An Open Letter to Pope Francis about the Sexual Abuse of Children

group of happy child on beach who have fun and play games

Dear Pope Francis,

First, a thank you. Thank you for saying alarming, beautiful things, for elevating Jesus, for seeing Him on the face of the downtrodden, for loving our earth and demonstrating humility. You have been a breath of spring air, a reminder of the dignity of Jesus’ church.

It’s in light of your heart for Jesus that I am writing this appeal.

While I have not been abused by a priest, I am a sexual abuse survivor. My husband encountered an abusive priest in his teens (and thankfully was spared being preyed upon). As one who has worked through years of healing and recovery, I have had the unique privilege to hear hundreds of sexual abuse stories. All are heartbreaking. Every incident of sexual abuse has wrought devastation to the souls of its victims.

Three factors make spiritual recovery in the aftermath of sexual abuse even more difficult:

  1. When that abuse is performed by a member of the clergy
  2. When that same abuse is forced to be kept secret (or the victim is re-victimized by sharing, then shunned for disclosure)
  3. When the perpetrator is oddly “Teflon,” meaning nothing sticks; there are no penalties for his actions (ever); and he simply moves on to new locales to continue his abuse.

All three things have happened in the Catholic Church (and, too, have occurred quite egregiously in the Protestant church as well. Many have not acted on behalf of the victims in a Jesus-like manner). So please hear me. This is not a rant against a particular segment of the church. It’s simply an appeal to you as the leader your unique area of influence.

For the church to be a healing, safe place, a place that Jesus would call home, it must be a place that includes and shelters victims. This means people who have been abused must be welcomed, and their stories encouraged. I’m grateful you took the time back in September to hear people’s stories. I’m thankful you said,

“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. This cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable.” Pope Francis

What has happened in the past, unfortunately, has been the opposite: the perpetrators were allowed a loud voice, while the victims were mercilessly silenced, maligned, and, often, forced to evacuate the very place that should heal them.

If I place Jesus in the middle of this situation, I cannot picture Him stiff-arming the victim and allowing the perpetrator to harm more and more and more children. No. Just as He welcomed the woman with the issue of blood–an outcast, unclean, broken–He welcomes those who have been abused and used by others. He is a champion of the marginalized. (And, He loves to redeem. Even the pedophile is not outside of the cleansing blood of Jesus).

So when the church dismisses a victim’s story and shuffles perpetrators to different places, hoping that perhaps this will mean a priest will suddenly be restored and no longer abuse others, it ceases to become a haven or a safe place.

And even now, so little has been done to dignify the stories of the thousands of victims over the course of decades who have often had to suffer in silence, many leaving the faith.

What can be done? How can we highlight and salve this egregious injustice? Some ideas:

  1. Honesty. Give full disclosure to all sexual abuse allegations. Transparency breeds trust. Hiding encourages distrust. The records of abuses have been sent to the Vatican. Make them public.
  2. Apology. From the Vatican, issue a repentant, genuine letter (or a video) directed to victims and families of victims. Acknowledge that the church was wrong to protect its “reputation” over its integrity. You have done this to a certain extent on American soil, and I’m grateful, but Like Nehemiah who confessed sins he didn’t commit (but his nation did), I ask you to humble yourself and issue a similar confession on behalf of the systems, the hierarchies, and the leadership who failed to report crime, failed to dignify victims, and failed to be agents of justice and mercy.I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned.” (Nehemiah 1:6). This should be a planned, proactive apology and policy statement in clean, clear language (no “mistakes were made” type of verbiage.)
  3. Accountability. If a priest harmed others, fire him. Seek to get him the help he needs–intensive therapy, etc., but do not let him continue in his position. He must be removed, no matter what the fallout. Safety and justice trumps the reputation of the abuser.
  4. Reparation for the victims. Not merely hush-hush money, settled out of court. But genuine counseling, help, and education and a public commitment to radically dignify those who have dared to speak out.
  5. Task forces within the church–one that helps local congregations discern sexual abuse, one that educates congregations about how to respond to allegations, one that helps congregations offer resources and counseling to victims, one that studies why some priests abuse and how to discern their struggles early on in their training, one whose sole purpose is to honestly disclose further allegations in a life-giving, authentic, justice-centric manner. I know some of this is in place, and I pray there is more being done to prevent sexual assault in the future.

I believe the greatest weapon in Satan’s arsenal is sexual abuse because it mars the soul of the victim. As image bearers of Christ, we have such dignity, beauty, and intrinsic worth. But when a predator harms a child, while that instance may be a moment (or it may be after grooming and over a period of years) the intrinsic harm will last a lifetime.

And if that abuse happens from a member of the clergy, it creates a crisis of faith, a swirling darkness of questions (Why did this happen? Why didn’t God protect me? Is this what God is like–a predator–like this priest?).

Couple this with silence and shunning and you have a dismal formula for genuine life. An untold story never heals.

And a told story that is not believed or forced to live underground further victimizes.

If you truly believe that Jesus loves both the victim and the victimizer (and it appears that the church seems to side mostly with the latter, at least by inaction), then it’s time to put feet to that belief. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 12: 15 that we must weep with those who weep.

Pope Francis, would you consider weeping afresh with the sexually victimized?

Would you consider the powerful image of Jesus bearing the weight of every sin (yes, even every sexual sin) upon His sacred and scarred body, exposed and naked? This Jesus, oh how He loves the hurting, the suffering, the marked ones.

Would you consider being like Jesus in this way, opening wide the gates of the church through honesty, transparency, justice and deep mercy?

Would you consider truly embodying the words of the apostle John:

God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed.  But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (John 3:19-21).

Pope Francis, it’s time the church comes to the light, creates a safe environment for all children, brings justice to bear for their sake, and welcomes the sexual abuse victims home.

Warmly,

Mary DeMuth