Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati, center, arriving at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, to celebrate Mass, last Friday. It followed three days of meetings with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where all 34 Chilean bishops offered their resignations. (Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press)

The abuse of minors by pedophile priests has been among the most painful sagas of our time, the horror compounded by the knowledge that hierarchs could have stopped the predators if only they had not chosen, for so long, to cover up their actions. Now, at long last, Pope Francis seems to have glimpsed the depth of the global crisis.

The catalyst was a scandal in Chile, one of Latin America’s most staunchly Catholic countries, where for years the church establishment failed to act on multiple complaints of sexual abuse against an influential priest, Fernando Karadima. On a trip to Chile in January, the pope condemned Father Karadima’s actions but then refused to meet with his victims and dismissed allegations of inaction by bishops as “slander.”

In the outrage that followed, the pope appointed two investigators who produced a damning report confirming systematic efforts by the Chilean Catholic hierarchy to conceal clerical sexual abuse. That led to an apology by Pope Francis for the “grave errors” in Chile and an emergency meeting last week with Chile’s bishops at which all 34 submitted their resignationsand asked forgiveness for the “pain they caused the victims, the pope, the people of God and our country.”

Before the meeting with the bishops, the pope held an extraordinary, weeklong visit with Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of sexual abuse by Father Karadima who had clashed with the pontiff in Chile. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, Mr. Cruz described emotional exchanges during which the pontiff issued a deep personal apology. Mr. Cruz said he also discussed his homosexuality with the pope, who responded by saying that Mr. Cruz is as God wants him to be — “the pope wants you this way, too, and you have to be happy with who you are,” Mr. Cruz recounted.

Mr. Cruz, who said he remains a devout Catholic, said the meeting left him hopeful that the pope was prepared to confront the issue of abuse seriously. “He is taking unprecedented steps; he knows that the whole world is watching,” he said.

Watching, but not waiting. On Tuesday, the Catholic archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, was found guilty in an Australian court of concealing child sex abuse by a priest in the 1970s. He faces up to two years in prison. Cardinal George Pell, also an Australian who had been handling Vatican finances, was ordered on May 1 to stand trial on charges of “historical sexual offenses.” In the most prominent case in the United States, Cardinal Bernard Law was compelled to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after The Boston Globe exposed his role in covering up pedophile priests. He died in Rome in December. Scores of victims have filed lawsuits alleging abuse by priests on Guam. No doubt there is more to come.

It is not yet clear how Pope Francis will handle the mass resignations by the Chilean bishops, as accepting them all would leave the church there leaderless. More important is what he will do to repair the profound damage done to the Catholic Church worldwide by pedophile priests and their enablers. The pope has made a good and welcome start in acknowledging that his bishops did not tell him the truth and in opening his ears and heart to victims who have suffered not only sexual abuse, but also the derision of churchmen they tried to talk to. But it is just a start.

By The Editorial Board
23 May, 2018