Papal Policies on Clerical Sexual Abuse: God Weeps

Updated: Sep 26

by Jo Renee Formicola

Reviewed by Father Mark White Profiles in Catholicism



Five years ago, Pope Francis visited the U.S. On a lovely late-summer afternoon, the pope celebrated Holy Mass on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of bishops and priests concelebrated, including your unworthy servant. Thousands of Catholics prayed with us, spread across the elm-lined university quad. The city and the nation tuned-in on tv. The Catholic Church in America came together, smiling with hopefulness, in the sunshine. Jo Renee Formicola put it like this, in the opening pages of God Weeps:

“I can attest to the excitement, the love, and the palpable respect for Pope Francis during all those events I helped to cover when he was in the United States.”

There was a snake in the garden of excitement and optimism, however. As Pope Francis preached his homily, a concelebrating Cardinal sat immediately behind him, fitting innocuously into the scene. Theodore McCarrick.

Formicola takes the title of her book from one of Pope Francis’ speeches during that visit to the U.S. At the seminary in Philadelphia, the pope said, “God weeps for the sexual abuse of children.” Formicola approaches the problem of sexual abuse as an expert in Church-state relations. She focuses on the policies that the popes have developed to deal with the crisis, and she analyzes those policies for their organizational effectiveness.

Formicola brings her expertise to bear by first clearly defining the sex-abuse crisis, and identifying the steps needed to take to deal with it. Her chronology begins with the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe, in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. This has become the standard frame of reference for students of the history of the crisis. The journalist Jason Berry chronicled the Gauthe case thoroughly, and Gauthe’s attorney, Ray Mouton, worked with Father Thomas Doyle to produce a report for the American bishops. That report set on the table most of the necessary questions for Church leadership.

Formicola goes on to outline the process of competent crisis management. Recognize the focusing event or events. Respond with an appropriate apology for the harm done. Investigate thoroughly. Develop a comprehensive strategy that ensures accountability for wrongdoing. By following these steps, leaders regain trust, and a crisis ends. Formicola systematically outlines how three popes have failed to work their way through these steps successfully.

“John Paul’s responses to the tragedy were basically non-existent. They were not public, aggressive, or compassionate. Indeed, for all his pastoral and political action to protect the unborn, the marginalized, and others forgotten by society, John Paul did not provide the same sense of righteous outrage, protection, justice, or solidarity with the victim survivors of clerical sexual abuse… In policy terms, John Paul’s leadership failed every test of what policy analysts describe as positive and successful responses to institutional crises… He could not grasp the gravity, scope, or civil ramifications of clerical sexual abuse; or the personal, psychic, or spiritual damage that it caused… He fueled perceptions of secrecy and fed a narrative of complicity… He blamed an ‘irresponsibly permissive’ American society, ‘hyper-inflated with sexuality.’”

In 2001, things changed somewhat. Formicola writes, “John Paul was starting to suspect the ability of the American hierarchy to deal with the festering crisis.” In April, the pope required all cases involving the sexual abuse of minors be reported to the Vatican.

A year later, the pope met with all the American cardinals, including McCarrick, to try to deal with the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal. The meeting produced a ‘Vatican communiqué,’ which framed the Church’s response to the crisis. Formicola trenchantly criticizes the communiqué:

“It ignored the serious civil policy implications of clerical sexual abuse… It avoided an official institutional apology. It did not set out a means to investigate the workings of the internal Church, its procedures, or its processes to handle clerical sexual abuse… It did not cede any power to civil authorities to investigate or punish the clergy… It continued a lack of policy coherence and consistency. It represented a policy position in which the Pope protected the role, mission, and reputation of the Church.”

Over two decades earlier, during his brief tenure as a diocesan bishop, Joseph Ratzinger followed what we now know was the world-wide standard operating procedure. In 1979, Ratzinger knowingly received into his Archdiocese—Munich, Germany—a priest abuser of minors. The priest began psychiatric treatment, and, within days, the Archdiocese assigned him to pastoral work, with the Archbishop’s knowledge and tacit permission. None of the restrictions recommended by the priest’s psychiatrist were put into place. The priest went on to victimize other children, over the course of the subsequent three decades. Meanwhile, Ratzinger went on to head a Vatican department, then became Pope Benedict XVI.

Formicola summarizes the German theologian’s work with the sex-abuse crisis:

“From the epi-center of adjudicating grievous sins as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 until his retirement from the papacy in 2013, Benedict was in a central position to create and implement policies to deal with clerical sexual abuse for thirty-two years. But he was unable or unwilling to punish, contain, remediate, or make a significant policy change in how the Catholic Church dealt with the greatest crisis to its credibility, legitimacy, and existence in modern times.”


Many who had long been dealing with the sex-abuse crisis desperately wanted to believe that Pope Francis would find a way to deal with the problem successfully. When he assumed office in 2013, Francis immediately identified with the poor, and urged the entire Church to do the same. Formicola asks, “Can this theological commitment to the poor serve as a basis for a broadened definition, to include the victims of clerical sexual abuse?”

In 2014, the United Nations severely criticized the Vatican’s handling of child sexual abuse. Pope Francis responded to one of the U.N. recommendations and established the Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors. He appointed the clerical sex-abuse survivor Marie Collins, of Ireland, to the commission. Collins soon resigned, however. The Vatican’s zero-tolerance policy, she recognized, was much more an empty slogan than a practical reality, and the pope failed to establish a tribunal to judge bishops who covered up for predatory priests.

Formicola’s historical survey ends with the waning days of 2018, after the McCarrick revelations, the Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report, the Viganò memo, and the Vatican intervention at the U.S. bishops’ meeting (which prevented any concrete action on the part of the bishops). Formicola summarizes the situation at that time:

“The cautious optimism that accompanied Francis’ election continues to erode… Attempts to ensure transparency and accountability for the punishment of priests and members of the hierarchy are disappearing with each new instance of Vatican cover-ups. The expected desire to develop corrective changes in personnel and policy is now being overwhelmed with the existential threat to papal power and the increasing possibility that the Church could simply implode from the weight of its own sins… The laity’s patience is at an end.”

Formicola’s calls her final chapter, “God Still Weeps.” She writes: “The needed reforms represent an existential threat to the recognized religious and administrative leadership of the Popes, to the continued functioning of the institutional Church as the world knows it. Strategic change would require dynamic, persistent, and systematic policy solutions… But the Papal responses, instead, were ad hoc, ineffective, often without compassion, and deeply divisive within the Church… For more than three decades, predatory priestly behavior festered as an open, religious sore—as well as a political, economic, and legal wound for the modern Catholic Church. Even now, the largest religious institution in the world remains without an official, systematic diagnosis of the causes of clerical sexual abuse or a prescription to end the victimization of children by priests.”

Formicola submitted her book for publication shortly before the February 2019 meeting at the Vatican, dedicated to the problem of child sexual abuse. She writes near the end of the book that the situation actually requires the calling of an ecumenical council. Vatican III should convene—to deal with the sex-abuse crisis.

During Easter week of that year, Formicola taped an appearance on Newark NJ PBS’s “Think Tank” program, to discuss her book. It gave the author the opportunity to discuss the Vatican meeting that had occurred since she finished writing. The interviewer asked, “What happened at the meeting?” Formicola responded, “Nothing. It’s like asking someone to watch after themselves, and you really can’t have that. I don’t know that [the pope and bishops] necessarily are capable of doing anything.”

God Weeps could have used another edit; it has some passages that are difficult to follow. Chapter Five re-develops a historical narrative that has already been extensively covered in previous chapters, which causes the reader some confusion. Also, Formicola outlines the three popes’ theological principles in a manner that seems cursory and shallow. I think it is necessary to understand the three men first as Christian pastors, in order to begin to grasp the complexity of the issues they have faced. Formicola repeatedly laments that the popes have seen clerical sexual abuse as a sin, rather than as a crime. From a pastor’s point-of-view, those are not mutually exclusive things. That said, Formicola is absolutely right about the catastrophic consequences of the popes’ inability to recognize the crime of child sexual abuse for what it is. And the book’s attempt to synthesize theology with public policy introduces a very helpful approach to the problem.

We owe Dr. Formicola a debt of gratitude for assembling a large amount of research into a painful, but refreshingly realistic, analysis. With God Weeps, she has given the Church a gift, applying her expertise to help us see the enormity of the unsolved problem we have on our hands.

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