The debate among survivors, their advocates and Vatican experts continues over the Church’s will to implement a “zero tolerance” policy for pedophile priests.

– Looking back at the year since the Vatican anti-abuse summit

Today, February 21, marks one year since the start of Pope Francis’ historic summit in the Vatican with bishops around the world on the subject of clergy sex abuse.

The pontiff has implemented two major changes to Church law in the year since the summit.

The first, via the May 2019 apostolic letter Vos estis lux mundi, was the obligation that bishops, priests and religious report to the ecclesiastical – but not civil – authorities the abuse crimes they have knowledge of.

The second, via two December 2019 rescripts, was the lifting of the “pontifical secret” in internal Church investigations of its abuser members, facilitating the sharing of information on clergy pedophilia crimes with police and public prosecutors.

– Does Pope Francis “get it” on abuse or not?

Survivors of clergy sex abuse from around the world have been in Rome this week for protests and meetings with Vatican officials to mark the first anniversary of the anti-abuse summit.

Some victims, like Juan Carlos Cruz of Chile, believe Pope Francis “gets it” on the question of pedophile priests.

“I’ve been lucky to spend time with him, and I’ve seen in his face, in his words, in his demeanor, how he suffers with this horror of abuse and what it does to people”, Cruz said.

However, other survivors and their advocates like Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder and co-director of the advocacy group Bishops Accountability, criticised the Pope for no longer using the term “zero tolerance” for pedophile priests and religious.

Many took the term to mean a “one strike and you’re out” policy for clerics who abuse children, but due to warnings from experts that the papal directive was being understood differently in different places around the world – among other reasons, Doyle suspects – it’s now “dropped out of the Pope’s lexicon”, the co-director of Bishops Accountability said.

“I think zero tolerance is a pledge the pope is choosing not to make. I think he’s picking and choosing the changes he wants to make in the Church, and he’s chosen not to pursue that one,” Doyle said at a February 17 press conference in Rome, adding, “I’m not so sure he was keen on doing it anyway”.

“The Vatican and the Pope’s main failure is in not implementing a strong, universal, zero tolerance law”, Doyle criticised.

“If you are found guilty once of sexually abusing a child, you are permanently removed from public ministry and you are closely monitored by the Church”.

– Now “deeper awareness and greater willingness” to fight pedophilia, argue Vatican experts

For their part, however, Vatican experts were defending this week the utility of the February 2019 anti-abuse summit, and the progress made on child protection in the Church in the year since then.

“I can see that in many parts of the world there is now a deeper awareness and a greater willingness to really tackle the issue and to do what needs to be done so that young people and vulnerable adults are safer in our Church”, Fr. Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told Vatican News February 20.

One year has passed since the summit and “something is changing”, said Fr. Stéphane Joulain, a priest-psychotherapist, also to Vatican News February 20.

The Church has turned its focus not so much to “witch-hunting” and putting all priests and religious under suspicion but rather on “protecting” especially vulnerable children and adults, Joulain explained.

That, the expert added, has been “a turning point” and a fruit of the anti-abuse summit.

“Something is changing” in the Church’s fight against pedophilia in his ranks, Joulain insisted, even while acknowledging that “there is still a tremendous level of difficulty” for victims because of Church bureaucracy, and that the “search for justice” for survivors is still too often slow and over-complicated.

Next on Novena:

German TV accuses Benedict XVI of covering up for, meeting with pedophile priest

Bishops in Spain, Italy, France still not applying “zero tolerance” for pedophile priests, enablers: survivors

Church in Poland can’t shake abuse negligence shadow despite damage control on alleged pedophile bishop

Vatican investigating serving Polish bishop for alleged abuse of 15-year-old girl

French Church not cooperating fully with independent abuse inquiry: survivor

Swiss bishop flounders under cathedral priest sex abuse cover-up allegations

Cardinal Barbarin – tipped for Vatican post? – blames cover-up prosecution on persecution of Christians


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.