Pope Francis in hot water over abuse scandal
Child abuse raises its ugly head again for the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is a good man, and certainly no crusty Vatican insider who wants bad news stamped out. But he is hasty in making judgments on people and hasty to trust the ones he likes. Now, a PR disaster is unfolding in front of him
The last thing Pope Francis needs is another rift in the Church, but that seems in danger of happening.
Having upset the conservative wing in almost every area possible, he now appears to have alienated some of his natural supporters over, of all subjects, child abuse.
This most populist of popes may be losing his grip, in an area where he should be trusted beyond doubt.
When Francis came to the papacy, almost exactly five years ago, he acknowledged that the issue of child abuse had been a threat to the Church since the time of John Paul II.
In 2014 he set up a commission, headed by the American Cardinal O’Malley, to investigate claims of abuse and to make recommendations. The commission would have several lay members, some who had suffered abuse, and would have a duration of three years.
The background to this is clear and easily understood. Everyone condemns child abuse but some, particularly some in the Vatican, believe that the damage done to the church in the purging of the issue outweighs the benefit from letting the victims have their say, over crimes which cannot now be undone. They want to downplay the subject.
The reason they are wrong is that in this world of social media the truth is eventually going to come out -- look at #MeToo -- and not allowing the victims’ voices to be heard will suggest, when the news does come out, that there has been a cover up. And there has.
The commission set up by Francis pursued its work, and then in 2016 two members, Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, resigned, claiming interference and delay from the Vatican (although not from the Pope).
The commission’s mandate expired on 17th December last year and Francis, in what is now generally thought to be an error of judgment, did not renew it. Whichever came first, this is now thought to be irrevocably tied into to what is known as the Karadima-Barros affair.
The Chilean Father Fernando Karadima was a priest for the upper classes in Chile, training the scions of important, wealthy families and, naturally, peddling a bit of influence. It is also generally accepted that he was a child abuser. He was convicted in a local court and also in a clerical one of abusing several boys in his care. His chief accuser is Juan Carlos Cruz, a journalist and author.
Cruz alleges not just that he was abused by Karadima, but that the abuse was witnessed by Fr. Juan Barros who Francis, and this could hardly be more inconvenient, has recently made a bishop. Barros was one of Karadima’s disciples.
Pope Francis visited Chile in January on what was generally thought to be a mission of apology over the abuse. But while he was there he was asked by a journalist whether he had heard the accusation about Barros. Francis exploded, ‘this is slander, is that clear? I don’t have evidence. But I am also convinced he is innocent.’
It was quietly pointed out to the pope that he did have evidence, and that it had been sent to him via O’Malley’s commission. Marie Collins, who had resigned from the commission, sent it, outlining Cruz’s claims. Even Cardinal O’Malley has expressed astonishment at Francis’s outburst.
Now, frantically, Francis has rowed back from his previous position. He has sent an investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to speak to Cruz and Barros. He will also look at the actions of Chilean Cardinal Errazuriz, one of Francis’s favourites, who is accused of blocking the early investigation against Karadima.
Secondly, Francis has reinstated the commission, albeit with some of its more outspoken members not invited back. He has replaced six of the original participants, which has left a sour taste in many mouths.
Francis, it must be stressed, is a good man, and certainly no kind of crusty Vatican insider who wants this sort of bad news stamped out. But he is hasty in making judgments on people and hasty to trust the ones he likes.
He is also even worse at publicity than his predecessor. How does it look to cancel the work of a commission on child abuse before it has reported? How does it look to exclude those who shout loudest? What incentive is there for abuse survivors to speak out when even the pope shuts them up
Francis knows the need for humility at this time. Why does he look stiff and arrogant?
I have said it before, but there is a top PR job going unfilled here.
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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