Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope’s own advisers question.
One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received
the pope’s clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for
his sex crimes against children as young as 12.
Father Mauro Inzoli is
now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him,
The Associated Press has learned.
The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the
advice of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and
reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon
lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were
sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and
removal from public ministry.
In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to
Francis for clemency by citing the pope’s own words about mercy in their
petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity
because the proceedings are confidential.
“With all this emphasis on mercy … he is creating the environment for
such initiatives,” the church official said, adding that clemency
petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough
crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests
who raped and molested children.
At the same time, Francis also ordered three longtime staffers at the
congregation dismissed, two of whom worked for the discipline section
that handles sex abuse cases, the lawyers and church official said.
One is the head of the section and will be replaced before leaving
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the others too will be
replaced and that staffing in the office, which has a years long backlog
of cases, would be strengthened after Francis recently approved hiring
“The speed with which cases are handled is a serious matter and the
Holy Father continues to encourage improvements in this area,” Burke
He also dispelled rumors that sex-abuse cases would no longer be
handled by the congregation, saying the strengthened office would handle
all cases submitted.
Burke said Francis’s emphasis on mercy applied to “even those who are
guilty of heinous crimes.” He said priests who abuse are permanently
removed from ministry, but are not necessarily dismissed from the
clerical state, the church term for laicization or defrocking.
“The Holy Father understands that many victims and survivors can find
any sign of mercy in this area difficult,” Burke said. “But he knows
that the Gospel message of mercy is ultimately a source of powerful
healing and of grace.”
St. John Paul II was long criticized for failing to respond to the
abuse crisis, but ultimately he said in 2002 that “there is no place in
the priesthood or religious life” for anyone who would harm the young.
Francis has repeatedly proclaimed “zero tolerance” for abusive priests
and in December wrote to the world’s bishops committing to take “all
necessary measures” to protect them.
But he also recently said he believed sex abusers suffer from a
“disease” - a medical term used by defense lawyers to seek mitigating
factors in canonical sentences.
Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor and founding member of
Francis’s sex-abuse advisory commission, expressed dismay that the
congregation’s recommended penalties were being weakened and said
abusers are never so sick that they don’t know what they’re doing.
“All who abuse have made a conscious decision to do so,” Collins told
AP. “Even those who are pedophiles, experts will tell you, are still
responsible for their actions. They can resist their inclinations.”
Victim advocates have long questioned Francis’s commitment to
continuing Benedict’s tough line, given he had no experience dealing
with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina.
Francis counts Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley as his top adviser on
abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched
handling abuse cases in their archdioceses.
“They are not having zero tolerance,” said Rocio Figueroa, a former
Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae
Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals.
The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group’s
founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and
physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that
it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be
isolated, but not expelled, from the community.
The church official stressed that to his knowledge, none of Francis’s reduced sentences had put children at risk.
Many canon lawyers and church authorities argue that defrocking
pedophiles can put society at greater risk because the church no longer
exerts any control over them. They argue that keeping the men in
restricted ministry, away from children, at least enables superiors to
exert some degree of supervision.
But Collins said the church must also take into account the message
that reduced canonical sentences sends to both survivors and abusers.
“While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally
important,” Collins said in an email. “If there is seen to be any
weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong
message to those who would abuse.”
It can also come back to embarrass the church. Take for example the
case of Inzoli, a well-connected Italian priest who was found guilty by
the Vatican in 2012 of abusing young boys and ordered defrocked.
Inzoli appealed and in 2014 Francis reduced the penalty to a lifetime
of prayer, prohibiting him from celebrating Mass in public or being
near children, barring him from his diocese and ordering five years of
In a statement announcing Francis’s decision to reduce the sentence,
Crema Bishop Oscar Cantoni said “no misery is so profound, no sin so
terrible that mercy cannot be applied.”
In November, an Italian criminal judge showed little mercy in
convicting Inzoli of abusing five children, aged 12-16, and sentencing
him to four years, nine months in prison.
The judge said Inzoli had a
number of other victims but their cases fell outside the statute of
Burke disclosed to AP that the Vatican recently initiated a new
canonical trial against Inzoli based on “new elements” that had come to
light. He declined to elaborate.
Amid questions about how the battle against abuse was faring, Francis
recently named O’Malley, who heads his sex-abuse advisory commission,
as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
not clear what influence he can wield from his home base in Boston.
Francis scrapped the commission’s proposed tribunal for bishops who
botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation.
commission’s other major initiative - a guideline template to help
dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children - is
The Vatican never sent the template to bishops’
conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main