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Pope Tells U.S. Bishops To Unify As Church Deals With Clergy Sex Abuse Scandals


Pope Francis has a message for U.S. bishops. Unify so you can confront the church's, quote, "crisis of credibility." In a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the pope said the sex abuse crisis has broken people's faith in the Catholic Church, but the cover-up of the crimes has eroded that trust even more, he says. Over the past four months, Catholic dioceses across the U.S. have released names of over a thousand priests and others accused of sexually abusing children. That's according to the Associated Press, which also reports that another 55 dioceses have announced plans to release their own lists. Father Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst with Religion News Service, and he joins us in our studios this morning. Father Reese, thanks for being here.

THOMAS REESE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: What stood out to you in the pope's letter?

REESE: What stood out to me in the pope's letter was the way in which he understands that if you're going to reform the church, you just don't want to move around the boxes on the organizational chart. It's not going to be enough to establish new policies and procedures or establish committees. He understands that you have to change the culture of the institution. And social scientists would agree with him, whether it's a police force, a newspaper, a school. Whatever it is, you just don't - you have to change the culture of the institution. We see, for example, in the United States, we still have racism. We still have sexism. We have laws to deal with this, but we have to change people's hearts. We have to change the culture of our country to deal with these.

And the same thing's true of the church. The pope - it's funny. The pope has this reputation of being compassionate and forgiving, but when he talks to bishops and priests, he's tough. He tells them, you know, you're supposed to be humble. You're supposed to be listening. You're supposed to be servants of the people of God, not ambitious, not jockeying for positions.

MARTIN: But, you know, victims of sex abuse, their families, their supporters, have said the opposite about Pope Francis - that he talks a good game, that he says the right words, that he evokes compassion but that there isn't necessarily the action to back up those words. I mean, where do you see the actual reforms coming? How do you change a culture, and what moves is the pope making to do that?

REESE: Well, actually, a year ago, I think I might've said the same thing. The pope really didn't understand the sex abuse crisis in the church as well as he could have. But I think last year, he got an education. He found out that when he visited Chile, he was on the wrong page. He was defending the bishops. And then he went home, and he learned more and he got angry. And he demanded the resignations of all the bishops in Chile. That was a real turning point. He then started listening to victims. He started meeting with them. And that is extremely important, to hear their voices, hear their stories. That just tears your guts out when you hear those stories. And that was very important for him.

Now, you know, I think we still have a ways to go. For example, in the United States, we have zero tolerance for abuse by priests, and anybody who's accused is reported to the police. We encourage victims to come forward. We have zero tolerance, but we don't have a real good process for dealing with bishops who don't do the right thing. And that is something we really need to get.

MARTIN: The pope, in this letter, seems to indicate there are divisions in the American church when it comes to how to deal with this. What are they?

REESE: Well, I think there's fewer divisions on that. The bishops have been divided for a long time over political issues. There are the bishops who want to make abortion the only issue. They want the church to be a single-issue advocate. There are others who want to talk about the comprehensive, full, Catholic social teaching - concern for the poor and all of that. So that, I think, is where their divisions really are.

MARTIN: I want to just briefly ask you about the new kind of naming and shaming, for lack of a better moniker here, that dioceses are releasing the names of abusers. What's the significance? How can that help foment change?

REESE: That's very important. The bishops really never wanted to do that. They did put in procedures to deal with abusive priests, but they didn't really want to show all the dirty laundry. The Pennsylvania grand jury report showed that this has got to be done. It's going to be either done by attorney generals, or it's going to be done by the bishops. This is important for the healing process of victims. They want this. People need to be assured that these priests are not in ministry, that they've been removed.

MARTIN: Father Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst with Religion News Service. Thank you so much, Father Reese. We appreciate it.

REESE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.