THE BLOG

The Conclave, the Cardinals, and the Child Sexual Abuse Crisis

03/11/2013 10:11 am ET | Updated May 11, 2013

All eyes are on the Vatican as more than 100 cardinals from around the world gather this week to select a new pope. Their choice will reflect a collective sense of priorities for the Catholic Church, as much as it will the qualities of the man selected.

Top church officials, including the Archbishops of Washington and New York, have publicly listed their priority concerns for the next pontiff: secularism, religious persecution, Christianity in the cross hairs of "fanatics," the institution of marriage, and meeting the growing financial needs of churches in developing countries.

Conspicuously absent from this list is the cancer of child sexual abuse. Nothing has cost the modern-day Catholic Church more followers, credibility and trust than its repeated decisions to sacrifice the safety of innocent children in deference to its own reputation. Church leaders have been disturbingly quiet about the new pope's imperative to root out child sexual abuse within its institution and the vile cover-ups perpetrated by those in leadership.

After an initial round of media appearances by American cardinals in the lead-up to the conclave (including some who spoke more forthrightly about addressing child sex abuse), the Vatican pulled the plug on further press interviews and news conferences. Indeed, silence has been the Church's long-standing practice for which sexual abuse victims continue to pay a devastatingly high price.

No surprise, transparency has no place in the conclave; all participants must take a pledge of secrecy. Indeed, how can we even expect transparency when many of the cardinal electors stand accused of the very behavior they claim to deplore? The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has named a "dirty dozen" of cardinals whom they consider to be "the worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption." A number of them -- including New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan -- are participating in the conclave and may even be contenders for the papacy.

Choosing a pope who intends to give child sexual abuse the attention it deserves is an important first step at the beginning of a long, hard road for the Church to regain the trust of its flock and the public at large.

Some cardinals have recommended commonsense remedies, like establishing consistent policies worldwide for addressing child sexual abuse and enforcement of zero-tolerance requirements for removal of offenders. These baseline measures make sense, but the Church has much more to do to adequately address the problem.

In fact, only through a transparent truth and reconciliation process in which the church and the public finally hear directly from victims can the process of repentance and atonement truly begin. Selection of the right pope could lead to such a process, but as anyone who has observed the church throughout its child sexual abuse scandals knows, that might take a miracle.