Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic priests and bishops for the first time Feb. 5.
Although his statements are a step in the right direction, he is not doing enough to remedy the Church's problems.
His comments were in response to a reporter’s question about an article in a Vatican magazine about the abuse of nuns within the Catholic Church.
“We feel a little disappointed that it has to be the media who has to press the church and the pope to comment," Zuzanna Flisowska, an individual who advocates for more female participation in the Catholic Church said.
This mentality of only acting when provoked does not bode well for the church’s ability to generate reform on its own.
Moreover, the pope’s comments have also been tempered by the Vatican, which reduces their significance. The pope’s spokesperson, Alessandro Gisotti, clarified that the pope’s description of “sexual slavery” in one congregation was actually merely “manipulation.”
Aside from these efforts to downplay the pope’s comments, many have questioned his intentions to make real change within the church to prevent sexual abuse in the future.
“Should more be done? Yes,” the pope said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”
Will the pope take action on sexual abuse in the church, not only against nuns, but also against children and young men?
The pope is the single person with the authority to make change and take immediate action. In fall of 2018, the pope fired two Chilean priests in response to a sex abuse scandal.
This weekend he expelled Theodore McCarrick, the cardinal and archbishop of Washington, amid accusations of sexual abuse. This action seems to be the first time a cardinal has been expelled for sexual abuse and the first time an American cardinal has been defrocked.
Although the threat of punishment may deter abuse, perpetrators may merely go deeper underground and take more extreme measures to ensure secrecy. What the church needs is a change in culture.
When the child sex abuse scandal emerged in the 1990s, multiple reports emerged that revealed priests abusing nuns. Many examples came from Africa due to the HIV/AIDS crisis, where priests who feared HIV infection considered nuns to be “safe sexual partners.”
These abuses have been known within the church for a long time, and many are impatient for change. Even though the abuse of nuns gets less attention than the abuse of children and young men, it is not new.
And yet the abuse of nuns continues to the present. An investigation by the Associated Press in July 2018 documented nuns’ accounts of sexual abuse after decades of silence.
Just months before the Chilean scandal, a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. accused Francis of being aware of sexual misconduct allegations against a former D.C. archbishop long before the archbishop’s removal.
Nonetheless, the positive effect of his comments are that they encourage victims to speak up and come forward.
Real change won’t take place until the Vatican takes action on the pope’s words. Getting there requires us to hold the pope accountable for making systemic change.