Pope adviser says systematic reforms needed to address abuse

ROME — One of Pope Francis' top advisers warned Friday that the Catholic Church risks increased police and government intervention if it doesn't address the clergy sex abuse scandal with system-wide reforms about the way power and sexuality are expressed.

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx told a conference on child protection that the church's "weak excuses" to dismiss, minimize or cover-up the rape and molestation of children were no longer acceptable to the faithful. He said anyone who makes such excuses is actually complicit in the crimes of the perpetrators.

Marx welcomed public pressure to force reforms, and said the church must have a "frank discussion" about abuse of power among its leaders, and homosexuality, celibacy and training for priests, among other issues, if it wants to emerge from the crisis and regain its lost credibility.

"If no corrective action is taken by the church — and we are working on it, we must work on it — the state has no other choice but to intervene," Marx said, referring to increased civil law enforcement investigations of church leaders in places like Chile, the United States and elsewhere.

Marx's blunt comments at the Pontifical Gregorian University came as Francis' papacy has been reeling from new revelations of sex abuse and cover-up around the world that have also implicated him personally. The revelations have led to a crisis of confidence in the Catholic leadership just as the Vatican has convened more than 250 bishops to discuss how to better minister to young people.

Marx, who is on Francis' council of nine cardinal advisers and heads the Vatican's economy board, spoke out following the release of a devastating church-commissioned report into decades of abuse and cover-up in the German church. The report found at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014, and that the crimes were systematically covered up by church leaders.

The German findings were significant because the researchers concluded that there were structural risk factors within the Catholic Church as an institution that "favored sexual abuse of minors or made preventing it more difficult."

Another well-known German cardinal, Gerhard Mueller, has also been speaking out the crisis, criticizing how the Vatican under Francis has gone soft on sanctioning abusers. In an interview with the EWTN television network, Mueller said the pope himself or his friends have intervened to halt some investigations or reduce canonical sentences of priests at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Mueller, whom Francis removed as the congregation's prefect without explanation in 2017, called for a change in the rule that requires papal approval to launch an investigation into a bishop or cardinal.

"We need the independence of the ecclesiastical courts and the canonical process," he said. "The great problem in this pontificate are the so-called friends of the pope."

He cited members of the pope's council of nine cardinals, who have unusual access to ask for personal favors, as well as members of the college Francis instituted to hear appeals of sex abuse sentences. In recent years, there have been seemingly more lenient sentences handed out that stop short of defrocking the priest.

"They have been deciding against our opinion in many cases to reduce the penalty because some of them have this opinion that we cannot laicize a priest. They are absolutely against secularization of the priest," he told EWTN.

The college is headed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, known as a hard-liner. But Scicluna is vastly outnumbered by cardinals, including the retired head of the Vatican legal office, known to favor a more merciful approach of allowing priests to remain in the priesthood, albeit under supervision.

Mueller said their vision is naive and ignorant of the damage done to victims. If the evidence is overwhelming, "the only solution, and the only justice for the victim is that this perpetrator must be dismissed from the clerical state," he said.

Separately, Mueller called on Francis to answer allegations he covered up for an American ex-cardinal, saying "the People of God have a right to know what happened."

A retired Vatican diplomat has accused Francis of rehabilitating ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was apparently known to sleep with seminarians.

"It's always possible that there were some mistakes or mishandling of certain cases, but we must learn out of our mistakes," Mueller said.

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