Francis on the ropes

   Date: 08-11-2018
Source: The Economist

Clerical sexual-abuse scandals strengthen the pope’s conservative critics
Launched in optimism, Francis’s papacy is bogged down in infighting and scandals

As an fbi agent for 29 years, Philip Scala led the operation that jailed John Gotti of Cosa Nostra and raided an al-Qaeda bomb factory. Mr Scala, now a private investigator, took on Hells Angels, rioting prisoners and Russian mobsters. Next on his list? The cardinals of the Roman Catholic church.

A new lay group, Better Church Governance (bcg), has hired Mr Scala to probe the lives of the 224 men who advise Pope Francis (including their sex lives, if any). His particular focus will be the 124 who, were the pontiff to die tomorrow, would elect his successor. Mr Scala’s team of up to ten investigators will publish their findings on a website, alongside carefully screened information from the public. Philip Nielsen, bcg’s executive director, hopes the website, dubbed the Red Hat Report after the scarlet zucchetti (skullcaps) worn by cardinals, will be online within a month.

Though apparently well funded, the bcg is a tiny fragment of Christianity’s biggest church. Catholicism claims 1.3bn followers and wields vast, global influence. Its report would have seemed unthinkably disrespectful—almost sacrilegious—even a year ago. But in the Catholic world much that was once inconceivable is now transpiring. The Red Hat Report is a sign of how much many Catholics have come to mistrust their leaders and how far some will go to hold them accountable.

The loss of confidence stems from an enduring scandal over the molestation, and sometimes rape, of children by priests. It is unstoppable, since most of the revelations concern wrongdoing years or even decades ago. And it is seemingly inexorable: after the first disclosures in Ireland in the 1990s, the scandal spread through western Europe and North America; it has since reached South America and eastern Europe to assail erstwhile bastions of the faith such as Poland and Chile. In the ten years to 2010, the Vatican sifted through around 3,000 cases dating back to the middle of the previous century. Increasingly, however, attention has shifted to the role of bishops in covering up for clerics, often by posting them to other dioceses where they continued to abuse minors.

The bcg’s founding was inspired by the publication in August of a document in which Archbishop Carlo Viganò, a former papal nuncio (ambassador) in America, accused some of the church’s most powerful men of ignoring repeated warnings that Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal, was a serial seducer of seminarians when he was archbishop of Newark.

Archbishop Viganò said the previous pope, Benedict XVI, had imposed restrictions on Cardinal McCarrick, but that Pope Francis, despite knowing of the cardinal’s behaviour, eased them and made him a trusted adviser. He implied this was because the cardinal had helped Francis become pope in 2013. In an appeal unprecedented in modern times, he called on the pope, whom Catholics believe is chosen with God’s aid and whose pronouncements on some issues are infallible, to quit.

Betrayal of the innocents

Also in August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania accused some 300 priests of molesting more than 1,000 children over seven decades. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the grand jury wrote.

In September the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, told an Italian newspaper, La Verità, there was “almost a sense of panic” in the American church. A Pew Research poll in September found that 62% of American Catholics disapproved of the pope’s handling of the crisis, up from just 46% in January. American Catholics make up a bit more than 5% of the global total. But their church, the fourth-biggest, matters far more than its size suggests. The Vatican needs its dollars, and its media-savvy cardinals often lead Catholic debate and innovation.

After initially refusing to comment on Archbishop Viganò’s claims, Francis has since agreed to convene a global meeting of bishops in February to discuss clerical sex abuse. The Argentine pontiff, who had endeared himself to Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his benign informality and ascetic lifestyle, is on the defensive. “It’s about as serious as it can get,” says Austen Ivereigh, one of Francis’s biographers.

Archbishop Viganò was a controversial figure even before his J’accuse appeared. The so-called Vatileaks scandal in 2012 centred on letters he wrote to Pope Benedict complaining of financial corruption, when he was a high-ranking official in the Vatican City’s government. Theologically conservative, he spectacularly wrong-footed Francis on his visit to America in 2015 by getting him to meet Kim Davis, a clerk in Kentucky jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples.

A two-pronged attack

Vatican officials say the archbishop was called to Rome and rebuked for that. Critics depict him as a man with a grudge because he was not made a cardinal. But his document poses a unique threat to the pope. It embodies the concerns of two groups alarmed at his stewardship: traditionalists of various stripes who resent his reformist agenda; and Catholics dismayed by his handling of clerical sex abuse.

First, the traditionalists. Some of the laity, notably in America, are appalled by Francis’s economic and political ideas, set out in 2013 in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. After the papacy’s long years of hostility to communism, many forgot that Catholic social doctrine opposes capitalism too. They were left aghast by a pope who could write that “an economy of exclusion and inequality…kills”.

In many (but not all) cases Francis’s neo-conservative foes line up with his doctrinal critics, whose wrath was kindled by another papal document, Amoris Laetitia, from 2016. In it Francis tackled the hotly debated issue of a ban preventing divorced Catholics from receiving communion. His critics were incensed not just that he relaxed a ban they thought central to the church’s teaching on marriage, but that he did so in what seemed an underhand way, in a footnote. In the first open sign of mutinous sentiments in parts of the hierarchy, four cardinals put their names to a list of dubia or doubts, challenging Francis to deny that he was twisting settled doctrine.

The affair highlighted a fundamental division among Catholics, which centres on the buzzwords “clarity” and “accompaniment”. Many, particularly in eastern Europe, where believers suffered for their faith under communism, and in Africa, where they are nose-to-nose with fundamentalist Islam, crave clarity—a religion offering straightforward, immutable guidance on what is right and wrong. In western Europe and Latin America, priests and bishops are instead contending with growing secularism. They are more ready to accept accompaniment, ie, compromise with the realities of the 21st century. This means accepting that many Catholics live with their partners before marrying, use artificial contraception, form same-sex relationships and get divorced.

Francis has never responded to the dubia. For his conservative detractors, that proves he cannot give plausible answers. For Francis’s supporters, it is a way of reminding the traditionalists that, however vociferous, they remain a minority. That is probably also still true of the second group of his critics: those appalled by his inept response to clerical sex abuse. But this group is growing fast. Again, there is a geographical division. Few allegations of Catholic priests abusing the young have surfaced in Africa or Asia (though history suggests it is only a matter of time before they do).

Francis’s shortcomings were exposed when he visited Chile in January. A local bishop, Juan Barros, had been accused of covering up for a predatory priest in the 1980s. The pope called the claims slanderous. After Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of his own commission for the protection of minors, publicly disagreed, the pope apologised. But on his flight home he repeated the charge of slander. In April, after a Vatican investigation into Bishop Barros, the pope admitted he had made “grave errors”. But rather than have the bishop tried in an ecclesiastical court, he allowed him to resign. He has since accepted the resignation of seven more Chilean bishops and defrocked a number of priests.

Pondering the cardinal sins

Has Francis finally got it? Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, says he believes so, and that the turning-point for the pope was an encounter in the Vatican in April with three Chilean victims. “When you sit across from a victim you can’t help but be affected unless you have a heart of stone,” says the cardinal.

On the defensive

Not everyone is so confident that Francis has turned a corner. Anne Barrett Doyle of, a campaigning website, notes the pope “still spends a lot of time talking about calumny”. She points to a homily in September, describing Satan as the Great Accuser, who “has been unchained and is attacking bishops”. It was the latest of many instances when Francis has taken the side of his fellow prelates. That may be because he finds it hard to believe them capable of covering up for priests who preyed on the young. Or perhaps he feels a duty to afford his bishops the presumption of innocence. Or it may reflect unease over his own record: a documentary by a French filmmaker, Martin Boudot, claims that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis defended a priest who was later imprisoned for 15 years for sexually abusing children.

The meeting in February is expected to discuss possible reforms. Much could be done. Francis could overturn a veto on a planned Vatican tribunal to try bishops accused of shielding predatory priests. He could set up an inquiry into the use of the “pontifical secret”. A decree issued in 1922 still obliges bishops not to report certain offences, including child sex abuse, to the civil authorities unless they are in jurisdictions where reporting is mandatory.

Particularly among conservatives, however, there is a growing feeling that Catholicism most needs, in the words of John Meyer of the Napa Institute, a lay group, “a renewal of holiness”. Mr Meyer argues that it is not only the priests and bishops who must examine their consciences, but lay believers who have grown used to flouting the church’s teaching on, for example, artificial contraception. “We have fallen into the traps of the sexual revolution,” he says. “We need to take seriously our sins and realise our faults rather than just be angry at our bishops.”

Such talk, however, is anathema to liberal Catholics disgusted by the clergy’s record, but with no sympathy for the conservatives’ wider agenda. Cardinal Cupich, from the church’s liberal wing, argues that the clergy’s abuse of its power is more serious. He sees a parallel with the #MeToo movement. If, he says, the unending scandal “frees victims of abuse of all kinds to come forward, then I think we should be willing to pay the price. Maybe it is in God’s own providence for us to suffer.”


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