A Roman Catholic activist group said on Tuesday that Pope Francis was slow as head of the Argentine church to act against sexual abuse by clergy and urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children.
A lawyer for some of the victims, meanwhile, said the pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had not met with or helped victims and charged that mid-level church officials who covered up the problem have not lost their jobs.
The Buenos Aires archbishop’s office did not immediately comment on the complaints, which came as Francis was being installed as pope in a Vatican ceremony seen around the world.
The US-based Bishop Accountability group cited the cases of two priests: Father Julio Cesar Grassi, who ran the “Happy Children” foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008, and Father Napoleon Sasso, convicted in 2007 of abusing girls at a soup kitchen in suburban Buenos Aires, where he was assigned after being accused of pedophilia elsewhere.
Grassi is currently free pending appeal, thanks partly to a court filing on his behalf by the Argentine church, which was headed by Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio oversaw Argentina’s bishops conference when Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen at a chapel,the victims’ attorney, Ernesto Moreau, said.
Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Doyle said those events show Bergoglio was behind the curve in the Catholic Church’s global struggle to deal with sex abuse by its priests, which erupted in 2002 after thousands of cases became public in the US and around the world.
“We would be alarmed if Archbishop Bergoglio had done this in the ’60s or ’70s. That would be sad and disturbing, but the fact that he did this just five years ago, when other bishops in other countries were meeting victims and implementing tough reporting laws, it puts him behind some of his American counterparts, that’s for sure,” Doyle said.
The group said that to send a message of zero tolerance in the church around the world, the new pope should tell the Buenos Aires archdiocese to release the complete files on the Grassi and Sasso cases, publicly identify any other priests who are “credibly accused” of sexual abuse and endorse mandatory reporting by church officials to law enforcement of suspected abuse.
The pope himself should admit that he was wrong to defend abusive priests, apologize to the victims of Grassi and Sasso, and offer to meet with the victims, the group said.
Noting the pope’s coronation, Doyle said: “The victims of these two priests are the very children of God about whom he was speaking in his homily today.”
“They are the most vulnerable of the poor. We hope that Francis will seize this as a priority, and reach out to the victims and rectify his terrible insensitivity to them when he was archbishop,” Doyle said.
No one has presented evidence that Bergoglio was directly involved covering up sex abuse. However, Moreau said that Bergoglio, as the top authority for the Argentine church, was ultimately responsible for the treatment of the victims, who have yet to get medical treatment or compensation.
“Bergoglio has been the strongest man in the Argentine church since the beginning of this century,” Moreau said, and yet “the leadership of the church has never done anything to remove these people from these places and neither has it done anything to relieve the pain of the victims.”