The biggest error Catholic leaders have made regarding the church’s response to priests abusing children has been the exclusion of women leading the policy-making and reform process.
The last couple of weeks have not been what anyone in his or her right mind would call the most brightly shining moment in the current pontificate.
First, the cardinal in charge of the Roman Curia’s office on the laity blocked Ireland’s former president, Mary MacAleese, from speaking at an International Woman’s Day event originally scheduled to take place inside the Vatican. In response, the organizers simply moved the venue to the nearby Jesuit headquarters.
Then, a retired Chinese-born cardinal from Hong Kong blasted the Cardinal Secretary of State — and, by implication, Pope Francis — for being “a man of little faith” and selling out “suffering” Catholics on the Communist-ruled Chinese mainland by adopting a “naïve” strategy of appeasement in dealing with state authorities.
Next, a maverick and irascible bishop who oversees two Vatican think-tanks (the pontifical academies for science and the social sciences) overstepped his institutional boundaries and waded into the controversy over the pope’s China policy. He spouted the unbelievable and embarrassing claim that the Communist nation is the world leader in implementing Catholic social teaching.
The bishop, an Argentine who would have the world believe he’s best friends with Francis (he is not), based his assessment on his first and only visit to China six months ago. If it’s ever proven that Chinese government officials spiked his egg rolls with brainwashing chemicals, perhaps all will be forgive. However, great damage has already been done.
But that’s not the worst of what has been a very bad period for Pope Francis. The most serious blow to him and his pontificate came from an Associated Press (AP) report that produced some hard and rather convincing evidence that the pope has not been completely forthcoming about what he really knows (and when he first found out) about allegations that Bishop Juan Barros of Chile tried to cover-up abuse of a convicted sex abusing priest.
The AP article included an eight-page letter that one of the Chilean priest’s victims sent to Francis in April 2015, which meticulously outlined Bishop Barros’ alleged actions in unflattering detail. The letter was hand-delivered by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals (C9) and chairman of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM). If true, this contradicts Francis’ claim that he had never received evidence of such a cover-up from any of the victims.
This is not good news. And dispatching the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor of clergy sex abuse crimes to Chile to collect more evidence on the Barros case — as laudable and important that this 11th hour operation is — does not address, in any way, the real problems the AP report reveals.
Only one of three of things can be true — either Francis never bothered to read the letter, or he read and dismissed it as unconvincing, or he just forgot that he ever read it.
There is a fourth, even if less plausible, possibility. Perhaps O’Malley, in reality, never gave the pope the letter, even though one of the then-members of the PCPM (who gave it to O’Malley — there is a photo to prove it) and the victim (who wrote it) said the cardinal told them he had delivered it.
None of these possible scenarios is encouraging. Because it means someone is not being completely transparent. Up to now, only one side has spoken publicly about the AP report — the former PCPM member (Marie Collins) and the Chilean abuse victim (Juan Carlos Cruz).
Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley have so far kept their silence. In order to shed light on what really happened and reveal who is giving an accurate account of this story they need to speak up.
If O’Malley were to all of a sudden declare that, no, he never gave Cruz’s letter to the pope — whether because he forgot to do so and then lied about it, or because he is trying to protect Francis from the current embarrassment and brewing crisis this is turning into — he would have to step down as PCPM chairman. His credibility among the commission’s members (still to be named in the coming weeks) would be greatly compromised.
And what about the pope?
If Francis received the letter and never read it, or simply forgot about reading it, this becomes yet another piece of evidence that dealing with the sex abuse crisis — particularly by holding negligent bishops accountable — is still not a major priority for the pope, despite whatever his apologists say to the contrary.
However, it would be even more damaging for the pope if he were to admit that, yes, he read the letter, but did not believe that Cruz’s accusations against Bishop Barros were credible. This would mean he was not entirely telling the truth during his visit last month to Chile and Peru when he told reporters he’s never received “proof” — than he corrected that to “evidence” — to support the accusations against the bishop.
This is quickly becoming one, big unholy mess. And it would be devastating to many Catholics and other people of good will if it were to severely cripple a pontificate that has launched a deeply-rooted and long-term project to reform and restore credibility to the Catholic Church and its witness to the Gospel.
So what can be done at this point?
First of all, the pope and his communications department (which is in disastrous disarray and is not serving him well) have to address the contents of the AP report and the fallout that has ensued. One would hope that Cardinal O’Malley could be of assistance in this first, necessary step.
Secondly, assuming that the essentials in the report are correct (the letter exists and it was delivered to the pope), it is difficult to see how Francis can respond without confessing that he was negligent (by failing to read the letter for whatever reason) or was not completely transparent (i.e. by concealing from journalists that he read it but did not believe its contents).
As I’ve written many times before, this pope has not been afraid to be vulnerable and show what some might consider weakness in order to engage others for what he perceives to be the greater good of the church and humanity. His meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch of All Russia, his efforts to constructively engage Donald Trump and other world leaders, and his policy on China are just a few examples.
The pope needs to quickly make the sexual abuse crisis in the church — which, by the way, is nowhere near to being resolved — a bigger priority. Quite frankly, he has not done so up to now.
He can start by coming clean with the members of his church and speaking truthfully to them about his own thinking — his doubts, concerns, apprehension, omissions and even missteps — on the way church authorities (he included) have addressed the abuse crisis to this point.
He still enjoys rock solid credibility and trust among millions and millions of people who would see his candid confession and testimony as a truly human and positive step forward, rather than cry of surrender. But that trust and credibility will erode if he does not say something soon. And the upcoming penitential season of Lent offers the perfect opportunity for such a truly Christian and even dramatic gesture.
One final thought:
Pope Francis also needs to totally revamp the mandate and mission of Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and set up other mechanisms to deal with the sex abuse crisis. Most of the new PCPM members and his other advisors on this issue should be women. And he should demand that dioceses and national episcopal conferences give women, and especially mothers, the lead role on this issue, too.
This would be an important way for him to make a prophetic and necessary corrective to the, up-to-now, inadequate response the Catholic Church has offered.
Many men in the hierarchy hide and justify their misogyny, fear of women or desire to keep the church’s decision-making structures in the hands of clerics — all men, of course — by repeating Saint John Paul II’s paternalistic paean to something he called “the feminine genius.”
This phrase, which the late pope first wrote about in 1995 — and which Benedict XVI, Francis and countless churchmen have gone on repeating — embodies a catalogue of traits that are somehow especially peculiar to women by virtue of God’s design of nature.
People can debate whether all these characteristics are really exclusive to women. But one thing for certain is that only women can be mothers. And because of the intricate connection between mother and child through pregnancy, birthing and infancy, it can be argued that women — mothers — have unique protective and nurturing instincts that are developed differently from the same instincts in fathers.
The biggest error Catholic leaders in every part of the world have made regarding the church’s response to the phenomenon of priests abusing children and youngsters has been the exclusion of women from actually leading the policy-making process. Where women have been included, they have been mere consultants or experts, often just flowerpots to salve uneasy male consciences and to satisfy the demands of public opinion.
Pope Francis can put this right and show that the church really does believe women have a special “feminine genius” — at least in the area of the relationship between mother and child — by putting women in charge of the church’s response to sex abuse. So far, the “clerical genius” has not produced good fruits.
A leading Catholic layman who has done a tremendous job in helping his country’s bishops deal with the sex abuse crisis loves to repeat this line: “Until the pope has a lay man being the last one to give advice on these matters the clerical instincts will always be a problem!”
That is exactly right. But the layman should be a woman.
This article first appeared in La Croix International on 9 February 2018.