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Pope Francis And U.S. Bishops Respond To Report On Sex Abuse In Pennsylvania


News that Catholic priests committed horrific sex crimes against as many as a thousand children in Pennsylvania is still sinking in. We'll speak shortly to the attorney general in that state about the report he presented earlier this week - first, responses today from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and also from the Vatican itself. NPR's religion correspondent Tom Gjelten is here. Hey, Tom.


KELLY: Start with the Vatican. This is the first response we've heard since the Pennsylvania news broke. What does the pope have to say?

GJELTEN: Well, the Vatican says it can sum up the pope's response to the Pennsylvania report in two words, sorrow and shame. But I have to say there's an element of defensiveness in this Vatican statement. It points out that most of the report concerns abuses that happened years ago. Let me read from the statement.

(Reading) By finding almost no cases after 2002, the grand jury's conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse. The problem is we don't know that...

KELLY: Right.

GJELTEN: ...Because in many, many cases, we find out about clergy abuse only years later because children often don't talk about these things until they become adults.

KELLY: I mentioned the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also...


KELLY: ...Weighed in today. What do the bishops say they're going to do about these, as I called them, horrific and many allegations of sexual abuse?

GJELTEN: Well, they actually take some of the blame collectively on themselves, saying they failed in their own core duty to demonstrate moral judgment. There is an element of fingerpointing in their reaction. The statement today comes from the president of the Bishops Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas. I was looking at his response earlier this month to the allegations of sexual assault by the former Washington, D.C., archbishop, Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal DiNardo asked, why weren't these allegations disclosed when they were first brought to church officials? Why wasn't this egregious situation addressed sooner?

In today's statement, DiNardo says he's going to go to the Vatican to ask Pope Francis to send a delegation here to get those questions answered. So it's somebody else who failed. Now, in terms of the Pennsylvania situation, the bishop's statement hints at some of the reasons this abuse could have happened, the problems that could explain it. It stopped short, though, of saying what can be done about those problems.

KELLY: Well, stay there for a second. What - give us an example of what kind of problems they're talking about here.

GJELTEN: Well, one was that it's a mistake to focus just on predator priests and not so much on the bishops who cover up for them. The statement today says the church did not make clear what abuse victims should do when they have complaints about their bishops. There's a recognition you can't have bishops judging other bishops, you know, because of the way priests are trained, there's a - kind of a fraternity or a bond among them that sometimes makes it difficult for them to turn on each other.

There's also this line in the statement. Any mechanism for addressing any complaint against the bishop must be free from bias or undue influence by a bishop. What that mechanism would be is not spelled out. One more element - the bishops now say they recognize they need closer relations with laypeople, law enforcement and psychologists, for example.

KELLY: Real quick, Tom - any responses yet from critics of the church?

GJELTEN: I spoke to one critic, Terry McKiernan of the Bishops Accountability Organization. He's taken a wait-and-see position. We won't see the bishops' plan for this until they meet again in November.

KELLY: All right, thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet.

KELLY: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.