TALLINN, Estonia — Pope Francis conceded Tuesday that priestly sex abuse scandals are outraging the Catholic faithful and driving them away, and said the church must change its ways if it wants to keep future generations.
Francis referred directly to the crisis convulsing his papacy on the fourth and final day of his Baltic pilgrimage, which coincided with the release of a devastating new report into decades of sex abuse and cover-ups in Germany.
Francis told young people in Estonia, considered one of the least religious countries in the world, that he knew many felt the church had nothing to offer them and simply doesn’t understand the problems of young adults today.
“They are outraged by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them,” he told Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox young people in the Kaarli Lutheran Church in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
The pope said the Catholic Church wants to respond to those complaints transparently and honestly.
“We ourselves need to be converted,” he said. “We have to realize that, in order to stand by your side, we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.”
It was a very public admission of the impact of the church’s failures in confronting sex abuse scandals, which have roared back to the headlines recently with revelations of abuses and cover-ups in the U.S., Chilean and now German churches.
On Tuesday, the German bishops conference released a report which found that some 3,677 people — more than half of them 13 or younger and nearly a third of them altar boys — were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014.
The report, compiled by university researchers, found evidence that some files were manipulated or destroyed, many cases were not brought to justice and that sometimes abusers were simply moved to other dioceses without congregations being informed about their past.
The abuse scandal, which erupted in Ireland in the 1990s and subsequently in Australia and the U.S., now threatens Francis’ own papacy since his record as cardinal and pope has proven uneven. A former Vatican ambassador has also accused Francis of rehabilitating an American cardinal who slept with seminarians.
Francis has declined to respond to the accusations, and on Tuesday didn’t allow a reporter to finish asking a question about them during his in-flight news conference coming home from Tallinn. The Vatican is expected to respond formally soon.
Francis did, however, suggest that it was unfair to apply contemporary moral standards on the church’s past cover-up since everyone did it at the time.
“You also covered them up at home: When the uncle raped the niece, when the father raped his children. It was covered because it was so shameful,” he said.
He said he wasn’t excusing the church’s cover-up, which he said was evidence of the “corruption” that has so scandalized the faithful. But he said the church has made great strides in fighting abuse.
And Francis said it’s unfair to judge the cover-up with today’s standards in the same way it’s unfair to judge the forced conversion of indigenous peoples during the colonial era or even the use of the death penalty, which the pope has recently decreed cannot be condoned under any circumstance.
Francis’ visit to Tallinn marked the last stop in a four-day pilgrimage that also took him to Lithuania and Latvia. The trip aimed to encourage the Christian faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism, as well as the World War II-era occupation by Nazi Germany.
Francis was warmly welcomed in the region, even if Catholics are only a majority in Lithuania. Estonia only has 6,000 Catholics nationwide, but residents still seemed to welcome Francis’ inclusive message. About 10,000 people flocked to his final Mass in a chilly but sun-soaked Freedom Square near Tallinn’s charming medieval center. It was a blustery day and the wind blew off the pope’s skullcap several times.
“For me, it’s in my heart what I believe, and I think Francis is this kind of ‘papa’ who wants to change,” said Marko Tubli, a Tallinn resident. “A church is not like ‘You must be this way and this way.’ It is more open.”
Upon arriving Tuesday, Francis praised Estonia’s social and economic transformation in the quarter century since the 1991 Soviet collapse. But he warned that a certain “existential ennui” can set in when societies lose their cultural roots and put their faith in technological progress alone.
“One of the evident effects of technocratic societies is a loss of meaning in life and the joy of living,” he said. Interpersonal and intergenerational bonds can be lost, depriving young generations of foundations to build a common future, he said.
Estonia is considered both one of the most tech-advanced countries in Europe and one of the least religious societies in the world. More than half of Estonia’s 1.3 million people profess no religious affiliation. The Lutheran and Russian Orthodox churches count the most followers of those who do.
In her welcoming speech, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid acknowledged that rapid changes taking place amid robust economic growth — something particularly visible in the Baltic nations — shouldn’t mean the “vulnerable among us” are neglected.
She presented Francis with a digital ID card giving foreigners access to dozens of digital services in the Baltic country, ranging from medical services to signing legal contracts and filing taxes. The government says over 37,000 people from dozens of countries have been registered as “e-residents” in Estonia.