Pope Francis says he perceives “inflated expectations” for the February 21-24 meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences at the Vatican, on child protection. A good deal of ink has already been spilt in efforts to explain the provenance of those expectations – in a word, Francis’ own acts of governance – and there’s no point rehashing them here.
The short version is that Pope Francis raised the stakes, and now Francis is trying to manage expectations.
That is what it is, but it isn’t the only thing Pope Francis did – or tried to do – with his remarks to journalists on the global crisis of abuse and cover-up while en route to Rome from Panama after concluding World Youth Day celebrations.
For example, Pope Francis also managed to plant a mention of “Metropolitan” — perhaps telegraphing his preference for something very much akin to a proposal variously described as “Wuerl’s Plan,” the “Cupich Plan,” or the “Wuerl-Cupich Plan” when it does come to actual reform measures.
There was also a sizable dose of edulcorated whataboutery thrown in for measure.
“[T]he problem of abuse will continue,” Pope Francis said. “It’s a human problem, but human everywhere.” He went on to cite a statistic he says he read “the other day” saying only half of all abuse anywhere is ever reported, and only 20 percent of those reports are given any sort of heed, and of that 20 percent, only 5 percent is ever condemned. “Terrible. Terrible,” he added.
“It’s a human tragedy and we need to become aware,” Pope Francis went on to say. “Also us, resolving the problem in the Church, but becoming aware will help to resolve it in society, in the families where shame covers everything, and the victim — in so many others — or in so many other societies. But first, we must become aware, have the protocols (in place) and move forward. This is the thing.”
Pope Francis seems to want to help “society” and “families” deal with the scourge of sexual abuse by raising awareness, even as he does little to discourage the impression he has given to the faithful — and especially the US Catholics about whom he was asked specifically — of making every effort to avoid dealing with the issue root-and-branch within the Church, of which he is the supreme governor.
Pope Francis even joked about how “sneaky” reporter Junno Arocho of the Catholic News Service was in wedging a question about the crisis into the in-flight presser, which Francis apparently wanted to be about something else — anything else.
“During her lunch with a group of young pilgrims,” Arocho began, “a young American girl told us that she had been asked about the pain and indignation of so many Catholics, particularly of the United States, for the crisis of abuse.” Arocho went on to say, “Many American Catholics pray for the Church, but many feel betrayed and downcast after recent reports of abuse and cover-up by some bishops and have lost faith in them.”
“Holiness,” Arocho asked, “what are your expectations or hopes for the meeting in February so that the Church can begin to rebuild trust between the faithful and their bishops?”
Pope Francis responded, “This is sneaky, he [Arocho] left WYD and he arrived here. My compliments. No, but thank you for the question.” Pope Francis’ remark about Arocho “sneaking” in an abuse question was telling. Interim Press Office Director Alessandro Gisotti had asked journalists to keep their questions to the doings in Panama. Arocho didn’t so much leave World Youth Day to ask his question as he used his question to remind the Pope that the crisis was there in Panama, too.
In his answer, Pope Francis explained that the February meeting has two goals: “The idea of this was born in the [C9] because we saw that some bishops did not understand well or did not know what to do or did something good or wrong and we felt the responsibility to give a ‘catechesis,’ [so to speak], on this problem to the episcopal conferences.”
“First,” Pope Francis said, “a catechesis: that we become aware of the tragedy, what is an abused boy, an abused girl. I regularly receive abused people (in audience). I remember one — 40 years without being able to pray. It is terrible, the suffering is terrible. That first, [the bishops] become aware of this.”
Pope Francis went on to say, “Second: that they know what must be done, the procedure, because sometimes the bishop does not know what to do.” The Pope added:
It is something that has grown very strong and has not arrived at all angles, so to speak. And then, let them make general programs, but they will come from all the episcopal conferences: what the bishop must do, what the archbishop who is the metropolitan must do, what the president of the episcopal conference must do. But it must be clear in that — that they are – let’s say it in terms (that are) a little juridical – that there are protocols that are clear.
The bishops have had decades to get their heads around the thing. The thing to do with men in leadership positions who still have trouble getting their heads around how awful the sexual abuse of minors really is is replace them with men who do understand. The real question is how men who don’t know how awful the sexual abuse of minors is ever got into seminary in the first place.
Right from the beginning of this latest chapter of the crisis — call it the “episcopal” phase — Pope Francis has shown himself reluctant to remove such men. On return from Lima in January of last year, he said, “The case of [Bishop Juan] Barros [olim of Osorno] was studied, it was re-studied, and there is no evidence. That is what I wanted to say. I have no evidence to condemn. And if I were to condemn without evidence or without moral certainty, I would commit the crime of a bad judge.”
We know how that turned out.
Thing is, Pope Francis’ hang-up about being a “bad judge” is entirely misplaced. There was no reason – no good one, at any rate – to make Barros bishop of Osorno in the first place. When it comes to any bishop’s removal at this stage in the crisis, there is no necessary reason for it to be a juridical decision.
There is no reason — again, no good reason, at any rate — not to say to a man like Richard Malone in Buffalo, that His Excellency’s performance in the job has been poor, unacceptably poor for too long, in these particulars X, Y, and Z, and that His Excellency needs to resign for the good of the Church.
There’s a way to convey the message clearly — to say, in essence: There’s the easy way and there’s the hard way, but one way or another Bishop So-and-So is not going to be the Bishop of Such-and-Such any longer.
The next step is to tell people why.
Pope Francis has proven his willingness to demand resignations of prelates who are careless with money. He has removed bishops who are heavy-handed with the clergy in their charge. He has treated those cases as what they are: personnel matters. He hasn’t been perfect in those cases — far from it, really — especially as far as transparency is concerned.
Protocols can help, especially when they are designed to be culture-changers — the sorts of things as make it easier, rather than harder, for clerics of every rank to stand up and do right — but they are no substitute for a real reform effort that gets at the root of the problem, which continues to be the rot in clerical culture, high and low.
Bishops who fail in their mission of oversight insofar as the protection of minors is concerned obviously need to go. So do those who fail to keep appropriate vigil over the moral culture of their clergy generally, and especially those who fail in their duty to foster healthy environments for the formation of new clerics.
Specifically, the reform of clerical culture needs to be ordered to the recovery of a sense of uprightness: we want men who are stiff-necked in the face not only of wrongdoing but of idiocy; patient with sinners but intolerant of wickedness; zealous for the Gospel and resigned — eyes wide open — to the lasting and inevitable effects of Original Sin this side of the celestial Jerusalem.
We want men who understand viscerally that the only way to save the institution is through perfect service to the faithful and tireless watchfulness over their weal.
That is where the real problem is — or a big part of it, at any rate — and that is why the February meeting is, I think, destined to fail: it is fighting the wrong battle.
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