During his nearly five-year pontificate, Pope Francis has been profoundly challenging to Christians of all stripes, issuing calls for a radical commitment to the Gospel that have earned him respect and admiration across social and cultural divides, even as they have made him a polarizing figure among persons on different ends of the political spectrum.
From a media perspective, Francis has also been good for a story: unpredictable, often quotable, given to gestures that generate sympathetic “buzz.” But his recent accusations of calumny against victims of disgraced Chilean priest Fernando Karadima have provoked scrutiny from mainstream media outlets, and have precipitated what even some of the Pontiff’s greatest defenders consider a crisis of leadership.
Francis has said many of the right things about clerical sex abuse scandals. In a letter dated February 2, 2015, addressed to the world’s bishops and religious superiors and explaining the rationale behind his decision to create a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis wrote, “[E]verything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.” He went on to say, “Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children. They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home.” The Holy Father explained that the protection of children must be the capital concern of pastors, everywhere and at all times. “Priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors,” Francis said.
The fact that the man who made such a call, and who has shown so much sensitivity to victims in his many personal encounters with them, has repeatedly accused of slander those victims who allege misconduct by Bishop Barros of Osorno has been a cause of disappointment, grief, and consternation, even and especially among persons who take a generally favorable view of the Holy Father and his record of leadership.
“It is stunning,” Professor Charles Camosy of Fordham University told Catholic World Report, “and seemingly so unlike him.”
Camosy—a theologian who is at present writing a book on Pope Francis—went on to say, “Normally, [Pope Francis] is quite good about being concerned with the most vulnerable in a particular context. Here, however, there seems to be something else at work.”
Asked for his estimation of the gravity of the crisis, Camosy responded, “If something is not done soon, his leadership is in serious trouble. And I say this as a lover of Pope Francis. Given what we know now, and having learned from our past mistakes, one cannot have this kind of reaction to sex abuse allegations and maintain moral authority. At least in the US context.”
Camosy said he thinks at the very least “an immediate retraction and even deeper apology” are in order. “Then a commitment to meet with the victims and their families personally.”
Rome-based theologian and ecumenist A.J. Boyd takes a somewhat different view.
“My impression of Pope Francis’ leadership is not generally affected by news media, but by his words and actions, his welcome efforts to both continue reforms started by Pope Benedict (such as financial reforms in the Vatican) and more broadly reforms of the Curia and the episcopate in continuity with the direction of the [Second Vatican] Council,” Boyd told CWR. “In that respect, he has improved upon his immediate predecessor’s response to the abuse crisis in that he has addressed one of the core, systemic issues head on: clericalism.”
“Just as Pope Benedict far surpassed John Paul II in addressing [the clerical sex abuse crisis] by taking tough action on the abuser priests, Francis has continued and surpassed Benedict,” Boyd said. “Where all three have thus far failed is in demonstrating clearly, transparently, and publicly that it is above all the bishops who must be held accountable; that the cover-up of abuse is as bad if not worse than the abuse itself; and that the systems that allowed abuser priests to continue—rooted in clericalism that they are—are being dismantled.”
“The light I have seen in recent days has been that Francis acted quickly and decisively in admitting the possibility of his error and sending [Archbishop Charles] Scicluna to investigate,” Boyd went on to say. “It shows he is listening now, at least, and willing to act to correct mistakes, and has no problem admitting them when shown that he has made them. I strongly suspect a public admission of his mistakes in this affair will not be long in coming, a metanoia, turning away from mistaken accusations of calumny.”
Günther Simmermacher, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s leading Catholic weekly, the Southern Cross, told CWR the Bishop Barros story has left him disappointed and perplexed, with several questions that need answering.
“I’m disappointed that the good game the Pope has talked about the abuse crisis has not translated into sufficiently concrete or, indeed, wise action,” Simmermacher said. “I don’t think that Pope Francis has been duplicitous or dishonest, but he certainly made a big error in judgment.”
Simmermacher went on to say the sense of uncertainty and disorientation at the developments is understandable and too familiar. “I suppose anybody who has had contact with clergy is familiar with those feelings of doubt and denial when a priest we like and respect is embroiled in scandal,” he said. “I expect that, rather than indifference to the victims of abuse, this is the source of the Pope Francis’ gross misjudgment—and perhaps a bit of pride as well. That’s where I see the source of the intemperate language he used. I don’t think he was acting in bad faith. But for the world to see, it looks like he was.”
Asked how the developments will affect Pope Francis’ ability to provide moral leadership, Simmermacher said, “The Barros case will feature in Pope Francis’ obituary, but it won’t define his papacy. I don’t think that incident, in itself, discredits or otherwise undermines Francis’ moral leadership of the Church any more than St. John Paul II’s friendship with the truly depraved Marcial Maciel stains the treasures of that pope’s legacy.”
Simmermacher went on to say he is concerned the Barros case may be exploited to derail Pope Francis’ broader reform efforts.
“My concern is that the critics of Pope Francis might use the Barros case as a proxy to undermine the Holy Father and his program of reform,” he said. “To do so would be reckless and dishonest. And it would be immensely disrespectful to those affected by clerical abuse to do so. If the crisis is used to deepen divisions, than that is a dangerous game.”
The crisis has also affected perceptions in the broader Christian community.
Father Jonathan Jong is a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Oxford. He is also a research fellow in psychology at Coventry University, and research associate in anthropology at Oxford University. He told Catholic World Report his view—from the outside looking in, as it were—is one of disappointment, but not surprise.
“Pope Francis has been consistently disappointing on this issue, promising strong action and zero tolerance, with little evidence of fulfilling them.” He went on to say, “More telling than public outrage over any given case are the recent resignations of Marie Collins and Peter Saunders from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors: these two abuse survivors had hoped to work with a repentant Church willing to reform, and were met instead with defensiveness and denial.”
At bottom, the question for Jong is one of the ability of all Christians to give credible witness to the Gospel.
“This issue, above others, threatens any shred of the Church’s moral witness in the world,” he said. “Unless there is proof—to echo the Pope’s own words—that the Church is repentant and reforming, it is not just the Pope’s ability to provide moral leadership that is at stake, it is the whole Church’s.”
He said there are lessons to be learned from broader society with regard to the disastrous effects of denial, and the painful but necessary processes that must accompany the effort of learning how to listen.
“Whatever one makes of the #metoo campaign, the Church must at least learn from it that victims and survivors are to be listened to, not with a hermeneutic of suspicion, but with one of mercy.”