The Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, bishop of the Diocese of Scranton, discusses during a press conference in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Image Credit: AP

Harrisburg: The damning report on the sexual abuse of potentially thousands of children by priests in Pennsylvania, and its cover-up by a Catholic church primarily interested in self-protection, is another blow for Pope Francis, who is already reeling from a series of damaging scandals over recent months.

The shocking accounts of rape and assault of vulnerable children by men who are supposed to be moral exemplars are bad enough. But, as is almost always the case, the actual abuse is compounded by the collusion and concealment of senior church figures and the attempts to silence and intimidate survivors.

Francis, considered progressive and enlightened on many issues, has struggled to get a grip on the scandal that has gravely weakened the Catholic church’s moral authority. Despite calling for “decisive action” when he was elected as pontiff in 2013, he has failed to turn that into a reality. Instead he has been on the back foot, reactive rather than proactive, and has misread the extent of betrayal by the church.

A special papal commission set up to make recommendations on the church’s role in child protection ran into difficulties last year when two members — both abuse survivors — quit. One, Peter Saunders, said he had thought the pope was “serious about kicking backsides and holding people to account” but it turned out not to be so. The other, Marie Collins, said the abuse crisis was handled “with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors”.

Then this year, on a visit to Chile, the pope denounced survivors who said the church had covered up sexual abuse and crimes, robustly defending a bishop he had appointed in the face of objections. The pope was later forced to admit he made “grave errors” of judgement, launch an investigation into abuse and cover-up in the country, and accept the resignation of the bishop he had championed.

In an eight-page letter to Chilean Catholics, Francis condemned a “culture of abuse and cover-up” in the church, saying he was ashamed that neither he nor church leaders in Chile had properly listened to victims.

But that wasn’t the end of it. On Tuesday, just hours before the publication of the grand jury report on Pennsylvania, Chilean authorities raided the headquarters of the Catholic church’s episcopal conference, presumably in search of further evidence of abuse and cover-up. Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, has also been summoned to testify in court about the alleged concealment of years of abuse.

In Australia in May, Philip Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, became the most senior Catholic cleric convicted of concealing child abuse after he failed to report the abuse of two altar boys by a priest in the 1970s. For two months after his conviction he refused to resign his position, leading Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, to publicly call on the pope to remove him.

Francis accepted Wilson’s belated offer to leave his post just a few days after he accepted the resignation as cardinal of Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington DC, amid allegations of sexual abuse, including claims involving an 11-year-old boy. Two dioceses in New Jersey secretly reached financial settlements in 2005 and 2007 with men who said they were abused by McCarrick decades ago, according to a New York Times report.

In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, is to go on trial early next year on criminal charges of covering up sexual abuse. Also in the dock will be archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the head of the Vatican’s powerful doctrine office, and five other Catholic church officials who allegedly failed to report allegations of abuse to the authorities.

Later this month, Francis will make a 36-hour visit to Ireland, a country that has been rocked by revelations of child sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by the church. He is under pressure to meet survivors of abuse and speak publicly about the horrors they have endured, but many are sceptical.

The pope should say “I failed, my institution failed, and as pope I’m taking responsibility”, Colm O’Gorman, who was raped by a priest as a teenager in the 1980s, told the Observer last week. “He should come here and tell the truth, but the chances of that are very slim. The thing the church fears most is the damage to its reputation.”

The test for Francis is whether he can get from the back foot on to the front foot, to move from damage limitation and the tardy acceptance of resignations to actively rooting out abuse and its cover-up, wherever it is found. The Pennsylvania report is the culmination of two years of investigation and a serious blow to the church, but the signs are the blows will keep coming.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd.