Papal fallibility25 January 2017 | by Christopher Lamb | Comments: 0 A new book has reinforced persistent criticism that Pope Francis is unwilling or unable to take decisive action against priests who abuse children. Some claim he has a blind spot on the issue, others that he is frustrated by resistance within the Vatican
Francis has boosted the image of Catholicism around the world. Opinion polls repeatedly show that the Pope has won the hearts and minds not just of Catholics but of other Christians and people of other religions or none. Yet some argue he has a blind spot. His usual sure-footedness seems lacking when it comes to dealing with the greatest scandal to have hit the Church since the Reformation.
His judgement in certain individual cases seems baffling. He appointed the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros two years ago despite claims that Barros had covered up abuse; he softened a sentence against the abusive Italian priest Mauro Inzoli; and he is accused of doing little for those abused by a priest at a school for the deaf in Argentina after they wrote to him to ask for help. Then there is the British abuse survivor Peter Saunders, appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Last year, he took “leave of absence” in apparent frustration over the slow pace of change. It all prompts the question, on the abuse of children by Catholic priests and the systematic cover-up of the scandal by the Church for decades: does Francis “get it”?
“Sadly, in my opinion, no, he doesn’t get it,” Saunders told me, adding that he is worried about the input from survivors on the papal commission and whether their voices are being heard in Rome.
All this and more is highlighted in a new book by the Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, entitled Lussuria (Lust). He argues that Pope Francis has done little to deliver concrete change and reveals that roughly 1,200 abuse cases have been submitted to the Vatican since his election, a similar number to the last two years of Benedict XVI’s papacy. Fittipaldi claims the institutional cover-up has continued.
Against this, the Pope’s defenders say significant progress has been made and that, crucially, he has shown a willingness to learn and change. Nor has he ever pretended to be perfect. “I make my blunders from time to time,” Francis admitted in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País last weekend.
There is also evidence of a desire to conduct deep-seated reforms. Francis set up the first papal safeguarding commission; he has called for zero tolerance of abuse and enacted a law making it easier to remove bishops found guilty of covering up. Those inside the commission argue that he talks tough and means tough – but that resistance to reform is coming from inside the Vatican, fed by internal politics, old attitudes and by personal opposition to the Pope. “What Francis has said is a true reflection of what he feels about abuse,” says Marie Collins, an Irish survivor who sits on the papal commission. “But I do believe there are elements in the Vatican thinking in the old way and who are not on board. That is very dispiriting in 2017.”
The scandal of abuse is not just the terrible fact that priests abused children but that clerical authorities covered up and mishandled cases, putting the interests of institutions ahead of the safety of children. While some in Rome initially thought it was solely an Irish-American problem, as the scandal spiralled it became clear that it was a pandemic infecting Catholicism in every part of the globe.
“It is alarming to discover that the sexual abuse of minors has been committed in every corner and in each country of the Church,” says Hans Zollner, a no-nonsense German Jesuit priest and member of the papal commission, who runs a centre for child protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “With this discovery, there is the awareness that certain factors pertaining to the organisation of the Church can be part of the problem.”
While frank about the shortcomings of the Church, Zollner is critical of what Fittipaldi has written about the safeguarding commission. “His book abounds in mistakes, inaccuracies and conjectures,” Zollner told the German Catholic news agency, KNA. “It only takes into account what was done up to 2014 or early 2015, and not since then.”
For example, while Fittipaldi had accused the commission of holding only three meetings, in fact it had met eight times – and its working groups had met on dozens of occasions. It had also set up numerous workshops worldwide. Furthermore, Francis had taken up several of the commission’s suggestions, such as sanctioning bishops who had failed to combat sexual abuse.
Part of Francis’ difficulty has been his lack of exposure to the abuse crisis – certainly compared to someone like Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who took over in Boston following the exposure of a cover-up of sexual crimes against children by priests.
Cardinal O’Malley, a low-key Capuchin friar, has been Francis’ point man on abuse: he leads the safeguarding commission and has just been appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s central clearing house for abuse cases. A fluent Spanish speaker, he sits on the Pope’s council of nine cardinal advisers, the C9. The two men meet regularly.
“The Pope has learned a great deal,” says Collins. “No one starts out fully understanding everything.” While acknowledging that some of Francis’ decisions may have been “hard to understand”, she stresses that he has adopted every proposal that the safeguarding commission has recommended. The commission is also defended by another British member, Baroness (Sheila) Hollins, who wrote to The Guardian to describe its “global educational and policy work” as intense and productive.
Where the Pope is more vulnerable to criticism is over his adoption of a case-by-case approach to abuse rather than a normative, policy-based one. One of the painful lessons of recent years has been the need for consistent protocols in dealing with priests accused of abuse. Matters are further complicated by his central message of mercy – no sin, however appalling, is beyond God’s forgiveness. When it comes to the abuse of children, this central teaching must be informed by an understanding of the compulsive nature of abusive behaviour.
In the case of Inzoli, Francis was allegedly lobbied by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio. He later recommended that the abusive priest retire to a life of “humility and prayer” and be given a restricted ministry. Meanwhile, civil authorities investigated Inzoli and he was found guilty last year. Sources say Coccopalmerio no longer has the ear of Francis, and that the Pope is toughening his approach. “He may not always get it right and I’m sure he’s made mistakes, but basically he has got the right attitude,” says Collins.
Her voice carries weight among both survivors and church authorities. At 13, she was raped by the chaplain at a Catholic hospital in Dublin where she was a patient. She has talked about the terrible damage she suffered; how she felt the abuse was her fault, how she was weighed down with guilt and lost her confidence.
One area where things have moved slowly has been the commission’s recommendation for a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for covering up abuse. It was to have been part of the CDF, which handles abuse cases, but the plan stalled. Eventually, the Pope issued a directive that made it easier to remove negligent bishops. But this will come under other Vatican departments, not the CDF.
There was also the saga involving Mgr Tony Anatrella, a French priest and psychotherapist who told newly ordained bishops at a Vatican training conference last year that they were not mandated to report abuse to the civil authorities, a position that runs counter to many bishops’ safeguarding policies. It was all the more galling for abuse survivors that the papal safeguarding commission had offered to run this part of the course but had been turned down. This year, they have been invited to speak.
As things stand, every Bishops’ Conference is required to have safeguarding policies, with the papal commission on hand to design or improve them. Despite this, there are still local Churches in developing countries that have not adopted anti-abuse guidelines. It remains possible for priests facing abuse allegations to move from country to country. Even in Italy, the bishops’ safeguarding guidelines impose only a moral, not a legal, obligation to report allegations. Zollner believes there must be a central authority on the issue. But this, too, could challenge the instincts of Francis, who has spoken often of the need to devolve power from Rome to local Churches.
The scandal of clerical sex abuse reveals failings across the entire church leadership system. The need for humility, vigilance and reforms are as urgent as ever. Francis has shown a willingness to listen and act, but there is still much to do.
Additional material by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, who writes for The Tablet from Vienna.