Earlier this week Canadian media reported that Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet – a potential successor to the Pope and a noted conservative – has been accused of sexual misconduct as part of a class-action lawsuit brought against the Archdiocese of Quebec, one of two high-profile cases being brought against Catholic bodies in Canada.
In the lawsuit naming Ouellet, 101 alleged victims have accused upwards of 80 priests and diocesan staff of sexual abuse. A woman identified as F. in documents filed to the court accused Ouellet of inappropriate touching and massaging her back at a series of events in 2010 and kissing her in overly familiar manner in 2008, when she was a diocesan intern.
Pope Francis has determined, following a preliminary investigation by Jesuit Father Jacques Servais, that “there are insufficient grounds to open a canonical investigation for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet regarding person ‘F’.
Ouellet allegation could strengthen the case of many of the Pope’s critics that he fails to respond to such allegations with adequate firmness (note the deeply troubling case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta).
Meanwhile, whatever comes of the allegation, it puts a cloud over Cardinal Ouellet vis-à-vis his prospects in the papal succession. This strengthens the hand of other conservative contenders such as Cardinal Erdő by creating a rally-around effect to prevent a continuity candidate from succeeding Francis.
More likely though, the allegation could actually embolden the case for a continuity candidate like Cardinal Tagle, with the pool of traditionalists down by another one.
Moreover, the accusations could strengthen the hand of progressives within the Church who are increasingly calling for an end to priestly celibacy – a move which even many conservatives have expressed support for, and which could arrest the decline in priestly vocations.
In France, for instance, the average age of a priest is 60, with Western countries increasingly poaching talent from Africa and Asia.
The allegations therefore could embolden both critics and supporters of Francis in different ways.
The Pope’s hand may be further strengthened given the increasingly progressive feedback from what remains of the faithful across western Europe, such as Germany and Ireland.
Indeed, it has previously been reported that Pope Francis may consider ending the celibacy of the parish clergy. This has already happened via the backdoor as many former Anglican priests have become Catholic clerics.
The Ouellet allegation also strengthens the hand of critics of the Church more generally, as well as many of those who have left.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, in the US those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly four-to-one, with ex-Catholics roughly divided between those who have become Protestant and those who are now unaffiliated.
Pew found that many former Catholics who became unaffiliated did so because they stopped believing in Catholicism’s teachings (65 per cent), were dissatisfied with teachings about abortion and homosexuality (56 per cent), and dissatisfied with teachings about birth control (48 per cent).
These reasons were less common for those who switched to Protestantism, with 50 per cent no longer believing in Catholic teachings, 23 per cent differing with the Church on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, but just 16 per cent unhappy with Catholic teachings on birth control.
Overall, Pew found that fewer than three-in-ten ex-Catholics said the sexual abuse scandal played a role in their departure (27 per cent among those who become unaffiliated and 21 per cent among those who became Protestant).
Nevertheless, the case for an end to priestly celibacy may now be strengthened by the Ouellet allegation, while it looks likely that another traditionalist papabile could have been eliminated from the running.
That said – depending upon how the Vatican responds – critics of the Pope may also cite the incident as yet another failure to properly address such accusations. Meanwhile, the incident could cause a rally-around effect for another conservative and “change” candidate to succeed Pope Francis.
Finally, given that the Catholic Church in Canada has been in the spotlight of late, owing to apparent abuses of indigenous Canadians in Catholic-run schools – and given the already sharp decline of the Church in that country – the Ouellet accusation may further strengthen feelings against Catholicism in Canada.
Meanwhile, the hand of those who claim that abandoning certain traditionalist principles will bring the faithful back could also be strengthened, although many conservatives join liberals on the priestly celibacy point.
Either way, the incident could exacerbate schisms already present within the Church, with both liberals and traditionalists seeing their cases strengthened in different ways.