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