“To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice.” Those were the words upon which reporters rightly seized, and from which headline writers took to craft their hooks, when Pope Francis delivered his annual “state of the Church” address to senior officials of the Roman Curia on Friday.
The words echoed Pope St. John Paul II’s passionate denunciation of organized criminals delivered on May 9th, 1993. “In the name of the crucified and risen Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life,” Pope John Paul II intoned in remarks to the faithful gathered in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, “be converted, one day the judgment of God will come!”
One significant difference is that John Paul II’s remarks were extemporaneous, turgid with genuine ire, delivered in the midst of a mafia terror campaign that had already claimed the lives of two high-profile anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and would see more attacks later that same year in Rome, Florence, and Milan. Pope Francis’s remarks two days ago were studied, calculated, scripted. More to the point, Francis is rather better positioned to assist the clerics guilty of abuse in coming to face human justice, than was his sainted predecessor to help members of la cosa nostra come into the reach of the same.
If Francis had given Friday’s speech — at least that section of it — in 2013, and followed it with concrete action taken swiftly and transparently, things might be different. Then again, he did say similar things in 2013. “Act decisively as far as cases of sexual abuse are concerned,” Pope Francis urged then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, “promoting, above all, measures to protect minors, help for those who have suffered such violence in the past [and] the necessary procedures against those who are guilty.”
Almost exactly a year later, in off-the-cuff remarks, Francis told the International Catholic Child Bureau, BICE, “I feel compelled to personally assume all the evil which some priests — really quite a number, but not in proportion to the total number — to assume the burden myself and to ask for forgiveness for the harm they have done for having sexually abused children.”
“The Church is aware of this damage,” Pope Francis continued. “It is a personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward concerning the treatment of this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed,” he said. “On the contrary, I believe that we have to be very strong. There is no messing around when it comes to children!”
In 2015, in Philadelphia, Pope Francis said, “The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors may no longer be kept secret.” Francis went on to renew his promises of zealous watchfulness. “I commit myself to ensuring that the Church makes every effort to protect minors and I promise that those responsible will be held to account,” he said.
2015 was also the year Pope Francis appointed Bishop Juan Barros to lead the Diocese of Osorno, Chile, against the counsel of the Chilean bishops and over the objections of the faithful, who suffered as a result of his obstinacy. “[The Church in] Osorno suffers, because she is stupid,” Pope Francis explained to pilgrims on the sidelines of a General Audience in May of that year.
In 2016, Pope Francis made it clear that the most vocal member of his Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Australian abuse survivor and victim-advocate, Peter Saunders, would not be welcome on the body anymore. Stories like the one by papal biographer Paul Vallely in The Guardian under the headline, “Is the pope serious about confronting child abuse?” began to appear.
In 2017, frustrated with its lack of progress, another abuse survivor, Ireland’s Marie Collins, quit the Commission for the Protection of Minors. It became apparent that the special court Pope Francis had established to prosecute wayward and negligent bishops and religious superiors would not be sitting, after all.
A mere rehearsal of events in 2018 would run the length of a book.
Hearing Pope Francis say what he said last Friday, at the end of a week in which we learned the extent of his own Jesuit order’s commitment to policies of foisting abusers on Native American populations and hiding abusers on a college campus (that last a policy of which Francis’s hand-picked adviser and one of the principal organizers for the upcoming February meeting on child protection, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, knew and apparently failed to mention to his successor in his former see of Spokane): as well as of the egregious failure of Church leadership in Illinois to report the names of some five hundred accused priests, or even investigate many of the claims against them; on the very day we heard news of criticism from other of the Pope’s closest collaborators over an appeals panel Francis established, which has reduced penalties imposed on priests found guilty of sexual abuse at canonical trial in the first instance; the words fall rather flat.
That so many miscarriages were a matter of policy makes other of Pope Francis’s protestations in the “state of the Church” speech Friday simply incredible.
“It is undeniable,” Pope Francis said, “that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due.” Some, certainly, of the thousands of claims later deemed credible, were ones Church leaders mishandled out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness.
Even then, however, Church leaders did not simply treat cases without the seriousness and promptness they were due. Bishops actively sought to protect themselves and their priests — resorting even to intimidation, victim-blaming, and character-assassination. When they knew a man was guilty, they moved him, hid him, did almost anything to shield him from public authority and themselves from public scrutiny.
That self-regard and concern for “the institution” continues, poisonously, in the culture of the Church’s hierarchical leadership, along with a tendency to tout their achievements in finally taking measures to prevent evils they never should have allowed to occur in the first place. “The Charter is working,” the U.S. bishops tell us, time and again. Except when it doesn’t. Those the charter is not designed to protect are on their own. Ask Bishop Malone, in Buffalo. Ask the sheep of his flock. Ask a seminarian, if you can find one of the handful willing to talk.
“Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes,” Pope Francis also said.“The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case,” Pope Francis promised. He said this, with a straight face, the very week it came to light that a priest with settled allegations against him had been saying Mass in New York and San Diego until the story of Archdiocesan payouts to his alleged victims was about to break.
This was the same week we learned of an auxiliary bishop appointed during the reign of Pope St. John Paul II (and during the tenure of the notorious Archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony). It turns out Bishop Alexander Salazar had served for thirteen years with Vatican-imposed “restrictions” on his ministry as a result of the allegations against him. If Francis thinks accepting Salazar’s resignation after the LA archdiocesan review board found the allegation credible is sufficient proof of earnest, he is mistaken.
The hard fact is, Pope Francis’s talk is just that: talk. There has been a lot of it. There has been enough of it.
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!