roaming the streets trying to get interviews with anybody in clerical garb. Photographers were looking for the perfect angle to get a shot of the leader of one billion Catholics in his Popemobile. But beyond the media blitz, the pomp, the optics, and the man himself, the visit of Pope Francis to the United States in the fall of 2015 symbolized hope and mercy for a Church that desperately needed reform.

It seemed that every television and radio station had experts on hand to analyze and interpret the meanings of whatever the Pope said or did during his American travels. I was one of those people who did the television commentary on Francis’ visits to the White House, the Congress, the United Nations, and Ground Zero. As a political scientist, I was there to analyze how, or if, the new Pope would impact U.S. policy on issues of social justice and human rights.

For more than a decade and a half before Francis’ visit, however, I had already published a series of articles and a volume entitled Clerical Sexual ← 1 | 2 → Abuse: How it Changed U.S.-Catholic Church State Relations. So, my personal research interest in this Pope instinctively revolved around the specific question of what type of policies could he or would he pursue to bring an end to the global clerical sexual abuse crisis? I wanted to compare them with those of his predecessors and judge their potential effectiveness. That was the immediate challenge that impelled the writing of this book. It led to a deep analysis of papal theologies, priorities and agendas, a framework to gain a deeper understanding of papal responses to the growing sexual tragedy.

I can attest to the excitement, the love, and the palpable respect for Pope Francis during all those events I helped to cover when he was in the United States. However, after my years of continuing to follow his Papacy and completing this book, I have watched as public optimism and support for him has begun to erode.

Observers during that 2015 visit believed optimistically that Francis would change the attitude, responses, and policies of the Church. In fact, the most compassionate moment of his journey came when the Pontiff spoke with several victim/survivors of clerical sexual abuse for about an hour. He apologized to them sincerely saying that

…Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered. You are precious children of God who should always expect our protection, our care and our love. I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those who you trusted…

For those who were abused by a member of the clergy, I am deeply sorry for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed. Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you. I deeply regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children. It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops even were abusers. I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.1

Later in the day, Pope Francis followed up his private feelings with an official denunciation of the heinous acts of members of the clergy. Addressing 300 Catholic Bishops in the Chapel of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, near Philadelphia, he went so far as to say that “God weeps [italics added] for the sexual abuse of children….”2

Francis’ words were more than just a personal recognition of the perverted behavior of abusive priests; they were backed up in his speech with a solemn promise to protect young people and to hold clergy responsible for their predatory behavior. His words were, to all who heard them, part of a needed, public commitment to a new Papal policy of atonement, action, and accountability. ← 2 | 3 →

But, he has had, and still has, a long way to go to explain and reconcile his inconsistent attempts to turn his personal pledge into a new, viable Vatican policy. From 2015 until now, he has had to try to overcome the rigidity, ignorance, confusion and defensiveness within the Church’s bureaucracy. While making some progress there, however, he has recently had to back-track and apologize for his own denials about clerical sexual abuse, deal with hierarchical allegations of personal cover-ups of abusers, and explain his mixed messages to the public. Will this surprising change in attitude and responses continue to hinder the Church from reaching a new place of repentance, healing, and reform that seemed possible just a few years ago?

Pope Francis became a critical part of this festering clerical sexual abuse crisis that first became public in Louisiana in 1984. At that the time, Father Gilbert Gauthe, a Catholic priest, pleaded guilty to 34 counts of molesting minors. His shocking admission in an open court verified rumors about the cleric’s serial sexual abuse of altar boys, making the whispered stories of his heinous recurring acts, all too real. As lawyers questioned his young victims and Gauthe’s sexual abuse came to light, the public became more enraged as it learned that the Church higher ups had hidden the truth from its faithful by covering up the priest’s abuse for years.

After the conviction of Father Gauthe in 1984, members of the Catholic hierarchy, the Vatican bureaucracy, and even the Pope, John Paul II, were stymied by the emerging complexity, gravity and scope of the insidious priestly behavior. For almost two decades after the Gauthe case and others like it, they seemed confused and unable or unwilling to accept the facts that had come to light. Their policy responses lacked emotional sensitivity and maturity; accurate knowledge and leadership, as well as compassionate, just and viable solutions to the tragic, criminal behavior of members of the clergy.

At first, there was no authoritative recognition of the problem. Neither John Paul nor the hierarchy responded publicly to the growing number of victims/survivors who came forward to accuse priests of clerical sexual abuse. There was no official, institutional apology for the sins and crimes that had been perpetrated on young children. There was no Vatican investigation into the causes of the tragedy or attempts to discover the psychological damages of the abuse to children. There were no authoritative, coherent recommendations or a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem. Just as critically, no internal structure was put in place to ensure justice, to prevent recurrences of clerical sexual abuse, or to develop transparent policies to punish the perpetrators of the crimes. ← 3 | 4 →

Instead, there were negligible and, basically, ineffective attempts to clarify religious procedures as proscribed in canon law to deal with clerical sexual abuse during the 1980s and 1990s. There did not appear to be any Vatican understanding of the urgent need to adjudicate cases of clerical sexual abuse or to implement the Church’s legal system more legitimately and efficiently.

There was also a reticence on behalf of Church authorities to work with civil officials to ensure accountability for priestly predatory behavior. In the United States, they reacted assertively by invoking First Amendment rights, traditional ecclesiastical privileges, and religious exemptions to manage and punish the clergy.

In the early stages of the crisis, then, the only concern among Church leaders was their overwhelming priority to carry out their religious mission and their perceived duty to protect the reputation of their institution. Indeed, even after the initial case of Father Gauthe in 1984 and the others that followed, there was no recognition of the fact that clerical sexual abuse might have national, or trans-boundary, or multifaceted Church-State implications for the Vatican. Instead, many Church superiors, including the Pope, continued to deny the scope, gravity and reality of the tragedy.

During the first two decades of the scandal there was only ignorance, secrecy, rigidity and defensiveness on the part of Church leaders. Their behavior contradicted standard legal procedures, public policies and managerial practices to deal with, what can only be characterized as an institutional crisis.

Many political scientists and others,3 point out that in any scandal or crisis, leaders as policy makers, must instill trust. They must be able to recognize and define a focusing event or a series of occurrences that are so devastating that they compromise the safety or well-being of the public as well as their institution. Their awareness should then set off a warning, or an alarming phase that would guide others within the organization to a realization that it must act and investigate why such an event occurred. To understand this, leaders would need to assemble evidence, solicit advice from those in its bureaucratic structure to set up or clarify ethical standards, and respond to the devastating problem in a rational way.

In any such crisis, it is the leadership that plays the critical role. It must define the tragedy and understand that it impels decision makers, at all levels, to act in specific ways to rectify the problem and assure its followers that it will never occur again. Thus, the leadership must always start with a sincere and authentic apology to those who have been harmed. It must give an assurance of transparency and a clear explanation of the facts of the problem. It must establish a means of redress for all who were hurt. The leaders must set ← 4 | 5 → up a way to hold the offenders accountable for their actions to create policies and mechanisms to assure everyone that the problem will never occur again. But—this did not occur with the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Why?

Often, leaders are not aware or persuaded that a crisis is widespread; indeed, many require a significant aggregation of events to give a situation their full attention. But, if they do not get feedback or an appropriate description of incidents from subordinates, a critical problem can often be diffused, or neglected, or simply looked upon as an aberration.

Bishops, as the managers the clergy, failed to recognize the scope and gravity of the clerical sexual abuse. Their negligible lack of reporting to Vatican authorities including the Pope, limited inter-diocesan communications, along with their ad hoc attempts to deal with the tragedy, hindered the development of an effective, universal institutional policy to respond to the growing crisis of clerical sexual abuse that they simply did not fathom. Consequently, the highest levels of Church leadership overlooked the importance of the safety of children, the most critical part of the entire tragedy. In the end, the hierarchy helped to create mistrust, perpetuate victimization, and lose the moral primacy of the Catholic Church in the court of public opinion.


VIII, 196
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 196 pp.

Biographical notes

Jo Renee Formicola (Author)

Jo Renee Formicola is Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Seton Hall University, USA. She has published four books along with six other co-authored and edited volumes and numerous journal articles.


Title: Papal Policies on Clerical Sexual Abuse