The Holy See
LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS
TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul
forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors
due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant
number of clerics and consecrated persons. Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and
powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger
community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon
and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort
must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to
prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their
families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure
the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.
1. If one member suffers…
In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand
survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests
over a period of approximately seventy years. Even though it can be said that most of these cases
belong to the past, nonetheless as time goes on we have come to know the pain of many of the
victims. We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to
condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go
away. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored,
kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence
it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The
Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands. Mary’s song is not
mistaken and continues quietly to echo throughout history. For the Lord remembers the promise
he made to our fathers: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty
from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he
has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53). We feel shame when we realize that our style of life has
denied, and continues to deny, the words we recite.
With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where
we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the
gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we
abandoned them. I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way
of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims
and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the
priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency!
Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the
greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the
depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)” (Ninth Station).
2. … all suffer together with it
The extent and the gravity of all that has happened requires coming to grips with this reality in a
comprehensive and communal way. While it is important and necessary on every journey of
conversion to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough. Today we
are challenged as the People of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in
their flesh and in their spirit. If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want
solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and
future history. And this in an environment where conflicts, tensions and above all the victims of
every type of abuse can encounter an outstretched hand to protect them and rescue them from
their pain (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 228). Such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn
whatever endangers the integrity of any person. A solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of
corruption, especially spiritual corruption. The latter is “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of
blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle
forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14)”
(Gaudete et Exsultate, 165). Saint Paul’s exhortation to suffer with those who suffer is the best
antidote against all our attempts to repeat the words of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen
4:9).
I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up
with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of
vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who
perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and
sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater
culture of care in the present and future.
Together with those efforts, every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and
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social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion
that makes us see things as the Lord does. For as Saint John Paul II liked to say: “If we have truly
started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces
of those with whom he wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49). To see things as the
Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his
presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to
a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.[1] This can awaken our
conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again”
to every form of abuse.
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active
participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or
silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities,
projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory,
without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.[2] This is clearly seen in a peculiar way
of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse
and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an
approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and
undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”.[3]
Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the
ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning
today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.
It is always helpful to remember that “in salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are
never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as
an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of
interpersonal relationships present in the human community. God wanted to enter into the life and
history of a people” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 6). Consequently, the only way that we have to
respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us
as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable
us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be
renewed from within. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything
being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating
the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and
prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters
as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. In this way, we will
come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel. For “whenever we make
the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues
arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and
words with new meaning for today’s world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
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It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and
shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the
mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own
sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes
and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed
along a journey of renewed conversion.
Likewise, penance and prayer will help us to open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s
sufferings and to overcome the thirst for power and possessions that are so often the root of those
evils. May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and
the disabled. A fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the
truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and
leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society
in general, to combatting all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of
conscience.
In this way, we can show clearly our calling to be “a sign and instrument of communion with God
and of the unity of the entire human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1).
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”, said Saint Paul. By an attitude of prayer and
penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we
may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation. Mary chose to stand at
the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’ side. In this way,
she reveals the way she lived her entire life. When we experience the desolation caused by these
ecclesial wounds, we will do well, with Mary, “to insist more upon prayer”, seeking to grow all the
more in love and fidelity to the Church (SAINT IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA, Spiritual Exercises, 319).
She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings
of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true
follower of Christ.
May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express
before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.
Vatican City, 20 August 2018
FRANCIS
[1] “But this kind [of demon] does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21).
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[2] Cf. Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Chile (31 May 2018).
[3] Letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (19
March 2016).
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