Is the papacy of Pope Francis in danger of being undermined by controversies over his handling of clerical abuse cases? That question has become a central issue in his papacy, writes TP O’Mahony.
Is the papacy of Pope Francis in danger of being seriously undermined by the continuing controversies over his handling of clerical sex abuse cases?
This is now a question that is either at, or close to, centre stage, and is beginning to worry many of the Pope’s erstwhile admirers.
There is no denying his immense popularity, even among non-Catholics, but as Jorge Mario Bergoglio approaches the fifth anniversary of his coronation (March 13) it is also undeniable that his pontificate has entered choppy, turbulent waters. And his authority has also been weakened.
The most recent setback occurred when the Pope was forced to back down and accept the resignation of an unwanted Nigerian bishop who had been rejected for years by the priests of his diocese.
The Nigerian bishop, Peter Ebere Okpaleke, whom Pope Francis had fiercely defended, resigned after a five-year standoff with rebel priests and faithful who rejected him as an outsider.
In his report from Rome on the controversy, Philip Pullella of Reuters wrote that the “Vatican versus the people of the diocese of Ahiara” in southwestern Nigeria had had become “a rare battle of wills that tested the power of papal authority and which could set a precedent for future appointments”.
Fr Okpaleke had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Pope Francis had demanded that all priests in the diocese write him a letter, within 30 days, pledging allegiance to Bishop Okpaleke, on the grounds that he had been appointed by a Pope, or face suspension.
But only some responded, so the bishop stepped down to end the standoff and now the diocese is being administered for the time being by an apostolic administrator.
This could well have a ripple effect. The Vatican can often be high-handed and indifferent to local concerns when it comes to episcopal appointments. According to Canon Law, the Pope appoints all bishops — but this is true only on paper.
With nearly 3,000 dioceses across the globe, no Pope could be expected to be familiar with all appointees. Very often he merely rubber stamps nominees from the Congregation for Bishops.
But the standoff in Nigeria hasn’t been the only and by no means the most serious challenge to the authority of Pope Francis.
Ever since the publication in April 2016 of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) — an apostolic exhortation which followed two Synods on the Family and which sought to ease the rules governing the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, Pope Francis has been the target of much criticism, some of it venomous, from conservative Catholics.
In an unprecedented move, four senior Cardinals publicly challenged the Pope after the publication of Amoris Laetitia. The four published “doubts” about the contents of the document, virtually accusing the Pope of heresy.
All of this arose from Francis’s efforts to get the Church to rethink the way it deals with failed marriages, including promoting a more welcoming attitude to divorced Catholics, including permitting them to receive holy communion.
The four were Cardinal Raymond Burke (USA), Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (former Archbishop of Bologna, and since deceased), Cardinal Joacim Meisner (former Archbishop of Cologne), and Cardinal Walter Brandmuller (Germany), former President of the Pontifical Commission for Historical Sciences.
The very public expression of opposition by these four senior churchmen had no parallel in the history of the modern papacy, and meant, in the words of Clifford Longley, editorial adviser to the English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, that “Pope Francis has a mutiny on his hands”.
Some close to Francis consider that he has never dealt adequately with this mutiny.
This was the first time in the history of the modern papacy that the orthodoxy of a Pope had been challenged openly and in public.
The theologian, Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University in London, said: “Pope Francis is up against very poisonous forces in the Church. He has tried to be gently pastoral about gay people and divorce but he is going to have to be more robust and be as tough as his predecessors in dealing with his critics.”
It is this very lack of resolve and robustness in dealing with clerical sex abuse that has caused the greatest frustration — and the greatest disappointment — among those who looked to Francis to implement a zero-tolerance approach.
He has talked more than once about the need for this, but he simply hasn’t followed through with the necessary policies and mechanisms.
“Tackling the abuse issue certainly has not seemed a very high priority for Francis,” according to Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.
“After his election, he moved swiftly to act on evangelisation, Vatican finances, curial reform, synodical government, the refugee crisis and the treatment of the poor in the globalised economy. But it took him over a year to set up his Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors — following months of pressure from Cardinal Sean O’Malley (Archbishop of Boston), who became its chairman. The appointment of members was slow and its cash restricted by the Vatican’s finance chief, Cardinal George Pell.
“Its chairman told the 16 members at the first meeting in May 2014 that there was stiff resistance within the Curia to its creation. Vatican departments then jockeyed to control the new body, which was charged with recommending new systems across the Church, to prevent abuse and cover-up.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal Pell himself, a former Archbishop of Sydney, is now back in Australia where he faces accusations of historical sex abuse. He has not been replaced in Rome.
A new body was set up inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hold bishops who failed to
report abusers to account. But no real progress has been made.
Two abuse survivors appointed to the Commission — Londoner Peter Saunders and Dublin woman Marie Collins — left in frustration over the low priority being given to child protection, despite assurances given by the Pope that it would be given the highest priority.
Just recently, when news came from Rome that the Pope had “refreshed” the Commission, Marie Collins (who resigned in March 2017) reacted angrily. She told Caroline O’Doherty of the Irish Examiner that she had no confidence in the newly-reconvened Commission.
“My confidence in the Commission to bring any radical change to the Church would not be there any longer,” she said.
The Vatican saw the original Commission as “too independent” and she did not see that attitude changing,” said Ms Collins.
“She said the way to prove otherwise was for its recommendations to be implemented.
“Things such as the guidelines template for child protection which was to be made universal to all the churches around the world. The Commission drew it up and it was approved but it has never been disseminated.
“Also the issue of the accountability of Bishops. A tribunal was recommended but wasn’t implemented, and the responsibility for the disciplining of Bishops has been given back to the Congregation for Bishops, so they’re looking after their own.”
Ms Collins also said she was disappointed that Pope Francis had not stood up to the Curia.
“He did not get in behind the initiatives and ensure that there were implemented so there wasn’t the force there that was needed,” she said.
Francis’s informal, accessible style — he baptised a child on the street, and married a couple on board the papal aircraft — has won him much praise, as has his abandonment of the trappings of a monarchical papacy, and his attempts to decentralise pastoral responsibility away from Rome and out to the local churches.
Not everyone is happy with this and, while he has a multitude of friends, Francis also has many enemies in the Church.
Some senior people in the Vatican, and beyond, have not forgiven him for bringing about what Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, has called a “paradigm shift” in the way the Church interacts with, and ministers to, the family, and especially to those in irregular unions.
One of the Pope’s most trenchant critics, Cardinal Gerhard Muller of Germany, who was dismissed last July by Francis from his post as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has even written a new book entitled The Pope — Mission and Task in which he lays out a theological vision very different to that of Francis’s Papacy.
The Cardinal, who is emerging at the forefront of the opposition to Francis, has told friends he believes he could be back in the Vatican — under a new Pope.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that Francis’s freewheeling style has landed him in trouble. As part of his drive for decentralisation, the Pope scrapped some of the bureaucracy around the Papacy, but that backfired on him when it came to dealing with cases of clerical sex abuse.
These need a centralised system of vetting and accountability and application of norms.
And although he has now refreshed the membership of the Commission, not everyone is happy, and, in the meantime his own reputation has suffered. To outsiders, he has appeared muddled and ambivalent on the issue of sex abuse.
“Francis’s instincts on sex abuse have never felt sure,” says Paul Vallely.
Mary Dispenza, a former nun who says her parish priest raped her when she was seven years old, is more direct:
“Pope Francis is no different from popes before him. When it comes to his brother priests, Francis protects them at the cost of heaping pain and shame upon victims”.
This seemed to be borne out during the Pope’s visit to Chile in January in his defence of Bishop Juan Barros. The Pope snapped testily at reporters when they questioned his decision to promote Barros, who had been accused of covering up sex abuse by his priestly mentor.
“The day they bring me proof against the bishop, then I will speak. There is not a single proof against him,” the Pope replied, adding irritably: “This is calumny! Is that clear?”
The Pope was publicly chided by Cardinal O’Malley, head of the sex abuse Commission. And the Cardinal went on to apologise to victims. Later, Pope Francis set up an investigation into the case of Bishop Barros.
But what the episode appeared to show, according to Paul Vallely, is that “the Barros case carries unhappy echoes of the Pope’s own handling of clerical abuse allegations when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires”.
According to Paul Vallely, when Bergoglio was president of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference, the organisation missed the Vatican’s 2010 deadline to create safeguards against new abuse.
Peter Saunders, the other lay person who resigned along with Marie Collins from the Commission, is highly critical:
“Francis is now implicated in covering up sex abuse. He seems to be no different from those other senior clerics who prefer to avoid, to cover up, and to hope it will go away... the Church should be leading the way, and not covering up.”
In 2017, the Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi published a book entitled Lussuria (‘Lust’) that accused Francis of doing “close to nothing” to stop clerical sex abuse of minors in Italy and around the world, despite frequent assertions that he has zero tolerance for the abuse of children or those who protect abusers.
As far as the survivors of clerical sex abuse are concerned, little of what has happened lately can be said to refute this accusation.
And then there is the “China problem”. The Vatican is keen to restore formal relations with the nation that is on the way to becoming the dominant world power.
Diplomatic ties were severed in 1949, when Mao and the Communists took over, and now there are two Catholic Churches in China — an underground Church with bishops appointed by and loyal to Rome, and a State-controlled Church whose “patriotic” bishops are appointed by Beijing.
Negotiations have been going on behind the scenes for a considerable time. Pope Francis pushed for the opening of dialogue with the government of China, for he is pinning his hopes on a resurgence of Catholicism in Asia. He sees China as central to this mission.
In the view of Catherine Pepinster, former editor of the English Catholic weekly The Tablet, and author of The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis, if the Pope was to manage the restoration of diplomatic relations with Beijing and a normalisation of the appointment of bishops — bringing the unity of Chinese Catholics — then Francis “might well think it is time to move on”.
He has said, more than once, his papacy would be a short one. But the fear among Chinese Catholics who stayed loyal to Rome is that some of their bishops may be sacrificed in the interests of Vatican statecraft.
Asia News (asianews.it) recently published the text of a letter from 15 leading Catholics, many of them from Hong Kong, that warned of betrayal and schism.
The letter, sent to bishops all over the world, said the kind of deal being talked about is expected to accord a role both to Beijing and the Holy See in the appointment of bishops, and confer Vatican recognition on seven State-appointed bishops, whose ordinations had been considered illicit by previous Popes.
The 15 Catholics, including professors, human-rights activists, and lawyers, have argued that the Chinese government should play no role in the appointment of bishops. At the same time, they argued that the moral integrity of the seven illicit bishops was questionable.
“If they were to be recognised as legitimate, the faithful in greater China would be plunged into confusion and pain, and schism could be created in the Church in China.”