During this holiest of Christian seasons, who could ignore the latest statements of Pope Francis about the festering child sex abuse scandal within his church? In a Christmas address, he spoke of priests who are “ready to devour innocent souls.”

He declared, “To those who abuse minors, I would say this: Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice.”

Some saw the pope’s words as stern and definitive. I saw them as a public relations move and a mealy mouthed response to criminals who have been protected by the Catholic Church for way too long. Does the pope truly think offending priests are going to suddenly march themselves down to the closest cop shop and confess everything? Get real.

As Anne Doyle of BishopAccountablilty.org (a group that tracks clergy sex abuse cases) put it, “In commanding child molesters to turn themselves in, Francis is pretending. He’s pretending that sick men can suddenly see the light.”

Priestly sex crimes against children are documented to have occurred for countless decades. Prosecutors in the U.S. and countries around the world have unmasked the felonious behavior of innumerable so-called “shepherds of Christ.” Yet victims are still disbelieved or simply ignored by the very church in which they worshipped.

Naturally, the Vatican isn’t asking for suggestions. But I’ve got some for the pope, if he’s interested in slowing America’s 60-year slide in Catholic Church attendance.

Instead of shipping off predatory pedophilic priests to far-flung retreats in, say, New Mexico or Michigan (only to shuffle them off to other unsuspecting parishes after their “self-reflection”), how about he orders his cardinals, archbishops and bishops to gather up all the known clergy sinners and turn them in to authorities? That would finally put the imprimatur of the church on the right side of this tragedy.

Or instead of leaving it up to church officials who, over the years, have proved to be more loyal to the Vatican than to the flock, the pope could extend an open invitation to state prosecutors to visit their local diocese for a look-see inside those secret files the church keeps.

The latest shocker came this month when the attorney general of Illinois issued a scandalous report concluding that the church systematically hid the extent of child sex abuse allegations there. The church had publicly identified 185 accused priests when, in fact, there were allegations against 690. Who believes the names of nearly 500 priests were accidentaly omitted? That’s right; no one does. It follows a centuries-long pattern of secrecy surrounding this horrendous violation of faith.

A few months ago, the depth of church duplicity was revealed in Pennsylvania after a grand jury’s scandalous discovery of credible allegations by more than 1,000 identifiable child victims against over 300 priests — and those figures came from the church’s own records! The grand jury believed there are thousands more child victims whose records were lost or who were simply afraid to come forward.

We should be perpetually outraged.

I am not a practicing Catholic, although I dabbled in the religion and sent my daughter to Catholic schools. I shudder to think of what happened to the dollars I dropped into the collection plate. Among the humongous settlements the church has entered just here in the U.S. are the following: $858 million paid out by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of San Diego; $85 million paid by the Archdiocese of Boston; $45 million from the Diocese of Spokane, Washington; $22 million by the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona; and the list goes on and on, from Alaska to South Carolina. There have been about a dozen bankruptcy filings, the latest being the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico. That followed the bankruptcy lead of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico, which was first ordered to pay out $21 million to child sex abuse victims.

Close to a dozen top U.S. clergy, including cardinals, archbishops and bishops, has resigned. And still the pope seems paralyzed to clean up his defiled house.

The credibility of the Catholic Church, perhaps even its continued existence, depends on what Pope Francis does next. If the church is to survive in any meaningful way, Pope Francis needs to forgo speeches and show the faithful with his actions that he is serious about disinfecting the disease within. If parishes flounder for a while without their criminal priest, the faithful will understand. If the pope asks for help while he eliminates predators, laypersons among the 50 million-plus Catholic Americans will surely fill the gap.

2019 is the year to slay the demon that thrives within this church once and for all.

Website: www.DianeDimond.com