Anyone who is praising the announcement on Wednesday of Pope Francis’ convocation of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences for a meeting in February on clerical sex abuse has not been paying attention.
For one thing, the sexual abuse of minors by clerics is only the peculiarly gruesome tip of an ocean-tipping iceberg; the systematic coverup of abuse is the level just beginning to be brought to the surface — the depth and extent of rot in clerical culture, high and low, is what we have yet to fathom — and although the Press Office statement that accompanied the announcement — from the “Council of Nine” cardinals — of the February meeting did make mention of “vulnerable adults”, the whole thing reads as pre-packaged and contrived.
For another, the wording of the announcement strongly suggests that the C9 cardinals had to persuade Pope Francis of the need to do something—anything—to address the issue. “The Holy Father, Francis, having heard the Council of Cardinals, has decided to convoke a reunion with the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of the Catholic Church, on the theme of ‘protection of minors,’” the statement reads. That’s the way—in curialese—to tell people you had to twist the boss’s arm to get what you got.
Whatever else it might be, another meeting of episcopal minds to think through and talk about the issue cannot be any real part of a serious address of this very urgently pressing crisis.
Pope Francis, in any case, appears to have a very different view of the Church’s circumstances and their cause. He claimed on Tuesday that the bishops are the victims of a diabolical plot, to which the faithful are at best unwitting accomplices.
“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” he said on Tuesday morning at Mass in the Casa Santa Marta. “True, we are all sinners, we bishops,” Francis went on to say. “[The Great Accuser] tries to uncover [our] sins, so they are visible, in order to scandalize the people.”
One would think that, after all we’ve been through in the past eight months—not to mention the last 16 years and more—the proposition that people have a right to know the character and conduct of bishops would not be too controversial.
Again, Pope Francis apparently has a different idea.
In one sense, he’s quite right. The devil prowls the earth like a roaring lion, 1 Peter 5:8 tells us, seeking souls to devour. We also know the devil likes the taste of bishop. The problem is that the bishops who have winked at moral turpitude and covered for the wickedness of too many clerics over too many decades have betrayed the trust of the people—including priests—the souls of whom God has entrusted to their care.
Pope Francis appears genuinely to believe that airing bishops’ dirty laundry is not the right thing to do, because God chose them, and doing so will compromise their mission-effectiveness. That is a large part of the attitude that got us to this point in the first place. “I was part of the problem,” the abuse survivor and victim-advocate, Juan Carlos Cruz, has quoted Francis as having said after the Chilean theatre of the global crisis exploded in his face. If that was a moment of clarity for Pope Francis, it is now apparent that he has recovered from it. The tendency toward trolling and gaslighting the faithful, who are fed up with the corruption, incompetence, tone-deafness, and plain old blindness and deafness of the bishops, is certainly “part of the problem.”
If this assessment is inaccurate, Francis needs to prove it so in deed.
Does the Church have enemies? Yes. Have those enemies used the abuse crisis as a club with which to beat the Church? Yes. They shall continue to do so. The ineluctable fact of the matter is that the hierarchical leaders of the Church are largely responsible for fashioning the weapon and putting it into her enemies’ hands.
The ultimate goal in all this must be moral recrudescence in the whole Church, especially in the ranks of clerical and hierarchical leadership. The cultural crisis in the Church is complicated, however, by the admixture—inevitable, this side of the celestial Jerusalem—of the general ills of the age.
In our age, enlightened and democratic as it is, we do not often hear talk of the sin of prosopolempsia—literally, “face-taking”—which is usually rendered “respect of persons.” “What,” one might ask, “is wrong with respecting persons?” To be a “respecter of persons” in the possibly sinful sense means, in essence, to deal with people according to their social rank, prestige, or perceived standing in a community, rather than according to the quality of their character. It might help to think of it as being a respecter of someone’s persona—and it is dangerous, even when the persona to which one is at risk of standing in thrall is that of a bishop, especially the Bishop of Rome.
The great cautionary tale in this regard is Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In that story, everyone sees what there is—and is not—to see, but only a child without the worldly wit to know the stakes is capable of saying what there is to say. “Be like the child,” is the facile takeaway. It is not wrong, as far as it goes, but it misses the point of what is, again, a cautionary tale. Do not be like everyone else in the story, from the emperor on down: unable to say, because one is unwilling to admit — because of what the admission would say about oneself — that the emperor is naked as the day he was born.