Due to sex abuse scandals, Francis has ‘decapitated’ one cardinal and if true to his word, two others — and probably more — may also lose their red hats. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church’s collective leadership (i.e. its bishops) has been all but completely destroyed, thanks to the hierarchy’s general ineptitude in dealing openly, honestly and effectively with priests who have sexually abused minors.
Without a doubt, we are only at the beginning of an unprecedented catastrophe that continues to plague the Church in most countries of Western Europe, as well as those of Oceania and North America.
The clergy sex abuse crisis still has yet to fully erupt in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, though a tidal wave of abuse cases is already beginning to flood the ecclesiastical shores on the pope’s native “continent.”
Anyone who thinks the recent four-day Vatican abuse “summit” was a significant turning point for the worldwide Catholic hierarchy, or that it initiated a process to remedy its disastrous institutional response to clergy abuse, is either blind or in denial.
At this point, naiveté is no longer an acceptable excuse.
Two cardinals facing jail sentences
Just this week a civil court in France handed Cardinal Philippe Barbarin a six-month suspended jail sentence for failing to report a credibly accused and self-admitted abuser to civil authorities.
The 68-year-old Archbishop of Lyon immediately announced that he would go to Rome in the coming days and submit his resignation.
Barbarin’s conviction came just seven days after fellow cardinal, George Pell, was locked up in a prison cell in Australia.
There the 77-year-old former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy awaits sentencing on March 13 after a jury, in Melbourne, last December found him guilty of sexually abusing two adolescents in 1996.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has since opened a canonical process to investigate the charges against the Australian.
Barbarin, who got his red hat in 2002, and Pell, who got his a year later, are appealing their convictions.
But despite the outcome of those appeals, the high-profile and unprecedented court rulings against these two cardinals are likely to open the flood gates of legal action against more bishops and cardinals elsewhere.
The guilty sentences against two men in the highest echelon of the Catholic hierarchy will no doubt encourage previously reluctant victims to come forward and denounce other bishops — either of abusing them or of covering-up for the priests that did.
This is already happening in Australia where another man has lodged a civil suit claiming damages for allegedly being fondled by Cardinal Pell at a public swimming pool in the 1970s. It is presumed, based on past experience, that other denunciations will follow.
The pope’s tough talk on abuse
If the conviction against Pell is upheld, then Pope Francis will have no choice but to remove him from the College of Cardinals and the priesthood.
The 82-year-old pope set a precedent for such action last July when he expelled the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, from the elite college.
He then dismissed the 88-year-old from the clerical state this past Feb. 13.
This came after an inquiry by the Vatican and the Archdiocese of New York substantiated the claims of three man who said McCarrick abused them when they were adolescents and he was still a New York priest.
Francis “defrocked” McCarrick just a week before he convened the abuse summit at the Vatican.
And while a few of the pope’s critics deemed it a cynical public relations ploy, most observers saw it as a stern warning that any cleric, no matter what his rank, would face stiff punishment if found guilty of abusing a minor.
Zero tolerance for those who cover up abuse?
As for cardinals who have not actually perpetrated abuse, but who have been accused of covering it up, Pope Francis has taken no punitive action up to now.
But he has accepted or forced the resignations of a number of bishops who have done so.
However, the reasons for these removals from office have never been stated clearly.
During his final address at the recent Vatican summit, the pope warned that anyone who tries to hide abuse is just as guilty as those who commit it.
“No abuse should ever be covered up (as was often the case in the past) or not taken sufficiently seriously, since the covering up of abuses favors the spread of evil and adds a further level of scandal,” he said.
It was a reiteration of his Message to the People of God last August in which he vowed that “no effort must be spared… to prevent the possibility of (abuses) being covered up and perpetuated.”
At the abuse summit Francis avoided any mention of the “one strike, you’re out” policy that survivors have urged him to apply to all abusers and those who hide their crimes.
But in a message last January to the U.S. bishops he talked about efforts at “implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.”
He said, “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”
Cardinal Barbarin and the pope’s credibility
In the same message the pope admitted that the Church’s credibly has been severely damaged by the “sins and crimes” of sexual abuse, but he said it has been eroded “even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal” abuse.
Cardinal Barbarin now stands convicted of doing just that.
The pope must accept his resignation, which abuse survivors and others in France have been demanding for at least the past three years. If Francis does not, he will shatter what little remaining trust survivors and a good many Catholics still have in the pope.
And if concealing abuse is as bad as committing it, will the pope act?