Pope Francis has demanded his church repent and change after the latest scandals. Will it? Can it?

Pope Francis’s letter to his church on the scandals of sexual abuse is full of anger and remorse, but empty of specific policies beyond a call to prayer and fasting. This can be defended. A change of heart must come before the actions which will express it. But it is also horrifyingly late and grimly familiar. Not only have successive popes and prelates been expressing their anguish and their shame at child abuse all this century, but the scandals themselves have continued with numbing regularity. It’s almost as if the culture of the church ran deeper than the wishes of any pope.

This year opened particularly badly with Francis himself defending with angry scorn a Chilean bishop credibly accused of abuse. This did huge damage to the church’s reputation there; to his credit, he realised this and later took the accusations seriously. Since then he has sacked the bishop in question and four others, among them the man who was in charge of dealing with abuse reports, although the affair still festers: a priest involved in the reporting of abusers is now in criminal custody, but though he had confessed his crimes to his superiors in January, they somehow overlooked the possibility of reporting him to the civil authorities for six months while the scandal raged all around them.

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