VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The leaders of the world’s bishops’ conferences and religious orders must ensure that they are doing everything possible to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse and are offering appropriate care for victims and their families, Pope Francis said.
“Priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors,” he said in a written letter.
The letter, dated Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, was sent to the presidents of national bishops’ conferences worldwide and the superiors of religious orders. The Vatican released a copy of the letter Feb. 5, the feast of St. Agatha.
In his letter, the pope said, “Families need to know that the church is making every effort to protect their children. They should also know that they have every right to turn to the church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home.”
With protecting minors as a top priority, the pope said he wants to encourage and promote the church’s commitment to protection and care “at every level — episcopal conferences, dioceses, institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life — to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults and to respond to their needs with fairness and mercy.”
He reminded church leaders they were expected to fully implement the provisions in the 2011 circular letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith requiring all dioceses in the world to develop guidelines on handling allegations of abuse.
“It is likewise important that episcopal conferences establish a practical means for periodically reviewing their norms and verifying that they are being observed,” he wrote.
The pope underlined that it was “the responsibility of diocesan bishops and major superiors to ascertain that the safety of minors and vulnerable adults is assured in parishes and other church institutions.”
The church also has the “duty to express the compassion of Jesus toward those who have suffered abuse and toward their families,” which is why dioceses and religious orders should set up pastoral care programs “which include provisions for psychological assistance and spiritual care.”
Priests and heads of religious communities “should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones; such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness,” he wrote.
The pope said he established in December 2013 the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to draw up ways the church could improve its norms and procedures for protecting children and vulnerable adults.
This commission, led by U.S. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and made up of survivors and lay experts in the field, is meant to be “a new, important and effective means for helping me to encourage and advance the commitment of the church at every level” in taking concrete steps to ensure greater abuse protection and care, he said.
The pope then asked for the “close and complete cooperation” of the world’s bishops’ conferences and religious orders with the commission for the protection of minors, whose duties include assisting church leaders in “an exchange of best practices and through programs of education, training and developing adequate responses to sex abuse.”
The pope asked for prayers that the church “carry out, generously and thoroughly, our duty to humbly acknowledge and repair past injustices and to remain ever faithful in the work of protecting those closest to the heart of Jesus.”