On the Vatican’s Response to the Grand Jury Report

First, CNN, unlike other major media, asked, “Why is the Pope still silent about damning sex abuse report?” Their lede: “In July, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro wrote a personal letter to Pope Francis, warning him that ‘a comprehensive investigation’ by his office had found ‘widespread sexual abuse of children and a systemic coverup by leaders of the Catholic Church.’” Nearly a month later, Attorney General Shapiro has no received a response.

CNN actually misrepresented the nature of the Attorney General’s letter. Its primary purpose was not to warn Pope Francis, who almost certainly knew the contents of the report. Rather, it was to request that Pope Francis have Church officials cease their attempts to suppress the report and allow the public to see it. Pope Francis never did anything. The judge denied the Church’s attempts to suppress the report, and authorized its release.

On Wednesday, CNN contacted the Vatican: “ ‘We have no comment at this time,’ Paloma Ovejero, deputy director of the Vatican's press office, said on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Vatican again declined to comment.” But later on Thursday, the Vatican finally issued a brief response (here) – which I present below. (It never responded to Attorney General Shapiro’s letter.)

The Vatican Response

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See Press Office, a former executive with Fox News, issued a brief statement. He stressed the final paragraph:  “Victims should know that the Pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”

(That ‘priority’ is presumably why it took a few years before Pope Francis met with any of the victims. While the pope formed a special papal commission to study the child abuse problem, it did nothing, and the commission’s only former victims resigned in protest. Pope Francis was so concerned about the victims that he made sure their replacements were not former victims.)

This is the entirety of the Vatican response:

Regarding the report made public in Pennsylvania this week, there are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow. The Holy See treats with great seriousness the work of the Investigating Grand Jury of Pennsylvania and the lengthy Interim Report it has produced. The Holy See condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors.


The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith. The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.


Most of the discussion in the report concerns abuses before the early 2000s. By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse. The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm. The Holy See also wants to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.


The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirt of believers and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the Church and in all of society.


Victims should know that the Pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.

Key Vatican Points

The first two paragraphs: we’re sorry for these “criminal and morally reprehensible” acts.

Paragraph 3 -  This is old news – “almost no cases after 2002.” We’ve basically fixed the problem already – “Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse.” We’ll continue to work on it: “The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance.” That’s why we created the special papal commission on child abuse.

Paragraphs 4 and 5 -  Don’t worry. Be happy.  “The Holy Father understands  … [will] make every effort to create a safe environment… Victims should know that the Pope is on their side.”


This response ignores the fundamental fact that reported cases of priestly child abuse are always old. This crime is extremely traumatic. Victims usually don’t even tell their parents. After all, they believe they are being abused by God’s representative, and that they themselves are at fault - not God.

There is almost always a long delay between the commission of the crime and the victim’s formal complaint. In Australia, the average delay in reporting was thirty years. In America, the delay is probably shorter. But it is impossible to demonstrate the effects of changes in church procedures in the short or medium term. Vatican claims about the effectiveness of Church reforms are invalid. The Catholic Church also stressed the ancient history of complaints in the Boston epidemic exposed by the Spotlight program. Before that, they made similar comments when the Louisiana scandal broke out in the early 1980’s.

The Catholic Church in the United States – not worldwide – made some modest procedural improvements in the wake of the scandal in Boston. The Vatican has done nothing except create a pro forma papal commission. Under the general principle that the best guide to the future is the past, I expect that the Vatican will continue to do next to nothing unless it is forced to.


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