Pope: 'Absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors'

Vatican City — Pope Francis has written a letter to the leaders of the world's bishops' conferences and the various Catholic religious orders, asking them to cooperate fully with all initiatives to prevent sexual abuse of minors and to protect those vulnerable with "fairness and mercy."

Exhorting the leaders to give "close and complete cooperation" to a new Vatican commission advising him on abuse, Francis also states plainly: "There is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors."

The pope's letter, dated Feb. 2, was released by the Vatican Thursday. Its release comes one day before the new papal commission on the issues is to meet for the first time at the Vatican with all 17 of its members.

That commission, which is led by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, will be meeting in Rome Friday-Sunday. Announced in December 2013, Francis added new members to it just last December and has included two survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the number.

It remains unclear what role the commission will play in the Vatican's central bureaucracy or how the pope or Vatican prelates will treat its possible recommendations.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in a brief conference with reporters Thursday that he did not know if members of the new papal commission requested Francis' letter, but that it seemed unlikely as they have yet to meet with all their members.

Lombardi also said he expected to host a press conference to brief reporters on the commission's work during its meeting, likely on Saturday.

While Francis' letter Thursday does not announce any new initiatives on sexual abuse, it does seem to take a more direct tone than efforts from the Vatican in the past.

Addressing bishops and religious superiors, the pope says it is their responsibility to assure the safety of youth and vulnerable adults in parishes and other church institutions and in this issue they can have no other priority -- not even avoiding public scandal -- than making the church a safe place for children.

He also calls on diocesan bishops and religious order superiors to create programs of pastoral care and to meet with abuse survivors.

Mentioning a meeting he had last July with survivors of abuse, the pope first writes that he was "deeply moved by their witness to the depth of their sufferings and the strength of their faith."

"This experience reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused," states the pope.

Referencing the work of the new commission, Francis states that he believes it "can be a new, important and effective means for helping me to encourage and advance the commitment of the Church at every level ... to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, and to respond to their needs with fairness and mercy."

"Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children," the pope continues. "They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home."

"Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors," states Francis.

"It is the responsibility of Diocesan Bishops and Major Superiors to ascertain that the safety of minors and vulnerable adults is assured in parishes and other Church institutions," writes the pope.

Francis also urges dioceses and religious orders "to identify programs for pastoral care which include provisions for psychological assistance and spiritual care."

"Pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones," he states. "Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness."

"I now ask for your close and complete cooperation with the Commission for the Protection of Minors," states the pope.

"The work I have entrusted to them includes providing assistance to you and your Conferences through an exchange of best practices and through programs of education, training, and developing adequate responses to sexual abuse."

Thursday's letter was released by the Vatican in three languages: Italian, English and Spanish.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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