USA Today: Pope quietly trims sanctions for sex abusers seeking mercy
VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope’s own advisers question.
One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope’s clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.
The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.
In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope’s own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential.
“With all this emphasis on mercy … he is creating the environment for such initiatives,” the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children…
St. John Paul II was long criticized for failing to respond to the abuse crisis, but ultimately he said in 2002 that “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life” for anyone who would harm the young. Francis has repeatedly proclaimed “zero tolerance” for abusive priests and in December wrote to the world’s bishops committing to take “all necessary measures” to protect them…
Victim advocates have long questioned Francis’ commitment to continuing Benedict’s tough line, given he had no experience dealing with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina. While Francis counts Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley as his top adviser on abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched handling abuse cases in their archdioceses.
“They are not having zero tolerance,” said Rocio Figueroa, a former Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals. The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group’s founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be isolated, but not expelled, from the community…
But Collins said the church must also take into account the message that reduced canonical sentences sends to both survivors and abusers.
“While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important,” Collins said in an email. “If there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse.”
It can also come back to embarrass the church. Take for example the case of Inzoli, a well-connected Italian priest who was found guilty by the Vatican in 2012 of abusing young boys and ordered defrocked.
Inzoli appealed and in 2014 Francis reduced the penalty to a lifetime of prayer, prohibiting him from celebrating Mass in public or being near children, barring him from his diocese and ordering five years of psychotherapy…
Francis scrapped the commission’s proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission’s other major initiative — a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children — is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops’ conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.