As Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput prepares to take his delegation of corporate executives to the Vatican March 24 to prepare for the World Meeting of Families in September 2015 in the City of Brotherly Love, there is a crucial item that should be included on his agenda.
He should ensure that the issue of children's safety is a high priority when planning this international event with Pope Francis.
The meeting, designed to “emphasize the good news of the family and highlight its intrinsic value to the good of society,” would be the ideal time for the pontiff to publicly condemn clerical sexual abuse and its deleterious effects on children — and, subsequently, their families.
It would be the perfect occasion for the Holy Father to define decisive actions to bring to justice any pedophiles still among church ranks and make accountable their superiors who have permitted them continued access to children.
After decades of the hierarchy protecting pedophile priests, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was forced to take a stand in 2002 when the molestation conviction of a Boston priest opened a Pandora's Box of clerical sexual abuse allegations across the country. The bishops formulated a policy requiring all reports of suspected child abuse within the U.S. church community be turned over to civil authorities. Since then the abuse scandal has exploded worldwide.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who Chaput has dubbed an honorary co-chair of the World Meeting of Families along with Gov. Tom Corbett, knows better than anyone the importance of the pope proclaiming a zero-tolerance stance on harboring suspected pedophiles. It took two grand jury reports initiated by two Philadelphia district attorneys to finally send two priests and a Catholic lay teacher to jail for abusing children.
In 2012, the Rev. Msgr. William Lynn became the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church to be found guilty of endangering the welfare of children for allowing at least one pedophile priest to be moved from parish to parish under his watch. Lynn's conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Superior Court last December, but Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, himself a Roman Catholic, has appealed the overturned conviction.
The second Philadelphia grand jury report, released in 2011, also resulted in archdiocesan officials suspending more than 20 priests accused of inappropriate behavior with minors. Some have been restored to public ministry while others have been banned because an archdiocesan panel found allegations against them credible. The first grand jury report released in 2005 concluded that more than 60 priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had allegedly abused children since the 1940s but escaped prosecution because of the statute of limitations.
Since he was elected pontiff a year ago after the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has impressed not only Roman Catholics but people of all faiths. Last Dec. 11, after only nine months in office, Pope Francis was named Person of the Year by Time magazine because of his simple ways, his sense of humor and his compassion.
Yet he has still not advanced any initiatives from the child protection commission he appointed three months ago and last week actually claimed the church had been unfairly attacked over abuse. His spokesman insists, however, that new initiatives to protect children will be forthcoming from the Vatican and will be a model for society at large.
While it isn't yet confirmed whether Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia for the 2015 meeting of families, it certainly would make history if he used the occasion to proclaim a new day for Mother Church in how she protects her children. It would make his visit one of substance, and not just pomp and circumstance.