The Dispatch: More from CWR...

A crisis of leadership? Francis’ defenders call for reform on sex abuse

For even his staunch supporters, Francis’ moral authority hangs in the balance.

Pope Francis passes news photographers during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Christopher R. Altieri 179 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. I pray that it will be as Francis’s fierce defenders say it is.

    But considering how this pope with his circle of advisers has misled the faithful from AL to his dalliance with the Chinese government to his refusal to publicly confirm and support doctrine…

  2. Weird tendency of modern Catholicism is what it does not do. There should have been a major Synod called in Rome after 90%+ rejected Humanae Vitae. There was nothing….nor were major theologian dissenters censured in their writing….Rahner and Haring. Less than major figures were dechaired from teaching…Curran ( on pan laxism ) and Kung ( on diverse areas probably…but explicitly on not believing in infallibility ).
    There should have been a major synod called to examine this entire clergy sex scandal in diverse areas e.g. why were the Diocesan newspapers reporting nothing for decades on this crime area but instead were reporting all happy news…Fr. Smith’s 30th anniversary in the priesthood. Nothing was called….but we heard loud calls for the new evangelisation…as though we were whistling past the graveyard. How do you evangelize toward a Church which doesn’t know how many priests right now are safe for children to be with in a room alone? We need a consultancy firm to come in and point out these anomalies because paid Catholic experts won’t do a torched earth campaign. Major Synods should be called for major problems….often we whistle past the graveyard instead…and act as though it will pass.

  3. Altieri’s argument is well made but we’re well beyond the point of rational analysis as to the whys and repercussions. Ambivalence on homosexuality brought to the forefront with Pope Francis by the Barros case and eventual assignment under pressure for Bishop Scicluna to investigate leans toward willingness by the Pontiff to reconsider the homosexual issue in the context of a new vision of the Church accepting persons where they are. Without the demand of conversion. There are many studies that show Homosexuals have a predilection for younger males not necessarily children though even there we don’t have all the research. Married priests is clearly not the answer to this major Church issue. We have married men both Catholic laymen and Protestant clerics who abuse boys. Priests are called to emulate Christ in totality. The issue is moral and the solution must be consistent with the Gospels and Apostolic Tradition. There is no place in the priesthood for men with same sex attraction. The Major barrier to solving the problem is a Pontiff and many in the hierarchy who favor accommodation of homosexuality as a form of natural sexual expression. If Cardinal Marx is permitted to favor “blessing” homosexual union, the controversy is not simply German. There are proponents here in the US among hierarchy. We must thank German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes for calling Cardinal Marx a “blasphemer”. Where are our American Hierarchy? Waiting to see which way the wind will blow. That it the foremost travesty decimating our Church and the loss of so many souls mislead by their silence.

    • A most welcome ‘breach’ of silence is Archbishop Chaput’s recent Fe 7 reprimand of Cardinal Reihard Marx for suggesting the blessing of same sex unions.

  4. Let’s face it – the Catholic Church is in the hands of post-Catholic, disbelieving episcopal clericalists throughout the world, and running colleges and seminaries to destroy Catholic identity. Pope Francis is the candidate of the sex abuse coverup mafia, run by the head Mafiosi Cardinal Danneels, who chose to protect his friend Bishop Vanderweighe, who had raped a boy who was his own nephew.

    This is reality…and yes…it stinks…almost everywhere in the Church. Less than 11 years after the sex abuse crisis emerged, the abberosexualist mafia were able to engineer their own candidate as Pope.

    A brazen group of clerical careerists, well-formed under 50 years of decadent post-Catholic ideology.

    • It would appear that in the name of inclusiveness that the Church is in the process of creating an in-house church of Satan, where the new evangelization is the evangelization of sin and vice.

  5. I think it’s very clear that Francis has a tin ear on abuse. It couldn’t come at a worse time. The Church has made huge progress in the trenches on this matter throughout this century. And I certainly wish the Catholic press had demanded genuine evidence before destroying some good men’s life in the Church. But the Church itself is held to higher standards than people in a criminal matter. And “covering up” evidence of abuse in defense of the institutional Church is understandable as well as wrong. But Francis is developing a wide range of problems related to abuse. Not only do we have the Barros affair – made much worse by reports in the secular Church that Francis had been informed two years in vivid detail about the Barros problem. Francis has said “show me proof” but didn’t mention that someone did with the support men highly ranked in the Vatican. In most circles, that called a lie. I am just as concerned about the string of accusations directed from several directions at Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras and his protoge Bishop Juan José Pineda. Maradiaga is accused of serious financial abuses and of protecting Pineda over serious abuse charges. Maradiaga is one of the nine Cardinals on the Papal Advisory Councils and one of Francis’ closest associates.
    These matters are not going to go away unless Francis shows finesse I doubt he has. All of these abuse cases deal with homosexual matters. As the new synod is coming up, it’s going to be absolutely impossible for Francis to avoid taking a stand on the Cardinal Marx’s stand (Marx is another member of the council) that priests should be allowed to bless homosexual unions.
    Francis will keep his supporters on the liberal side of the Church – they can line up behind Father Martin. But let’s face it, Francis has been very weak on the pro-life movement, the only initiative associated with the Church that has genuine traction with the young. Overall his record on abuse is miserable – to the point of dishonesty. (Perhaps hypocritical is a better term. As noted above he established a lay-clergy advisory board and let it wither. Francis may be able to dodge problems by not talking about them, but this may not work on abuse and homosexuality.) The idea that the Church is going to make a major change in it’s view of homosexual sex as “disordered” is everywhere and Marx has just brought it to the top burner. The secular press didn’t bother Francis about the dubia, but they will about any move to accommodate the decadent secular view of homosexuality. Selling out the Chinese Church will also not be an “in-house” matter like Amoris Laetitia. So Francis will increasingly be the Pope of the secular West. And he will grow to be scorned by serious Catholics who love the Church and Holy Tradition. Others can decide whether Francis is a heretic. I can say that Francis is a very bad Pope – the worst since men like Leo X that completely botched the Reformation because they were more interested in secular matters. Lay Catholics must oppose this man on every point where he goes wrong – they won’t be hard to find. Francis will not be in Rome forever, but unless the Church is willing to go through a genuine renewal like Trent our Church will follow the Anglicans into oblivion. Ultimately the truth will out. But a crippled Church will not be there to aid the millions of souls being bruised and crushed by 21st century secularism. It’s heart breaking to watch this happen. Frankly I think Francis is, above all, a fool.

  6. Pope Francis’ first reply, which caused him to be rebuked by even his close supporters, was his genuine and honest feeling on the matter. Those who are deceived into believing him to be a truly humble and compassionate pastor, had their eyes opened by this remark. Those who are stunned by his remark are naive. His true colors came out, as they have many times before. If he is the Pope, validly elected from a canonical perspective which is in dispute, then he cannot possibly make a mistake like that. If you were the Pope, honestly, would you have said that? His fan club is blinded by an infantile and permissive ego which wants their ears “tickled” by liberal and contrarian Catholic positions.

  7. The Pope needs to be replaced. The confusion in the hearts and minds of faithful people are so evident now. The smoke is indeed in the Vatican. We will need to call for election of a Pontiff by cardinals who believe the wrong path has been taken. The homosexualists and lay secularists progressives and communists are working to take over the Vatican and hence our Faith. We pray that Our Blessed Lord will bring the right group of people together to clear the disastrous mess. We need to demand a conclave now!

  8. One problem that seems to seldom be addressed is whether a person’s accusation is, in fact, false. Sexual abuse of young males–especially in the just pre- to just-post adolescent age range–has certainly been a deep-seated problem in the 20th Century Church (especially in the 2nd half of that century). However, accusation does not equate to proof of guilt. I have seen priests’ names tarred due to one isolated accusation, the truth of which can never be ascertained. The Church, of course, needs serious reform in its seminaries and in the criteria used to evaluate candidates for the priesthood. Unfortunately, I see no possibility for that happening as long as the Church remains vulnerable to the influence of the degradation of moral values we see in Western society at large.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.