"To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," Pope Francis said. His statement is the strongest yet on an issue testing the Church.
Pope Francis on Friday urged predator priests who have sexually abused minors to turn themselves in, in one of his strongest comments ever on the crisis sweeping the Roman Catholic Church.
"To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," Francis said in his traditional Christmas address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration.
While it was not immediately clear if the pope was referring to the Church judicial system, civil justice, or both, Vatican sources believed it was the first time the pope had made such a direct appeal.
Francis, who in the past has used the Christmas address to denounce cases of corruption and mismanagement in the Curia, this time concentrated on the global sexual abuse crisis.
"Let it be clear that, faced with these abominations, the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," he said.
He acknowledged that the Church had made serious errors in the past but promised to make "past mistakes opportunities for eliminating this scourge" from both the Church and society at large.
"It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church," he said.
The pope has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops' conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on February 21-24 for an extraordinary meeting on the sexual abuse crisis.
Victims of clerical sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.
The Church's fallibility
Catholic priests take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. But as Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross points out, obedience has let predator priests off the hook.
"While priests in many countries are mandated both by the church and civil law to report sexual abuse to church commissions and legal authorities, there has been a culture of denial and secrecy that has prevented allegations from being fully investigated."
As Schmalz notes, a 1962 Vatican document "instructed bishops to observe the strictest secrecy in sexual abuse cases and to address sexual abuse, or 'solicitation,' as an internal church matter, not as an offence that should be reported to local authorities."
Much has changed since then, but the strict hierarchy of the church also poses an obstacle to reporting. Superiors expect to be obeyed, and they can cover up for offending priests.
At the top of that hierarchy is Pope Francis. His move on Friday further separates the secular realm from the divine and the claims of infallibility on which the Church is based and from which his authority is derived. His statement will be a test of that authority in the earthly realm.