Pope Francis Under Fire After Quietly Reducing Punishment For Pedophile Priests

Pope Francis has come under heavy criticism from sex abuse survivors and church officials, including some of his senior advisers who revealed that he quietly reduced penalties for some pedophile priests reportedly as part of his application of his vision of a "merciful church."

But the decision backlashed against him recently when one of the priests who benefited from his clemency was later convicted and sentenced to prison by an Italian criminal court for sexually abusing children as young as 12, according to ABC News.

Church officials and canon lawyers who spoke with the Associated Press in anonymity said that Francis overruled advice given to him by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the case of two priests found guilty of sexual abuse of children. Instead of having them defrocked for the offenses, he allowed them to be punished by a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.

For instance, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found Reverend Mauro Inzoli guilty of sexually abusing young boys in 2012 and ordered that he should be defrocked. But after Inzoli appealed in 2014, Francis reduced the punishment from defrocking to a lifetime of penance and prayer. A Vatican spokesperson defended the decision, saying that abusive priests were also removed from public ministry.

Specifically, Inzoli was prohibited from celebrating Mass in public or serving near children. He was also barred from his diocese and ordered to undergo five years of psychotherapy, according to the Daily Mail.

But Inzoli was later convicted by a criminal court in Italy of sex crimes against five children as young as 12 and sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. Following his conviction, the Vatican, apparently embarrassed by the court decision, instituted a second canonical trial claiming that new evidence had since emerged against Inzoli, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Church officials reportedly revealed that Inzoli and some other priests had their punishments reduced after they approached Pope Francis through some influential friends who cited Francis's own words about the church tempering justice with mercy.

But the application of Pope Francis's views about mercy in the case of pedophile priests did not go down well with many, including some senior members of the church hierarchy and abuse survivors, such as Marie Collins, a member of Pope Francis's sex-abuse advisory commission.

Pope Francis's critics expressed dismay at his decisions, pointing out that his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, defrocked more than 800 priests during his short reign as pope.

"All who abuse have made a conscious decision to do so," Collins said. "Even those who are pedophiles, experts will tell you, are still responsible for their actions. They can resist their inclinations."

Collins was apparently reacting to Francis's comment in the past that pedophile priests were suffering from a "disease," implying that they were not entirely responsible for their actions.

But some within the church have defended Francis's decisions, saying that defrocking pedophile priests could expose society to dangers because once the priests are defrocked they go outside the control of the church. But the church is able to monitor and supervise them by placing them under severely restricted ministry so that they have no contact with children.

But Collins insisted that regardless of the excuses, cutting the penalties for pedophile priests sends the wrong message to other abusers and their victims.

"While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important," Collins said. "If there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse."

But Vatican spokesperson, Greg Burke, said that Pope Francis's vision of "church mercy," and its application to "even those who are found guilty of heinous crimes," did not amount to condoning the crime because they were all removed from ministry, although they were not defrocked.

Burke also pointed out that despite having granted mercy to some offenders, Pope Francis ordered the dismissal of three officials of Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two of the officials worked with the section that handles sex abuse cases, and one was the head of the section, according to officials who spoke with AP.

"The speed with which cases are handled is a serious matter and the Holy Father continues to encourage improvements in this area," Burke told AP.

"The Holy Father understands that many victims and survivors can find any sign of mercy in this area difficult, but he knows that the Gospel message of mercy is ultimately a source of powerful healing and of grace," Burke said.

Francis is not the first pope to come under criticism for allegedly failing to respond adequately to sex abuse cases. Pope John Paul II came under similar criticism until he declared in 2002 that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life" for priests who victimize children.

[Featured Image by Gregorio Borgia/AP Images]