Between the lines of 'Evangelii Gaudium,' a love letter

Author's note: This week, the Vatican refused to provide information to the U.N. regarding sexual abuse by church officials despite its ratification of the 1990 Convention of the Rights of the Child. On Thursday, as this column was going to be published, the Vatican announced it would begin its own commission to address sexual abuse. Similar commissions have been set up by bishops' conferences in various countries but currently, no mechanisms are in place to discipline bishops who refuse to cooperate with their own policies or continue to cover up sexual abuse cases.

It's a love story, really. Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," that the Vatican released last week reads like a love letter meant to add spark again to a church relationship that has been sorely wounded.

The document addresses some of the reasons why Catholics have turned away from the church. It shares ideas for how the church can reform itself in order to support a renewed relationship of joy and mission. It reads like a personal invitation to a marriage encounter weekend after a relationship has been through tough times. Pope Francis asks us to remember the good and rekindle the flames of faith.

I'm signed up. My bags are packed. I'm ready to write my own love letter in return. This is what I have wanted for our relationship, too!

However, if you read between the lines of the document, you'll remember what caused perhaps the greatest collective rupture in the church relationship for U.S. Catholics of the last decade: the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up by church officials.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of Catholics in the United States said addressing the sexual abuse crisis should be a top priority for the new pope, topping the list of issues Catholics believed the Vatican should address.

Although Pope Francis never specifically mentions the sexual abuse crisis in his exhortation, it is there between the lines. He doesn't shy away from talking about other issues the Vatican considers controversial, but he fails to mention the topic Catholics most want him to address.

Throughout the document, there are passing remarks to "periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness" (11) and "the pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church" (76).

Instead of addressing these wounds directly, he exhorts the faithful not to dwell on the sins, but to remember "how many Christians are giving their lives in love" (76).

Pope Francis repeatedly calls on the church not to dwell on itself, but to focus on the outward mission. He says, "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets ..." (49).

I agree with the pope that we should be a mission-driven people, but a "bruised" and "hurting" church? Pope Francis may have forgotten momentarily that this is already a reality.

Thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christ have been bruised and harmed, not from ministry on the streets, but from Catholic officials who have sexually abused them.

I am disappointed that Pope Francis is not addressing the sexual abuse crisis directly, but I am glad others are. In the same week that the apostolic exhortation was released without mention of the crisis, news headlines ensured the topic was not forgotten.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the local archdiocese reached a settlement agreement with a young man in his 20s. Daniel McCormack, a former priest, is accused of abusing the young man and five other boys. McCormack's story is well-known among Chicago Catholics who were horrified at learning that Cardinal Francis George did not immediately remove McCormack after credible allegations surfaced. His inability to remove McCormack resulted in the abuse of more children.

Also last week, a group of priests and sexual abuse survivors wrote to the Vatican to request that money be released to assist sexual abuse survivors. The money they want released was hidden by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a cemetery trust fund so it would not be available for survivors when his former diocese filed for bankruptcy.

Countless other stories from across the country and abroad continue to arise on a daily basis, from a bishop in Peru who stepped down because he sexually abused a woman to a report of 95 new cases reported in Australia over the last year.

Pope Francis may think he is offering a way toward healing a church that has been wounded by the horrors of sexual abuse, but you can't heal a wound if you don't fully address it.

I appreciate the love letter from Pope Francis. I am ready for Catholics to be known again for our strong outward mission and our love. As the song goes, "They will know we are Christians by our love." But we won't be known for taking care of others if we don't care for our own.

[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]

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