ROBERT MICKENS. The pope’s bewildering inaction on sexual abuse

Pope Francis has been away in South America this past week and, while in Chile, he drew only modest crowds of supporters. It was the frostiest reception he’s received on any of his 22 foreign trips — at least to those countries with a majority of Christians and certainly in the traditionally Catholic lands of Latin America.

Some say the 81-year-old pope got the cold shoulder because Chile is a highly secularized nation that has lost all confidence in the church and its ordained leaders.

That’s only part of it.

What the trip made glaringly clear is that, despite the support Francis has received for his many good and inspiring steps to restore evangelical credibility to the church and its mission, many people still see him as “all talk and no action” when it comes to the issue of clergy sex abuse — especially in holding accountable those bishops who tried to cover it up.

The best-known case of this in Chile directly involves the pope and his unwavering support of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who has been accused of protecting one of the country’s most notorious abusing priests. Many Chileans were angered when the pope allowed the bishop to concelebrate at the largest public Mass of the papal trip.

And while the surprising and touching wedding ceremony that Francis performed for two flight attendants during an inland flight on Thursday may have deflected attention from this for a fleeting moment, it is not likely to reassure the people of Chile — or many other Catholics from around the world — who continue to be disappointed and confused by the pope’s apparent inaction on sex abuse.

This has long been the ugliest blot on his pontificate. And in the course of a few days it is now even uglier.

Pope Francis’ credibility in dealing with sexual abuse has always been questionable, despite the many excuses and the positive “spin” his apologists and adulators have continued to put forth.

It is undeniable that he has done far less than Benedict XVI did in addressing sexual abuse in the church, and yet the press has treated Francis with far greater tolerance for his omissions than it would have ever conceded to his now-retired predecessor.

Francis simply has been flatfooted on the issue.

It took Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Sean O’Malley, members of his C9 “privy council,” to convince the Jesuit pope to establish the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) and other now-aborted attempts to deal with sex abuse.

But after three years of activity, the mandate of the commission’s members has expired. The PCPM has effectively been in mothballs now for over a month.

Marie Collins, who was arguably the most credible member of the commission, shared her frustration this week over the PCPM’s abeyance.

“It appears to me that the obvious lack of urgency or any slight of concern in the Vatican about the commissions’ current status reflects how unimportant the membership is considered. Also the low priority being given to this issue of child protection despite the assurances so often given by the pope and others that it has the highest priority!” she wrote on her blog.

This is damning. And Pope Francis — and all who support his efforts to reform and renew the church — should be very concerned.

So why has modern history’s most prophetic and evangelical pope dragged his heals on this? Why this inaction?

The bewilderment this has created is staggering. In fact, it dwarfs any confusion Francis has supposedly caused by his pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics found in the document Amoris Laetitia.

How can the pope’s negligence be explained?

The most cynical say that, despite all his talk about the “cancer” of clericalism, Pope Francis is, in reality, just another clericalist member of the episcopal old boys club. Thus, he is merely protecting the members of his own mitered network.

Those more sympathetic to the pope posit that it’s the emphasis Francis puts on mercy that has tempered him from acting too abruptly in disciplining bishops who have mishandled abuse cases or r those who may have been falsely accused of cover-ups.

Neither of these explanations is fully convincing.

However, there is another possible — in fact, more plausible — reason why this pope has been all but paralyzed from implementing decisive and sweeping mechanisms to hold errant bishops to accountability.

The clues came shortly after Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Bishop of Rome. In the early months of his pontificate he gave the now-famous interview to La Civiltà Cattolica in which he was asked to describe himself.

“I am a sinner,” Francis replied.

“This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner,” he repeated.

Some two years later he elaborated on that in another interview.

“I am a sinner … I am sure of this. I am a sinner whom the Lord looked upon with mercy,” he told the Italian magazine, Credere.

“I am, as I said to detainees in Bolivia, a forgiven man. … I still make mistakes and commit sins, and I confess every fifteen or twenty days. And if I confess it is because I need to feel that God’s mercy is still upon me,” the pope explained.

This should not have been seen as some great revelation since all people, including popes, are sinners. Neither should it have seemed remarkable that Francis admitted this publicly.

But it did confirm something else we learned about the “new” pope in his early days in Rome – he is a man astonishingly self-possessed and comfortable in his own skin. He has not tried to play some new role that is inconsistent with the way he’s always tried to live his life as a priest and a bishop.

The Jorge Mario Bergoglio who was the young superior of the Jesuits of Argentina and then Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires is the same Bergoglio — though older and hopefully wiser — who is now Bishop of Rome.

He did not try to become someone he never was, internally or externally.

“Dear Quique,” he wrote to a priest friend in his homeland two months after his election to the papacy, “I am trying to be and act just as I did in Buenos Aires because, if I were to change at my age, I’d really look ridiculous.”

There is no question that Francis is authentic. He has not tried to become someone he’s not. Nor would expect anyone else to play at being someone he or she is not. In fact, he has shown little tolerance — especially for priests and bishops — who lead double lives, put on airs or pretend to be holier than they really are.

This is the solid core that has made Pope Francis perhaps the most credible world figure today. He does not demand of others that he does not demand of himself. There are no double standards with him.

And this may be the tragic irony that provides the most reasonable answer to the extremely enigmatic question, “Why has the pope not disciplined bishops who mishandled sex abuse cases?”

Perhaps because he did the same thing.

There is fairly substantial evidence, even if Francis’ supporters have always denied or refused to believe it, that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of Argentina’s episcopal conference the future pope did little very little to remove or report priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

Some alleged victims have said Cardinal Bergoglio did not even answer their letters of complaint. They’ve also said he refused to meet them or apologize to them.

Perhaps this pope — a man who so deeply lives with the knowledge that he is a sinner who has been forgiven and needs to continually to be reminded of that forgiveness — is hampered by this painful admission: “Who am I to judge other bishops who, to one degree or another, failed to deal with complaints of sexual abuse just as I did?”

If this is indeed the case, Pope Francis can do but one thing — admit that in those years he, too, was not without fault, just as his predecessors at the Vatican and most bishops around the world. And maybe this could lead to a sort of truth and reconciliation process in the church that seeks healing, rather than vengeance.

Francis has been courageous and prophetic through his extraordinary willingness to be vulnerable, to be real, to be authentic.

It’s now time for him to take that a step further.

This article first appeared in LaCroix International on 19 January 2018


Robert Mickens, LCI Editor in Chief, has lived, studied and worked in Rome for 30 years. Over that time he has studied at the Gregorian University, worked at Vatican Radio and been the Rome correspondent for the London Tablet. He regularly comments on CNN, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His famous Letter From Rome, brings his unparalleled experience as senior Vatican correspondent for the London Tablet and founding editor of Global Pulse Magazine.

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8 Responses to ROBERT MICKENS. The pope’s bewildering inaction on sexual abuse

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Good piece; good comments.
    Any ‘Victim’ i.e. Survivor, of sexual assault by clergy/religious would regard these reasonable conversations as : too little, too late. An allotted human life-span is about 70 years – so, in order to create Justice for those (& not only children) violated by Church – persons – there is no time to waste. The years fly past, and people despair and die. The Church thinks in centuries, as the film Spotlight reminded us, and that is why the hopes of those who admired Pope Roncalli are unlikely, ever, to be fulfilled. There’s just too much in it for the hierarchy, the executive drag of careerists (‘sinners’ – my mitre!), the fears of the remaining Faithful… and too much hidden history to make what we, democrats, call ‘change/reform’ a real option.

  2. Bill Burke says:

    There are good reasons for approaching Robert Micken’s latest opinion piece with serious reserve.

    The claims made against a Chilean bishop have been contested. Francis has indicated a problem with the adequacy of evidence tendered. The high profile given to this case ensures we will learn more over time. Whether, the Bishop should stand aside during this process is open to comment – there are current examples where standing aside has happened and has not happened.

    That the Church leadership has an appalling history of cover-up, moments of apparent contrition followed by inexcusably slow acts of remedy is all to obvious. And Francis has had little success in hastening better outcomes.

    Mickens is much taken with his own analysis of Francis’ short comings in this area, and hurries off into a Mickens inspired prescription for repentance and renewal.

    What Michens considers plausible is possibly true. But other plausible alternatives abound. It could be that Francis has confronted the sad fact that he can only achieve so much change during his pontificate.

    John XXIII and Francis have shared a remarkably similar approach on how to be Pope. This approach is not one of a ruler who dispatches edicts at whim. Rather, they share a firm belief that the Pope is in essence a bishop who is the first among equals: which means the pope can not travel too far ahead of his confreres.

    Francis’ Synod on the family was successful in taking the world’s episcopate back to the early Seventies: the proposals for communion for divorced, pastoral outreach to homosexuals and continuing review of the contraception issue were well established then. From 1978, they were caught up in a thought control squeeze which lasted almost four decades.

    Of particular relevance – The synod discussions revealed a large body of bishops resentful of being given the freedom to speak and consider fresh approaches, preferring the solace of sameness and obedient inactivity.

    Resolving the issues of episcopal accountability and establishing transparent procedures for issues such as clergy abuse of minors will take longer.

    • Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

      Bill Burke, this is about the Church refusing to report to civil authorities that a paedophile is at large in the community, knowing that more children will be abused. The fact that the Church, through the Pontifical secret, forbids bishops to report such matters to civil authorities is a rejection of Jesus’ teachings of love and innate responsibilities for our children. There is absolutely no place for excuses for inactivity and delay in such matters. These are matters of morality and the Christian response is obvious and should be immediate.

      • Bill Burke says:

        Peter, if your first sentence is an entirely satisfactory summary of the situation at hand, then, the rest of what you write is most apt. But, if you have oversimplified by overstating your observation then your judgement may also be a little off the mark. I have no truck with paedophiles, clergy or lay. But I have some direct experience of other jurisdictions where confidence in the constabulary and the judiciary is not what we take for granted – especially when large sums of money are part of the equation.

        • Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

          Bill, I can absolutely confirm that this is about the Church refusing to report to civil authorities that a paedophile is at large in the community, knowing that more children will be abused – no oversimplification! Benedict XVI made an exception in 2010 to allow bishops to report where required under state civil law, an exception not for the sake of children but to keep bishops out of gaol. You can check all the details in Kieran Tapsell’s book ‘Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse’. I understand your concern about corrupt jurisdictions but that issue is a minor separate matter which can be addressed separately, a red herring.

  3. Kieran Tapsell says:

    Mickens may be right, but there is a simpler explanation: Francis, like Benedict, has always believed in a cover up of child sexual abuse wherever the Church can get away with it, that is, in States that have weak or no reporting laws. In 2012, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he wrote a book with Rabbi Skorka in which he described how a bishop who had a problem with a child sex abusing priest asked him for advice. He advised the bishop to suspend the priest’s faculties and put him on a canonical trial. He made no mention of reporting the allegations to the police. Argentinean law did not require reporting. As the Royal Commission found the pontifical secret then applies. As Primate of Argentina he was involved for some two years in developing the Argentinean protocol for dealing with child sexual abuse. It was signed off by the other bishops one month after he was elected pope. It states as a “first warning” that such matters are subject to the pontifical secret. The pontifical secret under Secreta Continere prohibits the bishop from exercising any personal conscience in the matter. In 2014, the Italian Bishops Conference, of which Francis is the senior bishop as Primate of Italy, although not its president, announced that Italian bishops would not be reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the police because Italian civil law did not require it. If Francis did not agree with this policy, he could have scotched it straight away by changing canon law.

  4. Joan Seymour says:

    Another great article from Robert Mickens. It seems very likely that he’s right – the Pope is hanging back because he, too, followed the party line at the time and defended the party against the people. He may well have understood and repented of his actions, and cannot find it in him to punish those who did exactly as he did, and for the same reasons. If this is so, the call must be a call for him to exercise his prophetic ministry ‘even unto death’. Is it possible for him to confess his own wrongdoing, and call on the Bishops to do the same? If it is, there may be hope yet….

  5. Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

    Francis has done and is doing so much good to the point of substantial reforms of some Church dysfunctions, yet in this critical matter of clerical child sexual abuse, he is in fact evading accountability with major negative consequences inevitable for the efficacy of his pontificate. He needs to read very carefully the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, particularly the extensive analysis of the dysfunctional governance of the Catholic Church at Volume 16, Book 2 which includes many recommendations for matters to be referred to the Holy See.

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