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Sexual Assault and the Catholic Church

Pope Francis needs to make a stand for sexual assault victims.

I went to a private, all-girls Catholic high school. So you can imagine the uproar Pope Francis caused when we heard he was being elected. We pulled out all the stops for his inauguration. We had a special viewing in our gym complete with food, music, and a lifesize cardboard cutout of him. Yes, we were very excited to see him take his place in the Vatican. But now, when we’re almost used to seeing sexual assault and the Catholic church in the same sentence, some of us are losing our enthusiasm.

My school loved Pope Francis. Not only because he was a cute old man. But because he would bring a much-needed change to how the Vatican interpreted the Bible. The Vatican has had a torrid history of less than stellar Popes that got their position through political savvy rather than a strong faith in God, and used that power to manipulate wealth and the minds of the public for their personal gain.

Pope Francis was the first Pope in history to use the term “gay” rather than “homosexual” or the appalling “those suffering from same-sex attraction.” As if someone’s sexuality is a disease that can be cured with a vaccine. He rode the bus after his election with the other Cardinals rather than in his bulletproof Mercedes.

He is one of the few that almost literally followed Jesus’s teachings – he washed the feet of women, prisoners, and Muslims on Holy Thursday while previous Popes would only wash the feet of Priests. He provides Daily Mass for everyone regardless of wealth or social status while other Popes would only invite the elite to the daily Mass at their private chapel. He said the Church’s priority was to serve the poor, initiated new programs to give gifts and help to the poor in Rome, and even invited homeless people to his birthday celebration.

Needless to say, my school was very excited to see Pope Francis at the head of the Vatican. And although I’m not Catholic or even Christian, even I was excited to see a man I greatly respected be a leader to billions of people.

But then I saw how he handled the sexual assault allegations against Church Officials, I could feel my excitement sinking until it was a rock at the bottom of my stomach.

There have been hundreds upon hundreds of cases against members of the Church – some too horrific to recount. They have a unique position in society – complete trust from family members. Nobody could imagine a man of God could do something so horrifying to their children.

Nobody could imagine that thousands of people will never be the same because the Catholic Church chose to cover up these sexual assaults. But the Pope had never been mentioned in these allegations. Until now.

Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s, the archbishop of Washington, resignation on October 12th. Cardinal Wuerl was one of the church leaders accused of covering up sexual assault. We held our breath as we waited for Pope Francis to tear him a new one.

When he was first elected, Pope Francis promised a “zero tolerance policy” when it came to safeguarding children from abuse and trying negligent church officials as well as the Priests responsible.

Instead of making Cardinal Wuerl a perfect example of this, he put him up as a role model for unity in the Roman Catholic Church and applauded his courage for resigning. In an interview, Cardinal Wuerl said he would continue to live in Washington and expected to keep his position in the Vatican and continue to exert great influence.

Now people are saying that Pope Francis can talk the talk, but when it comes to creating real change, he doesn’t seem to hold up.

Then I started really digging into Pope Francis. The Pope has a level of power we can’t even comprehend. There is almost nothing he cannot do. The President of the United States has checks and balances against him or her to keep them in line.

The Pope has complete, unfettered power. Yet, there are still catechisms (church doctrine) alienating the LGBTQ community. In terms of causing real change, Pope Francis hasn’t done a whole lot.

Yes, I admire that he not only speaks about Jesus and his teachings but practices them in his daily life. But in terms of truly changing archaic church practices and beliefs, there hasn’t been much done.

Yes, Pope Francis did take some actions against two Chilean Bishops accused of abusing children, but it can never be enough. He handed the most severe punishment – he banished them from the priesthood and made it clear there would be no possibility of appeal.

But this was the best he could do. And it was only two Chilean Bishops – one of whom has had a history of abusing children before he even became a bishop in the Chilean diocese. Imagine the hundreds of children who are still being abused at the hands of Priests and can’t see an end in sight. These two bishops were 88 and 53.  Imagine how many children these two men must have abused before they were expelled from the priesthood.

This was all after he caused a serious backlash in Chile because he defended the accused bishops from, what he called, the “calumny” of accusations from victims of sexual abuse. Only after sending a sex crimes investigator to Chile and received a 2,300-page report on the sexual assaults and cover-ups did he take action. But by then, the damage was done. No matter how he defended his actions by saying he had received bad information, the children and their families will never be the same.

I love what Pope Francis stands for, and he has created a more united world that focuses on love and forgiveness rather than hate. He focuses on appreciating our similarities rather than fixating on our differences.

But the way he handled the sexual assault allegations was appalling. He needs to show that The Vatican does not stand for the actions of these Church officials. Yes, a group as big as the Catholic Church will have a few bad apples, but it’s the way the leader handles the bad apples is what makes or breaks their reputation.

Judging by the way Pope Francis handled it, his reputation will need a miracle.


Jen Garg is a student at Arizona State University studying Journalism and...