Pope Francis says young Catholics are “scandalized” by the Catholic Church’s “monstrous” clergy sexual abuse crisis but adds that church officials who tried to handle abusive priests many years ago should not be judged by today’s standards.
The Pope’s comments came Tuesday aboard the papal flight home from the Baltics, when he answered reporters’ questions for about 50 minutes.
On Tuesday, Francis met with young people in Tallinn, Estonia, where he also acknowledged the church’s abuse scandal and said Catholic leaders need to be “converted” to address young people’s concerns.
“Young people are scandalized by the hypocrisy of older people,” Francis told journalists on Tuesday. “They are scandalized by war. They are scandalized by incongruity, they are scandalized by corruption, and as part of this corruption … sexual abuse.”
“There are accusations against the church,” Francis continued. “We all know that. We know the statistics. I will not repeat them, but even if it was only one single priest to abuse a young girl or young boy this is monstrous because that man was chosen by God to bring that child to heaven.”
The Pope added that the church “realized it had to fight” abuse in a “different way,” and “in recent times (the abuse) has decreased.”
Accusations of clergy sexual abuse have decreased, according to church statistics and an investigative report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania, which said that the “bulk” of the accusations in the state occurred before the early 2000s.
The US Catholic Bishops Conference tightened some of its abuse-reporting policies in 2002, after the last massive sexual abuse scandal.
Still, some experts say it’s difficult to know if abuse has declined, because it typically takes years, if not decades, for survivors to report it.
“In old times these things were covered up,” the Pope told journalists on Tuesday. “They were covered up also in the homes when the uncle raped the little niece, or the father raped his children. They were covered up because the shame was very big.”
“It is how people thought in the last century,” Francis continued. “There is a principle that helps me a lot to interpret history. An historic event must be interpreted with the hermeneutics of that time, not with the hermeneutics of today.”
Take Pennsylvania, for example, the Pope said.
“Look at the report and you will see that when the church began to become aware of this, then we gave it our all to stop it.”
The Pope also said that he and the church’s watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have removed guilty priests.
“And in recent times I have received many, many guilty verdicts from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and … I have said go ahead, go ahead, but never ever did I sign a pardon request after a guilty verdict. One doesn’t negotiate on this, there is no negotiation.”
On Wednesday, survivors of clergy abuse took issue with the Pope’s comments, saying he minimized the church’s responsibility.
“Did bishops and priests know that raping children was a criminal act, because I don’t think that ‘standard’ has changed. It’s been part of criminal law for a very long time,” said Peter Isely of the group End Clergy Abuse.
Isely also asked, if the abuse policies in the United States are working as well as the Pope said, why hasn’t the Vatican made them mandatory for Catholics worldwide?
Finally, Isely took issue with the Pope’s comparison of clergy abuse with rape and incest in a family.
“How can you compare a global institution that has been around for centuries, with laws and a hierarchy, to what happens in some family? A father or uncle is not the same as a bishop in charge of a diocese. It seems to be a way of the church, again, avoiding responsibility.”
CNN’s Hada Messia and Delia Gallagher in Rome contributed to this story.