It was the sort of headline which only appears in the nightmares of Vatican press officers. “Pope quietly trims sanctions for paedophile priests,” Associated Press reported last week.

The reality was that Francis had overruled several recommendations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with disciplining priests guilty of abuse. Instead of being laicised, these priests were sentenced to a lifetime of prayer and penance, and were merely removed from active ministry.

“In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the Pope’s own words about mercy in their petitions,” said the report.

One of the troubling cases which has come to light is that of Fr Mauro Inzoli, whose punishment under canon law was reduced by the Pope, but who was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for sex abuse of children as young as 12.

The Pope’s approach to offending priests is arguably not surprising, given that he has made mercy the focus of his pontificate. But it can seem inconsistent with his severe statements on the need to combat child abuse. On the feast of the Holy Innocents in December, Francis wrote to bishops across the world urging them to “adhere, clearly and faithfully, to ‘zero tolerance’” of sexual abuse of children.

The Pope’s defenders have pointed out that assigning an abuser to a life of prayer and penance does not pose any danger to children and can enable the Church to continue monitoring the culprit’s movements and behaviour.

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