“A real breath of fresh air,” he’s been repeatedly and justifiably called. He’s addressing church finances, governance, and morale.
But on the most devastating controversy that has roiled the US Catholic Church for decades — and that is beginning to roil the church in the developing world these days — he is woefully backward.
Francis has indeed taken concrete steps to change staid church practices in several respects.
So many Catholics assume he’s also tackling the ongoing clergy sex abuse and coverup crisis. Sadly, they’re wrong.
Here’s a simple way to assess the pope’s performance regarding this scandal: Name one complicit church official anywhere who has been disciplined by the pope. Name one child-molesting cleric anywhere who has been exposed by the pope. Name one step taken by the pope to deter future coverups.
Francis has made masterful use of symbolic gestures. By paying his own hotel bill, carrying his own luggage, making impromptu cold calls, and washing the feet of Muslim women, Francis has won the hearts of millions.
But has he defrocked, demoted, disciplined, or even denounced one bishop who hid predators or concealed crimes or endangered kids? Nope. Not one.
“Didn’t an embattled Minnesota bishop who was accused of abusing seminarians resign?”
He did, but for decades, predatory prelates who’ve created sufficient scandal have resigned.
So this isn’t new.
“But that Kansas City bishop who was convicted of withholding evidence of child sex crimes from police has stepped down, too, right?”
Yep. But stepping down is different from being fired. For centuries, bad bishops have resigned, giving no reason. So this, too, is nothing new.
“Wasn’t a bishop in Paraguay ousted for bringing an accused abuser priest from the United States to his diocese and promoting him.”
Nope. The bishop did in fact leave office.
But when he did, Francis’ spokesman specifically denied that the move had anything to do with abuse or coverup.
What exactly, then, has Francis done about the ongoing, worldwide abuse and coverup crisis?
In many ways, he’s followed the symbolism-over-substance approach of Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Several times, Francis has talked about abuse. He’s apologized for it. Once, he met briefly with a carefully selected small group of victims. He has set up a new church panel to make recommendations on abuse. He says at some point, he’ll set up a panel to look at bishops who conceal abuse.
But at best, the tangible, down-in-the-trenches impact of all this talk is negligible. At worst, the impact is hurtful. How? Because talk implies progress and often promotes complacency. And complacency endangers kids.
Time and time again, Francis has ignored or even promoted complicit bishops (including a highly controversial Chilean bishop who faces multiple accusations of witnessing abuse as it happened). Like other church officials, he sometimes mentions predator priests, but almost never their corrupt supervisors.
Like Benedict and even John Paul II, he carefully uses the past tense, subtly suggesting that most of this crisis has passed, when in fact it has not. Like Catholic officials have for ages, he talks of healing but ignores prevention, the area in which firm papal action could make an enormous difference.
The pope should stop focusing his fresh approach on subjects that involve adults (like marriage annulments and Vatican Bank reform) and instead put vulnerable kids first.
Specifically, he should make every bishop do what O’Malley belatedly and grudgingly did in Boston: Post predator priests’ names on church websites.
Francis should force bishops to lobby in favor of, not against, better state and federal laws to expose and punish those who commit or conceal sexual violence. And he should forbid bishops from playing legal hardball against the few clergy abuse victims who summon the courage to seek justice in criminal and civil courts.
These are proven steps that would safeguard kids, not “feel good” gestures. They are what Francis’ predecessors should have done long ago. And they are what Francis could have done over the past two and a half years.
Without this kind of concrete action, the pope’s continued talk will ring increasingly hollow.